COLUMNS

State of the University

July 9, 2024

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Richard Saller portrait standing by columns

Photo: Andrew Brodhead

In early May, I delivered a “state of the university” address at the annual meeting of the Academic Council. Though events have continued to develop, I thought it might be helpful to share that summary of the year with you, our alumni. The following is a condensed version of that speech.

It has been a tumultuous year. When Chair of the Board Jerry Yang [’90, MS ’90] asked me to take on the interim presidency, there was no thought of the dissolution of our 109-year-old athletic conference and then shortly afterward a tragic war in the Middle East. I want to offer a realistic report and assessment of each and how they affect our basic mission of excellence with integrity in research, education, and clinical care.

Let me start with the war and campus protests. In the week following the terrorist attack of October 7, Provost Jenny Martinez and I came to see that our primary responsibility was to protect the physical safety of the campus community while preserving space for expression of First Amendment–protected free speech. It was not to announce our personal judgments or to claim to speak for the institution, since members of our community hold different and sometimes conflicting views. 

The administration has worked diligently to try to calm the waters. The provost and I have met repeatedly with students engaged in activism. Leaders from across campus have been meeting continually to monitor the situation and to discuss the best approach to avoid violence and to minimize disruption.

In the longer run, there is much work to be done to suppress antisemitism and Islamophobia, which have no place in our community. I am grateful to the two committees who are gathering information and providing recommendations to improve the campus climate. 

‘Our primary responsibility was to protect the physical safety of the campus community while preserving space for expression of First Amendment–protected free speech.’

Our approach has been partly informed by the changing context, including the House hearings on December 5 and April 17. Over the past five months, elite universities have become a focal issue in national and state politics. It is crucial that we act responsibly to protect the integrity of our institution in a period of intense political scrutiny.

With the dissolution of the Pac-12 and Stanford’s transition to the ACC this summer, we solved one challenge—but it turns out to be just the beginning of more challenges. Stanford is rightly proud of its unique position as the leader in college sports as well as research and education. An Athletic Advisory Committee has been formed to support our ambitions.

Our student-athletes were very clear that they needed membership in a Power Four conference to compete at the highest level. A task force is working on ways to mitigate the impact of travel on the academic experience of athletes. But it is also clear that college sports are profoundly changing, fueled by issues such as name, image, and likeness payments; collectives; revenue-sharing with athletes; and obligations of Title IX.

In the midst of the tumult, the great work of our faculty and students continues unabated. While the past 8 1/2 months have not been easy, I am deeply grateful for the broad support of most of the community and for the outstanding leadership of Provost Martinez, who, like me, had no idea what she was getting into when she accepted the job last summer. I trust that our new president, Jon Levin [’94], will enjoy the same support to ensure that Stanford continues to lead the world in research, education, and clinical care.


Richard Saller is president of Stanford University.

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