Stanford leaders address Board of Trustees during its April retreat

During its April meeting, trustees heard presentations from campus leaders on a variety of issues – economics, arts programs, the Stanford Cyber Initiative, the biomedical revolution in precision health. They also toured the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The Stanford University Board of Trustees, which traditionally holds a retreat during its April meeting, stayed on campus this year for the annual event.

In addition to touring the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory during its April 11-12 meeting, trustees heard presentations on economics, campus arts programs, the Stanford Cyber Initiative and the biomedical revolution in precision health.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist pioneer who will become Stanford’s 11th president in September, joined the meeting both days as an observer. Currently, Tessier-Lavigne is the president of The Rockefeller University, a premier biomedical research and graduate education institution in New York City.

During the retreat, the board’s Special Committee on Investment Responsibility held two early-morning meetings to continue discussions on a proposal from students for divestment from fossil fuel extraction companies. At its February meeting, the Special Committee on Investment Responsibility began evaluating a recommendation on the issue from the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing.

portrait of Steve Denning in quad arcade

Steve Denning, chair of the Board of Trustees (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Steven A. Denning, chair of the Board of Trustees, said trustees hope to have a response to the divestment request by the end of the academic year.

One evening, trustees joined members of the Faculty Senate for a dinner, which was held in Paul Brest Hall at the Munger Conference Center. Denning said trustees and faculty members enjoyed getting to know each other in the casual setting.

During its two-hour visit to SLAC, trustees heard a presentation from Chi-Chang Kao, director of the laboratory. They toured several facilities at SLAC, including the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), a unique X-ray laser that helps users from around the world pursue cutting-edge research in chemistry, materials science, biology and energy research.

Denning said trustees learned firsthand about SLAC’s plans to upgrade the X-ray laser under a project known as LCLS-II. Earlier this month, SLAC began construction on the project, which will add a second X-ray laser beam that is 10,000 times brighter, on average, than the first one and fires 8,000 times faster, up to a million pulses per second. It will greatly increase the power and capacity of SLAC’s experiments that sharpen our view of how nature works on the atomic level and on ultrafast timescales.

“It takes still pictures in a millionth of a billionth of a second,” Denning said, adding that a SLAC scientist, in response to a question from a trustee during the tour as to whether it was a destructive test, said the X-ray laser is so fast it can take a still picture of the moment before a bullet destroys an apple.

Trustees also learned more about SLAC’s project to design a 3.2 billion-pixel digital camera, known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will capture the widest, fastest and deepest view of the night sky ever observed from atop a mountain in northern Chile.

“It was a fantastic tour, and we got a real sense of what it means to Stanford as a university, and its applicability to medicine, chemistry, biology, physics and so forth,” Denning said.

Trustees also heard a presentation on arts education by Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Matthew Tiews, associate dean for the advancement of the arts. Among the topics they discussed were the renovation of the historic Roble Gym, which will provide new program spaces for theater and dance productions when it opens in the fall; the innovative stage setting and lighting for Rent, a 1996 rock musical about struggling artists in New York City, which is currently being performed in Memorial Auditorium by Stanford’s Ram’s Head Theatrical Society; and the new creative expression breadth requirement for undergraduates.

“We’ve made tremendous progress expanding the scope and scale of what we offer programmatically to match what we have with facilities,” Denning said, noting that the arts district’s new facilities include Bing Concert Hall, the Anderson Collection at Stanford University and the McMurtry Building for the Department of Art and Art History. Still, Stanford can do more, Denning said.

“We recognize that there is still a demand that hasn’t been met with regard to studio space, practice space, what we might need for theater, dance and so forth,” he said.

Denning said the four economists who gave presentations to the board exemplified Stanford’s strength in the field: Susan Athey, professor of economics at the Graduate School of Business; and Raj Chetty, Matthew Gentzkow and Alvin Roth, professors in the Department of Economics. Athey, Chetty and Gentzkow are also senior fellows at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Denning noted that one of the economists (Roth) is a Nobel laureate, and the other three (Athey, Chetty and Gentzkow) have received the John Bates Clark Medal, which is awarded to economists under age 40.

Each of the four economists made a presentation about their respective specialties, and talked about how “big data” is changing the field of economics.

The trustees also heard a panel discuss the importance of leading the biomedical revolution in precision health at Stanford. The panelists were Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research; Mariann Byerwalter, interim president and CEO of Stanford Health Care and chair of the Stanford Medicine Advisory Council; Persis Drell, dean of the School of Engineering; Lloyd Minor, dean of the School of Medicine; and Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

In addition, the trustees heard a presentation on the Stanford Cyber Initiative by its co-directors, Dan Boneh, professor of electrical engineering and of computer science, and George Triantis, professor of law and associate dean for strategic planning at Stanford Law School.

The Stanford Cyber Initiative, which was created in late 2014 with a $15 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is a central hub on campus for research about the opportunities and challenges raised by cyber technologies in our economic, political and social systems. One of the issues researchers are studying is how the digital era of rapid technological change is affecting the nature of work and the workplace.