This column is my 96th—and last—as Stanford’s president. Instead of the usual column, I write this as an open letter to you, our alumni, to thank you for your support, encouragement and dedication to Stanford.
When we began this journey together nearly 16 years ago, we could not have predicted how the journey would go or where it would lead. I am often asked what has surprised me most. My answer is “the incredible loyalty, affection and enthusiasm that our alumni have for this university.” You have been central to our success as an institution over the past 16 years.
Perhaps this was best illustrated in February 2008, when we announced a major expansion of our financial aid programs that dramatically improved scholarship assistance for lower- and middle-income families. I received more messages from you endorsing this effort than for any other action during my term.
We expected that the aid increases would cost approximately $15 million annually. Six months later, the financial crisis began; 18 months after our announcement, the value of the endowment had dropped by almost $5 billion. Working closely with John Etchemendy, PhD ’82—our remarkable provost, who has also served for 16 years—we made the decision not to cut financial aid and instead to reduce spending in essentially every other area of the university. By academic year 2010-11, the gap between financial aid income and the total financial aid costs had risen by over $40 million. In a difficult time for many, we desperately needed the help of alumni to sustain our financial aid programs.
You responded. Now, just eight years later, thanks to the excellent budgetary stewardship of the provost and your support, the effects of the financial crisis are largely behind us. More importantly, our university did the right thing, keeping its promise to students and their families. Working together, we made Stanford more affordable than it was a decade or two ago, countering a worrisome trend in higher education. Last year, almost 80 percent of our undergraduate students graduated with no debt!
While the financial crisis was probably the toughest challenge we faced, we have also celebrated wonderful new achievements for Stanford: an engineering quad that supports state-of-the-art multidisciplinary research, while restoring the brilliant Olmsted plan and setting new standards for sustainability; a LEED-platinum campus for the business school that enabled a bold redesign of the curriculum; the arts district with a stunning concert hall, an inspiring contemporary art museum and a home for the art department with greatly expanded studio spaces. These have all been possible through the support of so many friends and alumni, and we have loved celebrating each of these milestones with the community. And I have not even mentioned two Rose Bowl victories, 16 Directors’ Cups and 11 Nobel Prizes!
When asked about my favorite traditions, I mention opening day when our freshmen arrive and the campus is renewed, and, of course, our unique graduation celebration that combines ceremony and tradition with the creativity of the Wacky Walk. I always finish, however, with Reunion Homecoming and the opening Dinner on the Quad, seeing friends reunite and relish the time they spent together at Stanford. It feels like a family reunion, and I often use this story to explain to our freshmen that they are now a part of this Stanford family. Decades in the future, I predict they will find themselves in the same Quad on Thursday night of reunion celebrating with their Stanford friends.
Over the past 16 years, my wife, Andrea, and I have met alumni at more than a hundred events on campus and around the world. We have formed many treasured friendships, and we feel so proud and fortunate to be members of the Stanford family.
John Hennessy was the president of Stanford University.