Prepared text of inauguration address, “The Purposeful University,” by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Following is the text of “The Purposeful University: A Place of Unlimited Potential,” by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, as prepared for delivery at his inauguration as Stanford’s 11th president on Oct. 21, 2016.


Chairman Denning, Presidents Emeriti Hennessy, Casper and Kennedy, Provost Etchemendy, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty colleagues, students, members of the staff, alumni, neighbors, friends and family – thank you.

Today, I am privileged and humbled to join a small group of scholars asked to lead this great university. It is a tremendous responsibility – and I am deeply honored to join their ranks. I am also so pleased that my wife, Mary, my three children and members of my immediate and extended family could be here. I especially want to acknowledge my mother, Sheila, who celebrated her 80th birthday just days ago. This was right on the heels of Stanford’s 125th anniversary – two inspiring milestones.

We must marvel at humanity’s progress in the span of my mother’s and Stanford’s existence. We have made great advances in civil rights and human health, we have lifted millions out of poverty, we have traveled to the moon, we have uncovered ancient civilizations and sequenced our genome, and our world is more connected than ever, thanks to stunning technological advances.

But our knowledge of the universe and of ourselves remains fragmentary, from the nature of dark matter to the functioning of the brain to understanding our own biases. And we still confront significant challenges in many areas, including still-untreatable disease, mounting environmental degradation, social injustice and global conflicts, and the continuing need to find ways to understand each other and to make authentic connections.

What is the role of a university at times like this? What is the role of our university?

I believe great research universities are a source of light and hope.

They meet challenges head-on. They are purposeful in advancing knowledge and human welfare. They are custodians of humanity’s heritage and engines of societal development. They are a major force in maintaining the world’s upward arc of progress – even, perhaps especially, in the face of complex challenges like those confronting us today.

Stanford embraces this ideal.

“Stanford’s preeminence derives from its bedrock dedication to fostering education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity … its optimism, its resilience and its courage to evolve.”

—Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

When I reflect on Stanford’s 125-year history, I see a university that has pressed forward through thick and thin, gaining in stature as a leader in education and scholarship, to make increasingly important contributions to society and to human well-being. Thanks to over a century of inspired leadership, including by the distinguished presidents emeriti here today, Stanford has become the “University of high degree” its founders envisioned.

Stanford’s preeminence derives from its bedrock dedication to fostering education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity. But I believe it also stems from its optimism, its resilience and its courage to evolve.

Its optimism is rooted in the pioneer culture of the West. Its resilience is reflected in the fight to keep the university afloat after the death of Leland Stanford, in its restoration after the damage of two earthquakes, and in its decisive response to the recent economic meltdown. Its courage to evolve is demonstrated in countless initiatives. In the 1950s, it invested both in steeples of academic excellence and in public-private interactions. In the ’60s and ’70s, it elevated scholarship in race and ethnicity. In the ’80s, it amplified public service. In the ’90s, it rethought undergraduate education. In the 2000s, it kindled interdisciplinary inquiry.

These attributes have propelled Stanford to be a leader among comprehensive research universities, marked by excellence across the board: in the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering; in undergraduate, graduate and professional education; in service, entrepreneurship and also athletics.

Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, said: “It is for us as teachers and students in the university’s first year to lay the foundations of a school which may last as long as human civilization.” Now, 125 years later, those foundations are firmly laid.

The purposeful university

Yet, there is a fundamental law of great institutions that they never stay the same. They move forward, or they fall back.

So, as we look to the future, I want us to ask ourselves:

  • Are we doing all we can to build on our powerful foundation for future generations?
  • Are we living up to our potential?
  • Are we sufficiently advancing a purposeful university?

What do I mean by a “purposeful university”?

“A purposeful university … promotes and celebrates excellence … as a means to magnify its benefit to society.”

—Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

I mean a university 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.

Given our great gifts, that is not just our mission, but also our responsibility – to work to advance the social good, boldly and confidently, but also with humility and empathy. That was the aim of Jane and Leland Stanford in establishing this university. The Founding Grant states: “its object, to qualify its students for personal success and direct usefulness in life” and “its purposes, to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”

So I ask: What more can we do to be a purposeful university?

Let us examine the key mainstays supporting our mission of benefiting humanity. Our two central pillars: education, and the generation and application of knowledge. And the foundation that supports them: our people and our culture.


The first pillar is education. Here we confront strong cultural forces that are driving students to specialize.

Half a century ago, scientist and novelist C.P. Snow penned his famous essay deploring the growing chasm between what he called the Two Cultures: humanities and arts on one side, sciences and technology on the other. He worried that this division would impede solving the great problems confronting humanity. At the time, Snow was concerned about the second-class status of science.

“We must reaffirm the importance and value of a broad or liberal education – liberal in the sense of ‘liberating the mind.’ ”

—Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Today, the pendulum has swung. There is mounting pressure for a vocational focus, and STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are promoted by politicians concerned about the economy and parents concerned for their children’s job prospects. In the face of this trend, we must reaffirm the importance and value of a broad or liberal education – liberal in the sense of “liberating the mind.”

Today’s students will change jobs frequently, the jobs available to them will evolve rapidly, their careers will last over half a century, and they will have to work effectively with people from varied cultures and backgrounds.

A broad-based education is their best preparation. Our recent study of undergraduate education identified key skills they will need: critical and moral reasoning; creative expression; appreciation of diversity; and, crucially, the ability to adapt over a lifetime – all key in a world of accelerating change.

Stanford’s curriculum incorporates these insights, and our first priority must be to continue to execute on this plan. But exposing students to diverse disciplines isn’t just about teaching skills, it is also about helping them 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. Or, conversely, applying data sciences to deepen our knowledge of history and literature by our humanists, or insights from climate and environmental studies to predict regional conflict by our political scientists. 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. This highlights all the more the importance of a broad education for our students.

And so, we must help all our students understand that, over the course of their life and career, the liberal is the vocational.

To assist them, we must ensure that we don’t unwittingly drive them to focus in particular areas. Our curriculum must allow students interested in history or psychology or political science, and also interested in technical fields, to be able to experience both meaningfully – and vice-versa. Otherwise, they risk limiting their potential.

We must also help our students understand what we know to be true, that any Stanford degree will enable them to lead a successful and fulfilling life. So alongside our great STEM alumni, including inspiring founders of Silicon Valley firms, let us also celebrate our alumni from other disciplines: philosophy majors such as Stephen Breyer, a Supreme Court justice; history majors like Dianne Feinstein, or political science majors like Cory Booker, both United States Senators; English majors such as Dana Gioia, California Poet Laureate, and France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation; and drama majors like Sterling Brown, an Emmy-winning actor.

It is, moreover, essential for us to maintain a vibrant student body with the full breadth of disciplines, because so much of our students’ education comes from interacting with other students, not just their professors. Any narrowing would ultimately be impoverishing to all.

Let us also help our students appreciate that not all learning need be applied to future jobs, and learning for its own sake is profoundly rewarding. My own mother is a testament to this, and an inspiration for the sheer joy of learning. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree after her children had grown up.

We must further enrich students’ lives through beauty – in the arts, in poetry, in the elegance of a scientific theory, in their surroundings – and through acts of service, both of which generate their own transcendent rewards.

And as we consider how to best serve our students, let us explore the full spectrum – from online and experiential learning to classroom design – and augment their entire educational experience.

I will add one more challenge. As we discover new ways to prepare our students – as we experiment and evolve and improve our educational strategies – let us always consider how they can be shared and applied beyond our walls.

I challenge us to be purposeful – for Stanford and for the world.

Generation and application of knowledge

Let me now turn to our second pillar, the generation and application of knowledge.

The pursuit of knowledge simply to understand – to understand ourselves and the world around us – is fundamental to the human character. But applying the knowledge we’ve learned to solve real-world problems is equally important.

These two activities – the pursuit of knowledge and its application – are sometimes pitted against one another. They are the other “Two Cultures.” But our founders understood that nurturing both is essential for a purposeful university.

History has shown that fundamental scholarship, driven simply by the investigator’s desire to understand, is often the basis for the most transformative applications, and that applied research in turn regularly stimulates new avenues of fundamental inquiry. From its inception Stanford has focused on both, and that has been a singular strength.

“The pursuit of knowledge to understand ourselves and the world around us is fundamental to the human character. But applying the knowledge we’ve learned to solve real-world problems is equally important. ”

—Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

But what are some of the issues we face in advancing this dual mission? Half a century ago, the value of fundamental research in powering both societal advances and economic prosperity was well appreciated. This century, financial support for such research has eroded, jeopardizing future transformative advances.

Today, more than ever, fundamental research needs vocal and ardent champions – all of us. We also need to ensure that fundamental research and scholarship continues to flourish here at Stanford. That is a first priority.

A second, complementary priority is to ensure that we are as effective as possible in the application, the translation, of knowledge. The interface between fundamental and applied research is not always efficient. Researchers involved in generating knowledge may lack skills needed for application; those who are best at translating knowledge may not be aware of the latest fundamental advances.

From its inception, Stanford has always fostered a culture of innovation and application and has been among the most successful institutions in bridging that gap, especially in tech fields. We have been assisted in this by our immersion in the culture of Silicon Valley, which Stanford research and Stanford alumni helped create. But there is great opportunity to further refine this process and extend it.

In my own field of biomedical research, laboratory insights into disease processes often fail to get translated because of a lack of specialized infrastructure to create chemical precursors to therapeutic drugs. Making such facilities available to our scientists would accelerate moving discoveries from bench to bedside.

Similar opportunities exist in other areas, and application isn’t confined to the hard sciences. Many of our scholars in sociology, psychology, history, literature and the arts have led real-world applications of research discoveries. Could we further improve the translational process in those fields – and others – as well?

The third priority, for our research mission as for our educational one, is to continue to ensure across-the-board strength in all disciplines. Increasingly, cutting-edge research draws on many disciplines and will not succeed without that breadth, and the examples of progress in engineering and science requiring the humanities, social sciences and arts, and vice-versa, are legion, as described earlier. Only if we maintain strength and depth in all disciplines can we begin to address these and other consequential issues.

That breadth will also enable us to multiply and accelerate our impact, as advances in one field can then more readily be applied to other disciplines across the academy. To leverage this breadth, we need to continue to break down silos and stimulate interdisciplinary work, building on the leadership of President Hennessy and Provost Etchemendy.

I also want to highlight a fourth priority, which is to explore the moral, legal and societal dimensions of our research output. With our deep engagement with technological innovation, and our strengths in law, business, anthropology and ethics, we are well positioned to evaluate and anticipate the social impact of innovations like artificial intelligence or genome editing and to prepare society to respond.

As a purposeful university, we must not only enable change, but also help understand change and manage change.

Diversity and freedom of expression

Now let us consider our foundational strength: our people and our culture.

We have the most remarkable Stanford family – faculty, students, staff and alumni. I’ve already commented on aspects of our culture: our optimism, our resilience and our courage to evolve. I have also been struck by the warmth and collegiality of our community, and our culture of mutual understanding and respect has really stood out as I have met with you – in town halls, student residences and faculty receptions. And I am inspired by the richness of our diversity.

Last month, walking across campus, I met Andrew, Bianka and Trevor – three resident assistants. I asked for their advice, and they urged me to reach out to as many students as possible. They said there is no typical Stanford student. Stanford is a heterogeneous community, with people of many backgrounds and experiences.

Our embrace of diversity dates back to Jane and Leland Stanford, who created an institution that from the start was nondenominational and open to all genders and races, that would “open an avenue whereby the deserving and the exceptional may rise through their own efforts.” As the first member of my immediate family to attend college, this commitment to diversity, opportunity and access is particularly meaningful to me.

“When we have the courage to challenge ideas, embrace our differences and learn from each other, our potential is truly unlimited. That is the power of diversity.”

—Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Stanford is committed to diversity. It is equally committed to the critical and open exchange of ideas and expression, as reflected in our motto, just cited by President Casper, “The wind of freedom blows” – Die Luft der Freiheit weht.

Free expression of ideas is key to our mission. As scholars, we question accepted notions in order to seek the truth. As educators, we challenge each other with ideas and opinions that may be very different from our own, to open minds and stimulate intellectual growth. As an institution, we refrain from pronouncements that might impede this treasured exchange of ideas.

Free expression and diversity are bedrock values for the university, but they require continual vigilance. We must continue to promote a culture where all opinions can be heard and respected, and the whole community can be enriched by understanding the experiences brought by those of different backgrounds and perspectives.

Past efforts have dramatically improved student access through our need-blind admission policy, but we know more can be done. We have also made progress in diversifying our faculty, students and staff, but more needs to be done, especially in representation of women and minorities on our faculty, where we are still 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.

Inclusion must be central to our 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.

Sustaining a culture of free expression and mutual respect requires commitment from each of us. It also requires personal courage.

I described earlier how my mother inspired me. Another person who has inspired me for his courage is our colleague Ben Barres, until recently chair of the Department of Neurobiology in the School of Medicine. Ben and I have been close friends for almost three decades.

Ben has broken many barriers in his life, and he is one of the most courageous people I know. Today he is demonstrating personal courage as he combats a life-threatening cancer, with characteristic determination and grace. But he has always been courageous, at every stage of his academic and personal life.

He challenged scientific dogma, successfully arguing, in the face of intense skepticism, for the importance of a frequently overlooked type of brain cell. He was also the first openly transgender scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and he has written from his perspective about gender discrimination in science and been a tremendous advocate for women.

That is the kind of courage we want to flourish here. When we have the courage to challenge ideas, embrace our differences and learn from each other, our potential is truly unlimited.

That is the power of diversity.


When Jane and Leland Stanford looked to honor their only child, they envisioned a university that would advance society, and for the past 125 years, Stanford has been realizing that vision.

It has flourished as a purposeful university that fosters education, research and creativity for the benefit of humanity. I’m inspired by the mainstays that support our purpose:

  • A broad education that will serve students throughout their lifetimes
  • The creation and application of deep knowledge
  • Our embrace of diversity and the open exchange of ideas

We are equally strong in optimism, resilience and initiative. 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.

As we leave here today, I ask every one of you to join me in developing a bold vision for the future, a vision of Stanford in the 21st century that leverages all of our resources.

That is our responsibility: to deploy Stanford’s tremendous strengths and vast intellectual capacity for the benefit of humanity.

Let us be inspired by the issues of our time.

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.

Thank you very much.