The Mission That Drives Us

Staying true to what we're about, and thinking long-term.

May/June 2016

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The Mission That Drives Us

Photo: Linda A Cicero/Stanford News Service

How do you effectively lead a modern research university? How does a president make decisions, given the university’s many constituencies? How do you know if you are successful?

These were questions raised by students in a recent thought leaders seminar on campus. They expressed concern about the state of leadership in general and were interested in what I have learned as Stanford’s president.

Stanford’s mission is clear—to advance knowledge and contribute to society through research and the education of future leaders—and as president, I assess opportunities within that framework. Does an initiative leverage Stanford’s strengths? Can it propel us to excellence and world leadership in a field or fields? Does it contribute to improving the world beyond our campus? Can we find the resources to do it well? What is the potential long-term impact?

Projects that shape a university extend decades into the future. As I explained to the students, it takes about 10 years for an initiative to become established, another 10 to shut it down, if you choose badly—so you have an obligation to look 30 or more years ahead when considering any venture.

In this century, we looked at how Stanford could break new ground by taking advantage of existing strengths. For example, the focus on multidisciplinary research and teaching began more than 15 years ago with our faculty, who anticipated that breakthroughs in biomedical research would come at the intersection of biology, engineering and the other sciences. The resulting Bio-X program and the Clark Center, fostering multidisciplinary collaboration, have served as a model for other centers and institutes that explore issues ranging from international studies to economic policy to energy research, and prompted the construction of cutting-edge facilities to support all kinds of cross-disciplinary and cross-school collaborations. These ventures leverage Stanford’s strengths—a contiguous campus, broad and deep faculty excellence, and a culture of innovation—and we believe that Stanford has the potential to be a leader in these fields.

Of course, for Stanford’s continued excellence, we must develop the next generation of academic leaders as well as scholars. Several years ago, we established leadership academies for faculty and staff to help members of the Stanford community build leadership capabilities. These academies also provide a diverse pool of internal candidates who are equipped to guide the university in the future.

In the fall, when I leave the presidency, I will continue to advance Stanford’s excellence and leverage its strengths as the founding director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program builds on the university’s mission: It will bring some of the world’s brightest young visionaries to Stanford, expose them to our innovative multidisciplinary culture, and prepare them to be leaders in solving global challenges. These graduate students, 300 of them at Stanford at any given time, will benefit from the leadership and creative problem-solving curriculum that we’ve been sharing with faculty and staff and that we use to train students at the Graduate School of Business. We will seek scholars who demonstrate leadership potential and also are interested in study across disciplines, because we cannot lead the way to solving intractable global problems—poverty, access to education and health care, climate change—without understanding them from multiple perspectives.

The Knight-Hennessy Scholars program is one answer to those leadership questions posed to me by students. One hundred twenty-five years ago, Jane and Leland Stanford imagined a university that would benefit humanity, and it is my hope that, decades from now, thousands of Knight-Hennessy Scholars will extend that vision far into the future and create a better world for us all.

John Hennessy was the president of Stanford University.

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