‘Let us be fearless,’ Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne tells university

Stanford celebrated the beginning of a new era by inaugurating its 11th president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a pioneering neuroscientist, technology executive and academic leader.

Over the last 125 years, Stanford has flourished as “a purposeful university that fosters education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity,” just as Jane and Leland Stanford envisioned for the institution they established to honor their only child, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in his inaugural address today.

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Stanford celebrates the inauguration of President Marc Tessier-Lavigne with speeches, musical performances and a reception on the Quad.

“If we maintain the courage to evolve and take the long-term view, that sense of purpose will enable us to push the limits and spur transformative progress,” he said. “That is our responsibility: to deploy Stanford’s tremendous strengths and vast intellectual capacity for the benefit of humanity.”

Speaking to an audience that gathered at Frost Amphitheater for his inauguration and investiture ceremony today, Tessier-Lavigne noted that Stanford is known for its optimism, resilience and initiative.

“Let us be inspired by the issues of our time,” he said. “Let them lead us to the insights we need to chart our course for the future. Let us commit to being a purposeful university, a courageous university, a university of unlimited potential. Let us be fearless.”

Tessier-Lavigne said the people and culture of Stanford are the “firmly laid foundation” that supports its two central pillars – education and the generation and application of knowledge.

He said a liberal education – liberal in the sense of “liberating the mind” – is the best preparation for 21st-century students, who will change jobs frequently, work in rapidly evolving jobs that will last more than 50 years and need to work effectively with people from varied cultures and backgrounds.

In addition to teaching students the key skills needed to navigate life – such as critical and moral reasoning, creative expression, appreciation of diversity and ability to adapt over a lifetime – he said Stanford must help students understand the need to draw on diverse disciplines to be effective.

“Whether it is applying insights from the humanities, the arts and the social sciences to improve product design for our engineers, or to inform compassionate patient care and disease prevention for our medical scientists,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

“Or, conversely, applying data sciences to deepen our knowledge of history and literature by our humanists. Or combining insights from psychology, neuroscience and economics to understand human decision making. At every turn, we see a blurring of disciplinary lines in problems our students will be tackling throughout their careers.”

Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford’s commitment to diversity, opportunity and access, which also dates back to its founders, has special meaning for him, since he was the first member of his immediate family to attend college.

“Past efforts have dramatically improved student access through our need-blind admission policy, but we know more is possible,” he said. “We have also made progress in diversifying our faculty, students and staff, but more needs to be done, especially in the representation of women and minorities in our faculty, where we are far from where we need to be. And we need to continue focusing on ensuring that everyone who joins our community feels they are part of it, especially those from historically marginalized groups.”

Tessier-Lavigne said inclusion would be central to Stanford’s efforts in the coming decade.

“This starts with reaffirming our culture of civility, and our culture of respect for the dignity of every member of our community, and includes a rejection of all forms of violence, including the sexual violence that has roiled our campus – for which we have zero tolerance,” he said. “Sustaining a culture of free expression and mutual respect requires commitment from each of us. It also requires personal courage.”

At the end of his address, Tessier-Lavigne called on the entire Stanford community to join him in developing a bold vision for the future, a vision of Stanford in the 21st century that leverages all the university’s resources.

A solemn ceremony

The 90-minute ceremony was marked by moments solemn and splendid, beginning with a procession of students carrying the colorful heraldic banners of Stanford’s seven schools, followed by faculty members dressed in elegant academic regalia.

The ceremony was interspersed with music, including a stirring rendition of Amazing Grace by Talisman, a student a cappella group. Stanford Taiko, a student drumming ensemble, opened the ceremony with a thunderous Whirlwind depicting the passing of a boisterous and playful storm. The St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence, performed String Quartet Op. 76, No. 3, by Joseph Haydn. Kyle Tessier-Lavigne, son of the president, performed Ocean, an instrumental piece by John Butler, on acoustic guitar.

Among the distinguished guests in the audience was Donald Kennedy, Stanford’s 8th president (1980-1992), and officials from 10 universities.

During the formal investiture, Tessier-Lavigne received a custom-made president’s robe – a red gabardine robe with cream-colored silk panels featuring the university’s triple redwood frond – that symbolized his new authority as president.

Throughout the ceremony, the speakers turned again and again to the words of Stanford’s founders for inspiration.

Eavan Boland, a professor of English, read an excerpt from “University Opening Day, 1891,” a speech written – but never delivered – by Jane Stanford, who wrote on the margins of her typewritten pages that she did not have the courage to speak that day. Mrs. Stanford described opening day as “one of the most sacred” in her and her husband’s lives.

“Our hearts have been more deeply interested in this work than you can conceive,” Boland read. “It was born in sorrow, but it has now become a great joy to our hearts. I desire to impress upon the minds of each one of these students, male and female, that we have at heart and very closely the hope that you will each strive to place before yourselves a high standard. That you will resolve to go forth from your classrooms, determined in the future to be leaders, that you will live such lives that it will be said of you that you are true to the best that you know.”

Gerhard Casper, who served as the university’s president from 1992 to 2000, said Stanford “was superbly positioned to engage in the rigorous tradition and pursuit of knowledge, the rigorous search for truth, even contemplation.” Turning to Tessier-Lavigne, he said: “We thank you for having become a trustee of these values.”

Tessier-Lavigne became Stanford’s president on Sept. 1 after spending the previous five years as president of The Rockefeller University, a leading biomedical research university in New York City.

He succeeded John L. Hennessy, who served as president from 2000 to 2016, and led the university’s extraordinary growth in interdisciplinary research and teaching. Hennessy, who is returning to teaching and research, is the inaugural director of the new Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, the world’s largest, fully endowed scholars program.

Speaking at the inauguration, Hennessy praised Tessier-Lavigne’s eminent qualifications as a scholar, educator and leader.

“I share his optimism about the future of our university and its ability to be of even greater service to the world,” Hennessy said. “I have great confidence that, with our enthusiastic support, he will lead Stanford to new heights.”

Speaking at the close of the ceremony, Provost John Etchemendy said Stanford transforms those who become part of the university – undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty, staff and parents.

“We become something more – something better – together as a community, and we carry that feeling of optimism and loyalty to the institution’s values forever, wherever we go and whatever we do,” he said, adding that the sandstone arches of the Main Quadrangle were a metaphor of the university’s warm embrace.

Addressing Tessier-Lavigne, he said: “I hope, Marc, that you draw strength, inspiration and encouragement from this community. I hope you find in it too, as much challenge, excitement and wonderment as I have since – 40 years ago this fall – I first arrived here as a graduate student. Like everyone on the Stanford campus, I cannot wait to see how Stanford is transformed under your leadership, and how you will be transformed by Stanford’s embrace.”

Following the ceremony, the festivities moved to the Main Quadrangle, where student groups entertained guests who enjoyed boxed lunches provided by Stanford Catering. A receiving line formed in the northwest corner of the Quad of members of the campus community eager to personally welcome the new president and his family.

Media Contacts

Lisa Lapin, University Communications: (650) 725-8396, lapin@stanford.edu