Persis Drell named Stanford provost

An accomplished academic leader and longtime member of the Stanford community, Drell will become the university’s chief academic officer and chief budgetary officer. She will assume the role Feb. 1.

Persis Drell, dean of the Stanford School of Engineering and previously director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, will be the next provost of Stanford University, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced today.

portrait photo of Persis Drell

Persis Drell, dean of the Stanford School of Engineering, will become provost on Feb. 1. (Image credit: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover)

Drell, whose appointment takes effect Feb. 1, 2017, brings multiple dimensions to the role. She is an accomplished physicist, an experienced leader of complex organizations, a teacher committed to broad undergraduate education and a longtime member of the Stanford community who literally grew up on the campus.

Tessier-Lavigne said Drell’s experience, accomplishments and values made her a perfect fit for the role of provost, who serves as the chief academic officer and chief budgetary officer for the university and works in close partnership with the president to provide overall leadership for the campus.

“Persis is a bold, visionary, inclusive and collaborative leader who has demonstrated the capacity and versatility to quickly master complex leadership roles,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “She brings a strong moral compass and a direct, transparent style. She operates equally effectively at the broad, strategic level and the detailed, tactical level. She is an enthusiastic and dedicated citizen of the Stanford community, widely known for her warmth and spirit.

“Persis shares my deep commitment to sustaining and strengthening the full breadth of Stanford’s excellence, across the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and professional disciplines. We also are aligned in believing that free expression, diversity and inclusion are fundamental to Stanford’s success and are areas that need continued attention and vigilance.”

A distinguished scholar, Drell is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among other honors.

Drell, 60, said she loves her work in the School of Engineering but was persuaded by the opportunity to help advance Stanford as a whole.

“This is an opportunity to work with Marc and the entire campus community to advance our education and research and to continue enriching our culture at Stanford,” Drell said. “For me, this is about helping our students achieve their potential to lead fulfilling lives and have an impact on the world, supporting our faculty in doing the brilliant research and teaching that also have an impact on the world, and addressing issues important to our community, including moving toward a professoriate that reflects our student body.”

Tessier-Lavigne also announced that a search for a new dean of the School of Engineering will begin expeditiously, with the aim of having a new dean in place when Drell transitions.

As provost, Drell will succeed John Etchemendy, a professor of philosophy who has served as provost since 2000. Etchemendy previously announced that he would step down as provost following a transitional period after John Hennessy stepped down as president earlier this year.

“I could not be more pleased by Marc’s choice of my successor,” Etchemendy said. “I have worked with Persis since before she joined the Stanford faculty, first as an external advisor to SLAC, then in her many roles at Stanford. I know her core values and unwavering commitment to the complete spectrum of excellence we have achieved at Stanford. Faculty, staff and students from every corner of the university will soon come to deeply admire and respect her as I have.”

Tessier-Lavigne selected Drell from a pool of “extraordinarily impressive” candidates – all from within the Stanford faculty – reviewed by a search committee of faculty and student representatives chaired by Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

“Persis Drell is a superb choice to follow John Etchemendy as provost,” Saller said. “As a fellow dean, she has repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to a broad liberal education for Stanford students and to the strength of Stanford’s programs across the board. As provost, she will be in a position to continue working to bring together the humanities, arts and social sciences with the natural sciences and engineering.”

At Stanford the provost has a broad portfolio overseeing academic and budget administration for the university, with direct reports including the deans of each of Stanford’s seven schools and senior administrators in research, student affairs, budget, undergraduate education, graduate education and other areas.

Drell has been a member of the Stanford faculty since 2002 but first came to Stanford when she was 6 months old. Her father is Professor Emeritus Sidney Drell, an eminent physicist, arms control expert and longtime member of the SLAC faculty. Persis Drell grew up in the family home on the Stanford campus.

“All the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s was right outside our doorstep,” she recalled.

Drell received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Wellesley College in 1977, followed by a PhD in atomic physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. She then switched to high-energy experimental physics and worked as a postdoctoral scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

She joined the physics faculty at Cornell University in 1988 and stayed until 2002, when she became professor and director of research at SLAC, working on the construction of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, among other projects.

She became deputy director of SLAC in 2005 and director in 2007. She was credited with helping broaden the focus of the laboratory, increasing collaborations between SLAC and the main Stanford campus, and overseeing transformational projects such as the Linac Coherent Light Source, the world’s most powerful X-ray free-electron laser.

After returning to research and teaching in 2012, Drell in 2014 was named dean of the Stanford School of Engineering, the first woman to serve in the role. As dean, she catalyzed in 2015 a collaborative school-wide process, known as the SoE Future process, to examine what the engineering school of the future should look like.

The process engaged a broad group of stakeholders to ask in what areas the School of Engineering could make significant world-changing impact, and how the school should be configured to address the major opportunities and challenges of the future. It produced a set of 10 broad, aspirational questions on areas where the school would like to have an impact in 20 years, along with a series of actionable recommendations across three areas – research, education and culture – to create the conditions for success.

Tessier-Lavigne said Drell’s experience will be central to her role in helping lead a collaborative, inclusive long-range planning process for the university as a whole in the 2017 calendar year.

As dean, Drell also has placed an emphasis on free expression, diversity and inclusion, focusing both on the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and on ensuring a welcoming and inclusive environment for students of all backgrounds in the school.

“Diversity is, of course, important from an ethical and moral standpoint,” she wrote in one message to the school earlier this year. “But diversity is also critical to what we are trying to achieve. Simply put, diversity is about being successful. Diverse teams are stronger teams, they are better teams, they are more effective teams at solving the kinds of complex problems we are tackling at the School of Engineering. Having a diverse set of points of view, approaches and skill sets will get to the best solution faster.”

In addition to her administrative responsibilities, Drell teaches a winter-quarter companion course to introductory physics each year for undergraduate students who had limited exposure to the subject in high school. Roughly two-thirds of the students are women and one-half are students of color.

She is married to SLAC accelerator physicist Jim Welch, and they have three children.

Drell, a cellist, has played chamber music for decades and met her husband, who plays viola, when they both played string quartets in graduate school. She spent part of last summer in a chamber music seminar with the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the Stanford campus.

“I’m very proud of the fact I’m still a student of the humanities,” Drell said.

Media Contacts

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