Transition at the Top

September 2023

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Transition at the Top

Photos, clockwise from top left: Al Chang/ISI Photos; Stanford News Service; Andrew Brodhead; Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service (4)

Read an interview with Richard Saller.

Tessier-Lavigne Steps Down

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who stepped down as the university’s president on August 31, oversaw Stanford during a time of uncommon change and challenge. Even his first major address to students—in September 2016, when he welcomed the incoming undergraduate Class of 2020—is now tinged through the prism of hindsight: Most of them would spend their senior spring quarter at home as COVID-19 lockdowns began. In his final address to students, at Commencement in June, Tessier-Lavigne remarked on the resilience required to weather the pandemic. “Many of you were in your first year on campus when the COVID shutdown happened,” he said. “We all learned that year how drastically the world can change in an instant. But you also learned, through that experience, the perseverance and the strength of character that you each have within yourselves.”

In his seven years at the helm, Tessier-Lavigne shepherded the institution through a global pandemic but also put forth a Long-Range Vision that will continue to shape the university. One of its signature achievements is the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, which launched last year.

The front of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability building.

In July, Tessier-Lavigne announced his resignation as president after a scientific panel found flaws in a handful of his research papers due to manipulation of research data or deficient scientific practices by members of his labs. Although the report did not find that Tessier-Lavigne engaged in scientific misconduct or was aware of the misconduct in his labs, he chose to step down, he said, for the well-being of the university, where he remains a professor of biology. “Stanford is greater than any one of us,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote in a message to the Stanford community. “This decision is rooted in my respect for the university and its community and my unwavering commitment to doing what I believe is in the best interests of Stanford.”

Over a career spanning more than three decades, Tessier-Lavigne has published 74 papers as a principal author and more than 150 as a nonprincipal author. His work has contributed significantly to scientists’ understanding of the nervous system and how neurons develop and form circuits; it has offered crucial insights into brain function and shed light on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Tessier-Lavigne served on the faculty at UC San Francisco from 1991 to 2001, then, after a brief stint as a biology professor at Stanford, joined Genentech as a senior scientist in 2003. In 2011, he returned to academia as the president of Rockefeller University, and in 2016, he rejoined Stanford as its president.

Beginning in November 2022, a series of articles in the Stanford Daily made allegations of image alteration and duplication in seven scientific papers, published between 1999 and 2009, on which Tessier-Lavigne is a listed author. In several cases, the images had already been flagged on PubPeer, an online platform that allows users to raise potential issues about scientific publications. 

Stanford’s Board of Trustees, which oversees the president, created a special committee to investigate the allegations. The committee retained attorney Mark Filip, a former federal judge and former U.S. deputy attorney general, to lead the review. Filip in turn named a five-member scientific panel to conduct an impartial evaluation: Hollis Cline, the chair of Scripps Research Institute’s department of neuroscience; Kafui Dzirasa, a Duke professor specializing in neurobiology; Steven Hyman, a neuroscientist, former Harvard provost, and former journal editor; Randy Schekman, PhD ’75, a Nobel laureate cell biologist and former journal editor; and Shirley Tilghman, a cell biologist who had served as Princeton’s 19th president. The panel focused on 12 papers about which concerns had been raised, ultimately zeroing in on the five “primary papers” for which Tessier-Lavigne was a principal author. After conducting 50 meetings (including seven with Tessier-Lavigne), considering analyses by forensic image experts, and reviewing more than 50,000 documents, the panel submitted its report to the special committee, which released it in full on July 19. 

The panel did not find that Tessier-Lavigne personally engaged in research misconduct or that he had knowledge of misconduct by others before the papers were published. But it did find evidence that others in Tessier-Lavigne’s labs had “either engaged in inappropriate manipulation of research data or engaged in deficient scientific practices, resulting in significant flaws in [the primary] papers,” according to a statement by Board of Trustees chair Jerry Yang, ’90, MS ’90. 

Further, the panel found that when some of those issues came to light, Tessier-Lavigne “took inadequate steps to correct mistakes in the scientific record,” including failing to submit corrections or follow up on corrections he had submitted. The panel also noted that the problems involved different people in labs Tessier-Lavigne ran at different institutions. “This is unusual,” the panel wrote, and although Tessier-Lavigne had created a culture in his laboratory with many positive attributes, “there may have been opportunities to improve laboratory oversight and management.” 

Tessier-Lavigne, who accepted the report’s conclusions, says he will retract three of the primary papers and pursue corrections to the other two, as well as reassess processes and controls in his lab. “I am gratified that the panel concluded I did not engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data,” he said in his July 19 message. “Specifically, the panel did not find that I engaged in research misconduct regarding the 12 papers reviewed, nor did it find I had knowledge of or was reckless regarding research misconduct in my lab. As I have emphatically stated, I have never submitted a scientific paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented. Today’s report supports that statement.”

In 2017, Tessier-Lavigne appealed to the community for ideas to inform Stanford’s priorities for the future as a “purposeful university”: a school that “promotes and celebrates excellence not as an end in itself, but as a means to magnify its benefit to society; a university that, relentlessly, educates students to be global citizens and leaders, fosters unlimited creativity, and discovers and applies knowledge for the benefit of humanity.”

Faculty, students, staff, and alumni supplied more than 2,800 ideas, and Tessier-Lavigne’s administration announced the university’s Long-Range Vision in 2019. “True to our roots, it focuses on magnifying Stanford’s beneficial impact in the world, with an emphasis on meeting the scale and urgency of the challenges ahead,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote in STANFORD. The resulting initiatives, grouped into four areas—sustaining life, accelerating solutions, catalyzing discovery, and preparing citizens—will extend well into the future. But during Tessier-Lavigne’s tenure, several key elements were put in place:

 The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability: In 2022, to foster a sustainable future on Earth, Stanford opened its first new school in more than 70 years. Its focus on three broad areas—earth, climate, and society—brings together hundreds of students, faculty, and researchers from around campus to grapple with the challenges of sustainability and amplify global impact. “Climate and sustainability are the defining issues of the 21st century,” said the school’s inaugural dean, professor of mechanical engineering Arun Majumdar, last year in STANFORD. “Arguably, there is no other issue that is more important that will affect humanity and the planet. As is often said, we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

The Accelerators: Four launchpads—one each for medicines, learning, social science impact, and sustainability—were established to marshal specialized knowledge, personnel, and partnerships with the goal of bridging the gap between scholarship and real-world application. “What we want to do is to look for places where people get stuck, where there are inefficiencies, where the progression of knowledge towards application really gets gummed up,” Tessier-Lavigne told STANFORD earlier this year.  

Affordability Initiatives: A series of enhancements for faculty, staff, postdocs, and students aimed to ease financial challenges from housing to child care to health insurance. Beginning this fall, undergraduates whose families earn less than $100,000 per year will not pay tuition, room, or board. And with the opening of the Escondido Village Graduate Residences in 2020, the university can house 75 percent of its graduate students.

 ResX: A 2018 task force sought input from more than 500 students, faculty, staff, and alumni before proposing modifications to Stanford’s undergraduate housing system. Their plan, in short: Sustain the relationships and academic experiences infused into dorm life; ditch the increasingly unpopular and sometimes friendship-shredding Draw system by sorting residences into eight neighborhoods that undergraduates would generally remain in all four years. The hope was to promote student belonging and well-being. 

The roll-out did not go perfectly. Students lamented insufficient space for events, thought the noncontiguous geography of each neighborhood was awkward, and wanted more flexibility in neighborhood reassignment. “The system seems to penalize you for being friends with people outside your dorm,” one student told the Daily. Last spring, based on student feedback, administrators established a pilot program to increase neighborhood choice and streamlined processes for student-run events. “We’re committed to working with students to foster a campus life that is supportive, enriching, and fun,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE): In fall 2021, Stanford launched a new frosh core curriculum to develop a shared vocabulary and knowledge among undergraduates and better prepare them for civic life. The sequence—students are currently required to take two out of three courses—progresses from Why College? to Citizenship in the 21st Century to a set of options on the theme of global perspectives. “We’re trying to create a common culture and a common experience among our very, very diverse undergraduates,” Debra Satz, the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and a philosophy professor who has taught the citizenship course, told STANFORD in 2021. “We don’t all have to agree, but we have to have a common basis for talking through some of our disagreements.”

Tessier-Lavigne oversaw two additional transformations at Stanford. The first was in the physical world: Stanford opened its Redwood City campus, which houses staff in the university’s first major expansion beyond the historic campus, and nearer to the Quad, a new Stanford Hospital, modern homes for the Hoover Institution and the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, and four major science buildings. The second was to the virtual world: Along with outgoing provost Persis Drell, he spearheaded the transition of a major university to overwhelmingly online-only instruction while simultaneously supporting COVID-19 research and development. From the earliest days, Stanford scientists threw themselves into the efforts to combat the virus—pivoting research on a dime, donating supplies to the labs of colleagues, and even keeping labs open 24 hours per day. “This is Stanford at its best,” Tessier-Lavigne said in his address to the faculty in 2021. “Seeing a problem early; devoting energy, time, and resources to tackling it; and problem-solving at every step along the way until we reach a solution.”

On July 19, Yang thanked Tessier-Lavigne on behalf of the Board of Trustees “for his seven years of dedicated engagement and service as Stanford’s president, during which he achieved a number of outstanding accomplishments,” including his “instrumental” role in establishing the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. “With a team of dedicated university leaders, he ensured that Stanford retained its standing as a world-class institution through the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Yang wrote. “And, in May 2019, President Tessier-Lavigne unveiled a strategic Long-Range Vision that will continue to guide the university’s path forward.”

Richard Saller

Saller Steps Up

Richard Saller knows his way around a university. A specialist in Roman social and economic history, he was provost at the University of Chicago before serving as dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences from 2007 to 2018. This fall, the professor of classics moves two doors down the inner Quad to assume the helm of the university until a new president is selected. In mid-August, Saller spoke with STANFORD about the year ahead: what will happen, what won’t, and where he’ll need to navigate uncertainty. At press time, he had just named Law School dean Jenny Martinez the university’s next provost.

STANFORD: You recently published your fifth book, Pliny’s Roman Economy: Natural History, Innovation, and Growth. What keeps you passionate about your field? 

Saller: In general, my work in Roman social and economic history has sort of followed my own life. When I was a graduate student in desperate need of a job, I wrote a book on patronage. And when I was a new father of two young sons, I wrote a book on patriarchy and the limitations thereof. And then more recently having been dean and provost, my work has been on the economy—you know, finances. 

I find Roman history to be interesting because it’s pretty regularly cited as a warning about the direction our country is going. So that’s what I make the focus of my introductory seminar, which I’ve taught 10 times since my arrival at Stanford. I challenge the students to think about the similarities, but also just how different our world is. For example, we live in a society that’s heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And, of course, that carries all kinds of negative consequences. But on the positive side, it’s with the use of nonsomatic—that is, nonhuman, nonanimal—sources of energy that European and American societies have been able to get past slavery and other kinds of dependent labor. One calculation suggests that you and I have at our fingertips the amount of energy that it would’ve taken 50 enslaved people in a Roman household to generate. I mean, just think about what it means to push a button or turn a key and have a two-ton car in motion. Or the way that the Romans cleaned their clothes was by having enslaved people stomping on them in pits filled with urine. I don’t want students to forget about that because I think right now there’s huge anxiety about the future. We want to be able to have a sense of perspective about things that are much better now than they were 100 years ago or 2,000 years ago.  

You’ve been at Stanford since 2007. What keeps you here?

I think Stanford is probably the most extraordinary concentration of diverse talent anywhere in the world. There certainly is no place that has [such a] gathering of Nobel Prize winners and Olympic medalists. And that presents its own challenge, of course, right now [with respect to the Pac-12]. But always in my administrative career, I’ve wanted to work at a place where I had the highest regard for the students and faculty. And the quality of the faculty at Stanford is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. It’s just a privilege to work with them. That together with the fact that I love cycling in the mountains here means that there’s no place else I could pick that would be more congenial.

You’ll be the first humanist to lead the university since historian Richard Lyman stepped down in 1980. What sensibilities do you think that helps you bring to the job?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are in a changing world where a technical education is more highly valued than ever before. And I don’t see that changing, but I think it needs to be combined with some part of the traditional liberal arts education, particularly in the humanities. And I think there are several dimensions to that. There’s the utilitarian function—that it’s important to know how to write and communicate, regardless of your occupation. 

Secondly, I think the humanities stand to offer some perspectives on moral and ethical issues that might not be addressed otherwise. I was just talking to [Dean] Jennifer Widom and have discovered that the Engineering School is really making a concerted effort to build more ethics into their programs.

And then thirdly—and this is something that I think is not emphasized enough in the rhetoric at Stanford—a good liberal arts education just elevates your humanity. And so what I would hope is that our education makes our students individually better, not just that they’re going to go out and improve the world—I hope they do that—but also that they have a fuller life as a result.

How is one asked to be an interim president? 

By complete surprise, complete surprise. [Board of Trustees chair] Jerry Yang [’90, MS ’90] invited me to his home, and we had a couple of long conversations. I had thought that my trajectory was from—at Chicago—department chair to dean to provost. Then to dean [at Stanford] to department chair. I sort of thought I might end up as a graduate student. 

What challenges are inherent in this being a temporary position?

I don’t imagine trying to initiate any big new projects that can’t be finished up in a year. What I expect to do is begin to follow through on [the Long-Range Vision], and to pick and choose the things that I feel especially passionate about. 

There are some issues that we’re going to have to deal with, like affirmative action and admissions. I have not yet gotten a briefing since the [Supreme Court decision that struck down race-conscious admissions programs at two universities] was actually issued. So at this point, I don’t know what we’re going to do. I know that there are suggestions about how we can try to compensate. I do think diversity is important. I think it has an influence on the quality of our education and also choice of research topics. 

‘I think we have an extraordinary faculty, and that draws extraordinary students.’

What are you confident about? What are you worried about?

What I’m confident about is the quality of the faculty and students. I think we have an extraordinary faculty, and that draws extraordinary students. So despite the various controversies going on right now, I don’t see those as threatening the fundamental quality of what we have to offer. 

But certainly there are worries. Right now, the [disintegration] of the Pac-12 is an issue because we do have a good number of students who are heavily invested in that. We also have a lot of alumni who are really concerned about it. I’m very glad that [Hoover Institution director and Stanford political scientist] Condi Rice has agreed to be my special adviser on that. She—as a former secretary of state—is adept at negotiations. Whether that’ll get resolved before I actually start my term, I don’t know. 

And then student mental health on campus. I think that’s a really hard one because it is, in part, a product of a broader environment than just the university. We don’t control everything that affects student mental health. The university has been putting in more and more resources, going back to the time I was dean. But it’s not as if we’ve solved the problem [or] met the challenge. 

What do you want alumni to know about Stanford’s near-term path?

What’s important to me is to make sure we don’t lose our focus on what our fundamental purpose is. And that is excellence in research, teaching, and clinical care with integrity. I think there’s a danger in the current political environment in the country of thinking that our purpose has to be polemical. I think it’s essential that the university be a place for open—and hopefully respectful—debate.

You were provost at the University of Chicago. What kind of person does Stanford need in that role?

I think it’s important that I feel confident that the provost and I share values and are not working at cross purposes. The provost has a primary responsibility for internal decisions about academics and budget in the university. I want somebody who has the character to do the right thing on controversial subjects. It needs to be somebody who can say no, but can say no in a way that leaves as little resentment as possible. 

Your wife is professor of anthropology Tanya Luhrmann. You have two sons. Tell us about your family and hobbies. 

[My sons] are partners in a craft brewery in Chicago, Burnt City. They started out making beer in my basement, in a nanobrewery that exploded. I’m not sure the basement ever recovered. I think they decided they wanted to go into a profession that was as far away from the academy as possible. They’re doing well. And Tanya is one of the leading anthropologists in the world. She was awarded an honorary doctorate in Copenhagen last November and was introduced to the queen of Denmark as part of the ceremony. I was impressed by that.

There’s not anything I like much better than riding in the mountains up to Skyline. And then one thing I will miss in the coming year is cooking every day. One of my therapies is to go home and chop onions or grill something. Through COVID, what I really came to like is making my own pizza.

Are students going to see you in Gaieties this fall? 

Maybe it depends on what’s expected of me. I really am not a performer.

It’s typically a very cameo role. 

Well, then, that’s OK. But back when I was a professor at Chicago, the graduate students in the history department used to do a secret theatrical roast of faculty. And apparently they were pretty brutal in their caricatures. I asked my particularly close graduate student how they spoofed me, and he said, “You’re too boring.” So that’s the way I think of myself.

Why take on the interim president role? It’s not exactly a low-stress job—or maybe you thrive in that situation?

It’s an honor to be the president of Stanford University. I expect it to be invigorating and rewarding just because there is so much at stake in preserving and advancing a great institution. I also think if the country can be run by an 80-year-old president, surely I, as a 70-year-old, can manage a university. Although the scale is really daunting. My understanding is that this year, the hospital and university budgets combined will amount to $19 billion, which is bigger than the budgets of 13 U.S. states. It’s a huge and complex enterprise. And I’ll bet governors of those states can give more direct orders and have them followed than a president of a university.

Jenny Martinez

Meet the Next Provost

Jenny Martinez, who will become provost on October 1, has been the dean of Stanford Law School since 2019. A noted scholar of international law and constitutional law, she joined the faculty in 2003. “As dean, she has been a champion of inclusion, and a clear and reasoned voice for academic freedom,” said interim president Richard Saller in announcing her appointment. 

“I’m honored to take on this role and work in partnership with Richard to get the new academic year off to a good start,” Martinez told Stanford Report. “I am looking forward to listening to members of our community about how best to advance our core missions of education and research in the coming months and years.”

Summer Moore Batte, ’99, is the editor of Stanfordmag.org and of the Loop newsletter. Email her at summerm@stanford.edu.

Photos from top: Harry Gregory/Stanford News Service; Richard Morgenstein; Timothy Archibald

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