‘This Is Why I Love My Job’

Stanford’s new provost on faculty orientation, free speech, and the fun factor.

December 2023

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Provost Martinez in a red blazer, on the Quad.

Photo: Andrew Brodhead

After 20 years on the faculty, the past four as dean of the Law School, Jenny Martinez has become the university’s 14th provost, overseeing the deans of all seven schools, the vice provosts for undergraduate education, graduate education, and student affairs, and 17 other units, ranging from admissions to athletics to religious and spiritual life. Four weeks into her new post, she spoke with STANFORD.

STANFORD: The provost is the chief academic and budget officer. What does that mean to you in this role? 

Jenny Martinez: The provost has this unique view on our academic mission of being able to see all of what’s going on on campus. It’s exciting to have that perspective and to think about how I can use the resources of the university to support research and to support our students and their education. 

How are you getting your arms around it all?

One day at a time. I have a general sense of a lot of it from having served on the executive cabinet as a dean. Now I’m going deeper on the parts of the university that I didn’t know before. And that’s a lot of fun. 

I went to New Faculty Orientation, and listening to the 30 or so new faculty describe their research in everything from artificial intelligence to the history of architecture as it relates to climate change to music was incredible. They were all doing such different things, but such interesting things, and with such a level of excellence that it was a moment of This is fantastic. This university is amazing. This is why I love my job.

There has been in the last year or so a sense that Stanford has been facing a lot of headwinds. But one of the things that has positively impressed me is just how strong the fundamentals are—that is, just how excellent our faculty are across virtually every discipline. 

You mentioned the headwinds. What are the big ones, and how do you think the university should work on them?

I think we need to refocus on our core mission, which is excellence in research and education and clinical care with integrity, as [President] Richard [Saller] has been saying. Higher education is facing a lot of societal backlash. The questions of “What are universities for?” or “What is the value of higher education for students?” are ones that are not unique to Stanford, but that we see a lot of national debate around. I think universities play a critical role in society, a critical role in democracies, and we can’t lose sight of that. If you look at authoritarian regimes around the world, one of the first things that they do is go after universities because it’s a place where freedom of thought exists.

We are devoted to producing knowledge for the benefit of humanity, and in a way that no other part of society does—the basic science research, for example, that 10 or 20 years in the future might lead to cures for cancer or other diseases; the basic research into humanities fields like history that help us understand the world and our place in it, and how that changes over time.

I also think our education mission is extremely important. If you look at the transformational impact of coming to Stanford for our students and the life trajectories that they’re on after coming to Stanford, I think it’s undeniable that we have a vital role to play.

There are definitely undergraduate alumni, though, who are not so much doubting that research and teaching are excellent here, or doubting that higher ed is important, but are saying, “Well, but see, it’s just not as fun as it used to be.” Is there work Stanford needs to do?

I think there is. One of the things that has distinguished Stanford is its culture, in the undergraduate community especially, of being a place where students work incredibly hard but also have a sense of whimsy and fun. While the university is always changing and has to change to keep up with the times, we want to keep that special quality to the experience for students. So, yes, I think that is something that we need to look at.

What kind of tools do you think a lawyer brings to the provost position?

At their best, lawyers think rigorously and logically about issues, and I think that’s a real help in a job like this. Lawyers can get a bad rap for writing long gobbledygook. But good lawyers try to communicate clearly and persuasively. And understanding some of the big issues that face higher ed, like free speech issues or the Supreme Court’s decision ending affirmative action—it’s helpful to have some legal context on that. Particularly because I teach constitutional law and I’m interested in the First Amendment, I’m actually bringing that background to bear on some of my work as an academic leader.

‘I think universities play a critical role in society, a critical role in democracies, and we can’t lose sight of that.’

It seems like you know where your true north is on free speech. Could you talk about how you got there?

At my high school, the principal censored the school yearbook. They had a survey on drug and alcohol usage that showed that students drank alcohol, and the school didn’t want this going in the yearbook. I was on the school’s model judiciary team, so I kind of became the lawyer for the yearbook, and learned that under the Supreme Court decision in a case called Tinker, students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, and that as long as student speech doesn’t create a material and substantial disruption of school activities, it is permitted. So, we had these armbands that said “Free Press,” and we had pamphlets about the First Amendment, and we engaged in a protest that very carefully complied with the Supreme Court’s decision. The vice principal confiscated my First Amendment pamphlets, and I thought, Well, that’s going to be a great lawsuit. You’ve taken my pamphlets about the First Amendment. We won our victory outside of the court system, but it really sparked an ongoing interest.

In college, I worked for a summer at the Student Press Law Center, defending student journalists. I did a summer research project on the end of the Pinochet dictatorship and how loosening of restrictions on freedom of the press led to the plebiscite that moved Chile to democracy. I wrote my senior thesis as a history major on the role of African American newspapers in the post-Reconstruction South. I’ve had a longtime interest in the role of freedom of speech not only in the U.S. today, but internationally and historically, and how freedom of expression was used to advance the rights of groups who were discriminated against or disenfranchised, and how important freedom of expression and freedom of the press have been to securing their rights in our broader legal system. 

There are faculty policy decisions that are still to come in the wake of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. But what can you say about how Stanford is going to adapt admissions or increase outreach?

I think it’s important to emphasize that diversity is still something that Stanford values. And it’s important that we comply with the Supreme Court’s decision. And it’s also important that we look at what is allowed under that decision. Outreach will become important in terms of getting the message out to students from all walks of life that Stanford is a place that welcomes them, that our extremely generous financial aid programs mean that they can come to Stanford. A longer-term goal is thinking about what Stanford can do through its Education School and through other programs to ensure that by the time students get through the K–12 system, a diverse set of students are competitive to come to a place like Stanford. 

What do you most like to do when you’re not at work? 

I am a soccer mom. All three of my teenage daughters have played competitive soccer. Tomorrow morning, I’m driving up to Napa with my twins for their game. 

We acquired a lot of pets in the pandemic. I have four chickens, two feral cats, and a sheepdog. So, I take care of all my animals, including the teenage animals. 

What else would you like alumni to know about you?

It’s particularly meaningful to me to become provost. My dad, Tomás Martinez, was a lecturer here in 1970–72 and taught some of the first Chicano studies classes at Stanford. At Reunion weekend, I met some of his former students, who talked about how meaningful it was for them to have him as an instructor. He didn’t end up staying at Stanford, but he is so proud that I’ve ended up here.

That’s a really neat full-circle moment, because 1970–72 is when you were  born, right?

I was born in 1971!

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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