President Marc Tessier-Lavigne elaborates on key Stanford issues, invites input

Speaking to the Faculty Senate on Thursday, the president said input from across the campus community will be important to establishing a vision for Stanford's future.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne standing in front of a screen displaying his PowerPoint slides.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne speaking before the Faculty Senate on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Days after his inauguration as Stanford’s 11th president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Thursday invited the Faculty Senate to help begin long-term planning for Stanford’s future.

Tessier-Lavigne summarized key points from his Oct. 21 inauguration speechThe Purposeful University: A Place of Unlimited Potential – and provided additional observations on some of Stanford’s shared values and institutional challenges based on his early conversations with people across the Stanford community.

“This is part of the listening and learning period for me,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “A vision for Stanford for the next decade is something we will work on collectively over the coming year.”

Tessier-Lavigne said he plans an inclusive and collaborative long-range planning effort for Stanford in the 2017 calendar year, and he invited members of the senate and student leaders in attendance to reflect on key issues facing the university.

Speaking from slides – he jokingly began by showing slides from an online “Gettysburg Address PowerPoint,” noting the limitations of the format – Tessier-Lavigne discussed his view of Stanford’s two pillars of education and research and its foundation of people and culture. He also expanded on some of the challenges for Stanford in each area, drawing from his initial conversations around the university, and welcomed additional perspectives.

In education, for instance, Tessier-Lavigne stressed the importance of reaffirming the value of a broad liberal education; fostering a balanced student body across many disciplines; allowing undergraduates meaningful study in multiple areas of interest; and encouraging them not to focus solely on immediate job prospects after graduation.

“Because of the complexity of the world and the accelerating pace of change, we do not serve our students well if we give them a narrow disciplinary education,” he said.

Popular areas of study tend to change over time, Tessier-Lavigne said, and preserving academic strength and student enrollment across the breadth of the university is important to its long-term vitality. “If we allow our university to focus in on certain areas, we may be today’s university, but we may not be tomorrow’s university,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

In research, Tessier-Lavigne said both fundamental and applied research must flourish at Stanford, as they have historically, and that the university might consider ways of making translational research in some fields more efficient. He also reiterated a point from his inauguration speech about the value of exploring the moral, legal and societal dimensions of research, using the Stanford Cyber Initiative as an example and posing the question of whether there are ways of stimulating similar efforts more systematically.

Tessier-Lavigne also reprised the emphasis in his inauguration speech on the importance of the free and open exchange of ideas and a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. He said Stanford needs to “redouble our commitment” to ensuring all opinions are heard and respected; to enhancing diversity, including the representation of women and minorities on the faculty; and to reaffirming a culture of civility and respect that rejects sexual violence.

“It isn’t just about creating diversity, but also focusing on inclusion, ensuring everyone who joins our community feels a part of it, especially those from historically marginalized groups,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “We can take advantage of the sense of urgency we feel across our community in addressing these areas.”

He also noted that a range of other priorities will need to be part of the university’s long-range planning, including housing affordability, transportation, career development for faculty and staff, financial stewardship, excellence in operations and external outreach beyond the campus borders.

Members of the senate offered a variety of initial comments and questions, on topics including collaboration between undergraduate programs and Stanford’s professional schools; preserving affordability for Stanford students; the cost of housing; and addressing the pressures that high school students and parents feel in the college application process.

Tessier-Lavigne said “partnership between the administration, the faculty, the students, the staff and other stakeholders” will be an important part of Stanford’s approach to addressing issues and challenges. He also encouraged Stanford to work to advance its mission “boldly and confidently, but also with humility and empathy.”

“Excellence is not an end in itself,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “Excellence is a means, and it’s a means to promote the mission of the university, which is to benefit society.”

Addressing research challenges

Also at the senate meeting, Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research, gave a presentation on efforts at Stanford to sustain and strengthen its $1.1 billion research enterprise amid a variety of national challenges.

Stanford faculty continue to be very successful in securing research grants, Arvin said. But amid increasing competition for constrained funding, particularly at the federal level, faculty are preparing and submitting more grant proposals. Faculty nationally are also spending more time on financial management, compliance, personnel evaluations and other administrative activities associated with their research.

“We have ways of enhancing our competitiveness,” Arvin said, noting Stanford’s investment in a variety of initiatives to support research. “We have seed grants, shared research facilities, our research computing facility, our Nano Shared Facilities, interdisciplinary research. We have SLAC. And we really do benefit from our culture of collaboration here.”

Arvin said the university is working on ways of simplifying research-related administrative tasks, including through better integration of information systems. Stanford also continues to be an active advocate for federal funding of research, she said.

Arvin also noted the university’s long-standing principles of research integrity, academic freedom and openness in research, and its efforts to ensure continuing awareness of those principles. “The modeling of behaviors is much more important than anything else in terms of people following those best practices and principles,” she said.

The full minutes of the Oct. 27 senate meeting will be available soon on the Faculty Senate website. The minutes will include the question-and-answer sessions that followed each of the presentations.