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Stanford Report, November 3, 1999

President emeritus Donald Kennedy speaks about values


Was the talk intended to "encourage introspection among the elderly," university President Emeritus Donald Kennedy mused.

And was the title of the series -- "What Matters to Me and Why" -- perhaps a bit off the mark?

After all, Kennedy noted, "what people say about what matters to them may be less important than what they do."

As he jousted with possibilities and alternatives in the opening minutes of his talk in Memorial Church on Wednesday, Oct. 28, the Bing Professor of Environmental Sciences drew the audience of 70 faculty colleagues, staff and students to new perspectives.

"What matters to us changes as we live our lives," Kennedy suggested. "I think that's partly about maturing and partly about the surprises that life has in store for us."

Kennedy acknowledged that he had spent a good bit of time early in his career "being interested in other people's praise, in accepting other peoples' judgments about whether I was doing the right thing or making a difference."

But in 1991 and '92, he added, an "excellent object lesson" came along when he found himself under "very harsh criticism" during the indirect costs dispute.

"Thankfully, that has not left any scars on Stanford, nor do I feel scarred," he said.

"But I do feel liberated in one sense: If you have to listen to a lot of judgments, some of which you think you deserve and some of which are quite unfair, on the part of people who are at some distance from you, you learn to decide what fits the criterion of what really matters to you and what you can discard because it's superficial. And that's a very liberating experience, and I'm oddly grateful for it."

Kennedy went on to say that he also was grateful he'd been "lucky enough to have loved every job" he'd had, including the challenges of the presidency.

"I think a big part of 'academic duty' -- that's the title of a book I wrote and I never miss a chance to flog it a little -- is to find a deep reward in making other people succeed. I think that's at the heart of what teachers do, and it matters to me to be able to gain satisfaction from other peoples' achievements.

Among the values that are important on a personal level, Kennedy said, the capacity to love and to receive love is preeminent.

"It may be a cliché, but I think it's true -- love really matters."

As for what matters in relationships with others and responsibilities to the world, Kennedy said that "young people" are his top priority.

"I think the central obligation of any society is to transmit the culture with improvements -- to make the next generation of people better equipped, better motivated, more knowledgeable, more understanding, more empathic. And that's the only way we improve our culture -- we do it generation by generation."

The co-director of the Center for Environmental Science and Policy noted that devotion to nature also has been a driving impetus in his life.

"Nature matters," he said. "I don't really know why I feel that so strongly, but I have ever since I was quite young. And I feel it especially strongly now because I think that nature is being driven to the wall by us and that we need to find ways to lighten our tread."

Kennedy then meandered down a captivating visual path that he said has helped him answer questioners who want a convincing "claim for nature."

"The only metaphor that works for me is that we -- those people who are curious about the great mystery of life and our place in it -- are in a very dark cavern and we've discovered on the wall a tapestry of incredible beauty which we can illuminate only with a small penlight that focuses on a tiny fraction of it," he said.

"Examination of that fraction persuades us that it's a tapestry of extraordinary richness and complexity and beauty -- nothing like it has ever been seen before. And as we move the penlight, each part seems unique and different, and yet we know they're connected and we want terribly badly to see the whole.

"We think about ways in which we might do that -- engineering solutions -- but they all seem rather distant. And then at a critical point we put the penlight on one part, which shows us that it's slowly unraveling -- and we can't stop it. And we need to find some way of glimpsing all of it and understanding it before the unraveling takes place."

Awareness of environmental challenges is "hugely better" with each succeeding generation, Kennedy noted.

"I see very much more concern in the undergraduates I teach now, compared with ones I taught in the '70s."

As for his own generation, Kennedy argued that because of "uncrowded schools, no wars, and terrific job environments," they had had it "unbelievably easy."

But gone are the days when you can build "a nice house" on campus for $30,000, with 90 percent of a loan financed by a 4-percent FHA mortgage.

"Don't ever let anyone my age complain to you," Kennedy said, addressing undergraduates and graduate students in the audience.

At the same time, Kennedy noted that "the generation of students I see here now need to learn how rewarding it is to make a bit of a fuss every now and then."

Emphasizing that he wasn't calling for "a call to revolution," Kennedy said that students nevertheless "need to understand that responsible, passionate and powerful advocacy can be very effective."

"A little more boisterousness wouldn't hurt." SR