A philosopher at the helm of Stanford’s Faculty Senate

Debra Satz, a professor of philosophy, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, and chair of the 2016-17 Faculty Senate, has long been a champion of the humanities, equity issues and faculty governance on the Farm.

In the beginning, Stanford philosophy Professor Debra Satz was a tentative Californian.

Debra Satz

Stanford philosophy Professor Debra Satz, who chairs the Faculty Senate as the university makes the transition to a new president and provost, is a long-time champion for the humanities. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Satz, who joined the faculty as an assistant professor of philosophy in 1988, said she didn’t think she’d stay very long on the Farm, even though she was excited about joining the Department of Philosophy, which was committed to building strength in her field of study – political philosophy and ethics.

For the New York City native, who was a graduate of City College of New York and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, relocating to a small town on the West Coast was a “terrifying prospect,” Satz said in a recent interview in her office in the Main Quad. “My image of California was something out of a Woody Allen movie.

“I asked the chair of the department, Michael Bratman, ‘If I take this job and don’t like it, will you help me get a job back on the East Coast?’” Satz recalled. “He promised he would do that and so I made the leap.”

Bratman never had to fulfill his promise, because Satz fell in love with Stanford, as well as the Bay Area – especially its many opportunities for camping and hiking

“Stanford has been a great place for me,” she said. “I have wonderful colleagues in my field; the students are incredible. Stanford has been a space ship that has been taking off over the last 20 years. It’s been a pretty amazing journey.”

In addition to teaching and research, Satz has championed the humanities, equity issues and faculty governance at Stanford.

This year, she will complete her seventh – and final – year as senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, a leadership position in the School of Humanities and Sciences. At the dean’s office, she has monitored faculty salaries and watched for any disparities by race or gender. With the other deans, she has also worked to improve the well-being of assistant professors through, for example, new rental assistance programs. She is currently serving as chair of the 2016-17 Faculty Senate, the centerpiece of academic governance at Stanford.

Path to academia

Satz, the first member of her family to graduate from college, credited the students and teachers at The Bronx High School of Science for setting her on the path to college.

I loved solving puzzles.

Debra Satz

Chair, Stanford Faculty Senate, on choosing philosophy as her major

“The high school, which admitted students based on a competitive exam, drew students from all over the city – Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island – and all of them were headed to college,” she said. “So there was really no question that I was going on to college too.”

At City College of New York, Satz chose philosophy as her major, a course of study that included many courses in logic and mathematics.

“I loved solving puzzles,” she said. “I got very interested in logic and mathematics as ways of ordering knowledge and solving puzzles. But the puzzles went deeper and that led me to philosophy.”

As a doctoral student in philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, Satz was an aspiring philosopher surrounded by future engineers, scientists and mathematicians – mostly men.

Still, Satz discovered she had something in common with many of them.

“There were a lot of kids like me who were first-generation college students – just like our new president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne,” she said.

At MIT, Satz decided to focus her dissertation – and, ultimately, her academic career – on political philosophy, the study of fundamental puzzles and disagreements that have arisen in our public life. Political philosophy attempts to address such questions as: How can freedom and equality be reconciled? How can the state be justified? What do we owe to one another?

To gain teaching experience, she taught social science to undergraduates at MIT and at nearby Harvard University. She loved teaching, she discovered, especially the give-and-take with students.

Teaching and research on the Farm

At Stanford, Satz won the university’s highest teaching honor in 2004, the Walter J. Gores Award, for her intellectual leadership in developing and sustaining the Ethics in Society Program and for co-founding and teaching in the Hope House Scholars Program, which offers humanities courses at a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for women. The award also singled out her “tremendous humanity and exemplary university citizenship.”

Satz’s research focuses on a wide variety of issues, including the ethical limits of markets, the place of equality in a just society, theories of rational choice, democratic theory, feminist philosophy, ethics and education, and issues of international justice.

Her 2010 book, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, has been translated into four languages. She discussed the book with Stanford Report in 2012. In its review, the Harvard Business Review wrote: “A wonderfully lucid tour of the thinking on markets over the years by economists and philosophers, from Adam Smith through Ronald Dworkin. Her main focus is markets that almost all find offensive: child labor, sex, kidneys. But the lessons she draws from them raise hard questions about the markets for health care, education, and maybe even credit derivatives.”

In 2013, Satz joined with three Stanford colleagues to edit Occupy the Future, a book of essays on the questions raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement about the relationship between democracy and equality in the United States. This year, she published Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy, a book co-authored with two colleagues.

Highlighting humanities

In addition to teaching and research, Satz is passionate about promoting the life-long value of studying the humanities.

Satz talked about the humanities for a 2012 Stanford Magazine article. “They expose us to the ideas and practices central to our own society as well as to alternative ideas within our society and without,” she said. “And they provide the vocabulary for posing the big questions about truth, justice, responsibility, beauty, among others that should be a core part of a university education.”

To further promote interest in the humanities, Satz established the Summer Humanities Institute in 2012 to bring 50 rising high school juniors and seniors to campus for university-level coursework. Each year the program recruits carefully targeted high school students from across the country and introduces them to classes with Stanford’s accomplished humanities faculty. In the program’s first year Satz composed a separate letter for New York students, essentially saying she had been “a kid from the New York City public schools who got here and actually liked it.”

We are really not the MIT of the West.

Professor Debra Satz

This summer, the institute will enroll up to 140 students and offer five courses, including Ancient Rome and Its Legacies and Racial Identity in the American Imagination.

“It’s an amazing program that has helped us get the word out about studying the humanities and the arts at Stanford,” Satz said. “We are really not the MIT of the West.”

She said the university’s efforts have begun to bear fruit, noting that the yield rate for humanities students – the percentage who enroll at Stanford after they have been accepted – is now the same as the yield rate for engineering, science and social science students.

Satz also helped establish the City College of New York – Stanford Exchange to foster cooperation between humanities departments on the two campuses. Each summer, Stanford brings 10 talented undergraduates to the Farm to work with faculty, develop their scholarly interests and prepare for future graduate training. Every fall, Stanford sends graduate students to New York City to teach at City College of New York.

She said the program has been successful at getting CCNY’s diverse students into good graduate schools.

This year, Satz and Dan Edelstein, a professor of French and chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages, launched the Humanities Core, an integrated program of courses and seminars designed to provide undergraduates with a structured and guided pathway into the humanities.

At the helm of the Faculty Senate

Satz said she thought the 2016-17 academic year was an opportune time to serve as chair of the Faculty Senate since the university was welcoming a new president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, in September 2016, and a new provost, Persis Drell, in February 2017.

In late October, days after his inauguration, Tessier-Lavigne gave a formal address to the senate, inviting the faculty to participate in long-term planning for Stanford’s future.

During autumn quarter, the senate also heard presentations on a wide variety of topics, including the Task Force on Women in Leadership, student mental health and well-being, and the need for more “flexible classrooms” that promote interactive, collaborative and experiential learning. In addition, the senate passed a resolution endorsing the university’s policies of inclusion in light of the recent U.S presidential election.

Upcoming topics include the status of lectures at Stanford, a report on Title IX procedures, and a session on academic governance in honor of outgoing provost John Etchemendy.

Satz said one of her goals is to encourage more discussion at meetings,by shortening the time for presentations and lengthening the time for talking about issues.

“I’m also thinking about breaking the senate up into small discussion groups,” she said.

In addition, Satz wants to encourage faculty to take advantage of the time set aside at every meeting to ask questions of the provost and the president on any topic of their choosing.

“We’ve got this great opportunity at every meeting to address the university leadership with our concerns and priorities,” she said. “This is what faculty governance is all about.”

The first senate meeting of winter quarter will be held Jan. 26. The agenda for the meeting will be posted on the senate’s website.