Stanford president, provost answer questions about current issues on community members’ minds

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell answered a range of questions on issues from sexual violence education to faculty diversity and the state of federal research funding during a conversation Wednesday.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell updated the Stanford community on the long-range planning process and talked about a swath of some of the university’s most pressing issues, from sexual violence and free speech to faculty diversity and the state of federal research funding, during an informal meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Persis Drell and Marc Tessier-Lavigne at Q&A with Stanford community on Oct. 4, 2017

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell at Wednesday’s community conversation (Image credit: Aaron Kehoe)

The hour-long meeting, billed as a Conversation with the President and Provost, included about 75 faculty, staff and students in the Koret-Taube Conference Center at the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Building. It was the first of several such events Tessier-Lavigne and Drell plan to hold throughout the 2017-2018 academic year.

At the start of the meeting, Tessier-Lavigne addressed Sunday night’s mass shooting in Las Vegas and reminded the Stanford community about the university’s counseling and safety resources.

The Department of Public Safety, which is part of university’s threat assessment team, can help if one is feeling uncomfortable or has concerns about someone he or she knows on or off campus. The department recently launched a new threat assessment website with information on threat and violence prevention.

“Our thoughts are with the victims and their families and loved ones in this incredibly difficult time,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “In addition to grief, it’s understandable for us to feel unsettled and vulnerable. … You shouldn’t hesitate to report if you see something amiss or unusual.”

Drell announced that the white papers developed from the ideas generated through the university’s long-range planning process will be available for public view sometime in the winter quarter.

The planning process, launched in April, has yielded almost 2,800 ideas and proposals that are being processed and summarized by more than 100 faculty, student and staff volunteers, organized into four Area Steering Groups. Drell noted that about 500 of the 2,800 ideas were proposed by Stanford alumni, underscoring the importance of lasting connections within the community.

“I can’t overstate how much the response to that process is really fueling our optimism and excitement about where Stanford as an institution is going,” Drell said.

Following their brief statements, Drell and Tessier-Lavigne tag-teamed about 10 questions from the audience.

In answering a question about Stanford’s efforts to prevent sexual violence, Drell emphasized the new and existing educational programming on the issue at the university. She highlighted the positive feedback that “Beyond Sex Ed: Consent & Sexuality at Stanford” has received.

The new program, developed by Stanford’s Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response and launched in fall 2016, includes older Stanford students talking to new students about consent and the reality of sexual violence on campus and is a required part of New Student Orientation. It’s one of several new programs underway at the university regarding education on sexual violence.

“I just cannot tell you how profoundly moving those conversations are,” said Drell, who attended the program’s events during this year’s NSO. “It’s the students teaching each other in a very foundational way.”

Concerning federal research funding, which the White House proposed in May to be cut, Tessier-Lavigne said he found that Congress doesn’t agree with the proposal. He heard bipartisan support for research funding at Stanford and other universities during his four visits to Washington, D.C., over the last couple of months.

“Right now, I think we averted major declines, but we cannot let up,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “We have to continue making our case.”

On the issue of free speech and the challenges it can create when it is threatening to others, Drell underscored university officials’ commitment to uphold the policies that encourage expression of a broad range of ideas as well as protect vulnerable members of the community.

“Stanford should be a place where we could actually model conversations on difficult issues, where we learn from each other,” Drell said. “The more we can listen to each other, the more that we can seek to truly understand each other and, ultimately, support each other, the stronger we will be as a community.”

Answering a question about how to improve the diversity of Stanford faculty, Drell said the university’s administration is working with the faculty to encourage diverse hires.

In addition to existing recruitment approaches, Drell said they are also fostering innovative tactics. For example, Drell said, one idea she liked is investing more in the recruitment of younger, diverse junior faculty.

“If we want to be an outstanding institution that attracts the best faculty and the best students a decade or two from now, we have to do better at this,” Drell said. “This is about the long-term viability of the institution.”