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Stanford Report, April 5, 2000

'The right person for the right time'


About a half hour before he strode over to Tresidder Union on Monday for the press conference announcing his selection as Stanford's next president, Provost John Hennessy said he hadn't aspired to a career in higher education administration until he became dean of the School of Engineering four years ago.

"Until then, I was happy and content being a faculty member -- which I still consider the best job in the world," he said as he folded and flattened a candy wrapper in perhaps the only sign of nervous anticipation about the next item on his calendar.

He said that while he had thought about "where the provost's job might eventually lead, I certainly didn't anticipate it would lead [to president] in a year."

Photo: John Hennessy

John Hennessy basks in applause after the announcement that he had been named the university's next president.   (Photo: Stuart Brinin)

The timing, however, is just right, members of the presidential search committee said at the press conference a few minutes later announcing Hennessy's appointment, effective Sept. 1, succeeding Gerhard Casper.

A beaming Hennessy generously posed for the cameras and exuded confidence and enthusiasm about his duties. When a reporter suggested that he could earn more money in the high-tech sector, he joked that Casper has been underpaid.

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But on a serious note, he said, "I would not undertake this job because of salary. I undertake this job because Stanford is a great institution that over 22 years I have come to love dearly and which I believe I can serve well in this position."

The announcement of his appointment, made by Robert M. Bass, chairman of the Board of Trustees, capped a five-month effort by a 17-member presidential search committee.

"With the Board of Trustees' selection of John Hennessy, I believe we have found a leader to be sure, but we also have found the right person for the right time in Stanford's history. John's intelligence, experience and strength of character are a perfect match for the challenges Stanford will face in the coming years," Bass said. "His deep understanding of the university's traditions combined with his passion for innovation make him a choice that not only reflects in the best possible way on Stanford, but brings honor to all of us who are fortunate enough to be associated with the university."

Hennessy, 47, was the sole nominee presented to the Board of Trustees by the search committee. The full board concurred unanimously with the committee's choice at a special meeting Monday.

A comprehensive search

While the best candidate ultimately was found within Stanford, trustee James Ukropina, who chaired the search committee, said the process of selecting a new president "was one of most comprehensive ever undertaken by a university here in the United States."

He said there were about 500 written and verbal nominations and that about 10 percent made the final cut. "We spent more than, I think, 7,500 hours of research time, interview time, travel time with this very dedicated committee. The wonderful part of this search was that once we got near the end and started extending invitations for various prospects to interview with us, I think you could say that the Olympians of higher education showed up and they were all very pleased to meet with us."

"Thus our new president will be able to say that he went through screens that you can't possibly imagine in terms of quality and criteria and very thorough review. We feel absolutely confident that there is no better person to lead Stanford as it moves into the new century."

Law Professor Pamela Karlan, a member of the search committee, described the presidential search as "a little bit like the Wizard of Oz. We traveled all around and realized there's no place like home and nobody like John."

The first engineer to lead Stanford, Hennessy said the challenges facing the university are real, including efforts to build academic programs and "continuing to attract the best faculty, staff and students given the high costs of living in the Bay Area." But he added that the new millennium brings many opportunities to build on Stanford's strengths, such as its ongoing improvements to the undergraduate program; the "breadth and depth" of science and engineering programs such as the Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; and the successes of Casper's efforts in the humanities, such as the presidential lectures in the arts and humanities and the Cantor Center.

"Pursuing these opportunities and making Stanford the best it can be is a task that will require the engagement of the entire Stanford community: faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends. I look forward to working with this community in pursuit of these opportunities," Hennessy said.

Hennessy, an entrepreneur who founded a highly successful Silicon Valley company based on his research in computer architecture, has served as provost since June 1999.

An "outstanding academic"

Casper, who plans to return to teaching, said that "John is the logical choice to be Stanford's next president: an outstanding academic with an unwavering commitment to Stanford's quality and the many excellences the university encompasses. In the years that John and I have worked together, I have come to admire his clarity, intellectual rigor and honesty. He has become a colleague and friend in whom I have complete trust."

Photo: Gerhard Casper

Outgoing President Gerhard Casper shares a laugh with Hennessy during Monday's press conference.   (Photo: Stuart Brinin)

Since becoming provost, Hennessy has begun to tackle some of the tough issues that face the university, including the high cost of housing, the need to reexamine faculty and staff compensation, and concerns expressed by women faculty members. He also is leading the searches for new deans for the schools of medicine and education and for undergraduate admission. He continues to find time to serve as an adviser to undergraduate students, but currently he does not teach.

The first question he faced at the news conference on the second floor of Tresidder Union was a pointed one about the climate for women faculty at Stanford.

"We should be clear about where Stanford stands with respect to policy. Our policy is quite clear: We have zero tolerance for discrimination and we have zero tolerance for retaliation," he said.

"We need to look at constructive ways to engage all of our faculty and staff to talk about how we make a better working environment for every faculty member, every staff member and every student on campus," he said, noting that he had begun a dialogue with women faculty by discussing their concerns at a series of lunches.

Karlan pointed to his response as an example of how "amazingly non-defensive" Hennessy is. "He's done a great deal of reaching out to female faculty. The buzz is terrific."

Hennessy said his first major decision will be to appoint a provost to succeed him. He hopes to make that announcement by commencement.

While the selection of Hennessy seems particularly appropriate to today's technology-driven era, members of the search committee emphasized the human and managerial qualities they found in their choice. They also said that, while Stanford has had a tradition of appointing presidents from within -- other than the first president, David Starr Jordan, only two other presidents, including Casper, have come from the outside -- the committee methodically and seriously considered other prospects.

John Hennessy   (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

"The thing that was most striking is that everybody always warns you that you hear bad things about inside candidates and the outsiders look like they come in on white horses," Karlan said. "But the more we talked to people about John, the more we liked him."

Philosophy Professor John Etchemendy, the committee's deputy chair, said that "everyone who deals with him comes away impressed with his formidable intellect, his extraordinary integrity and his deep love of Stanford."

"He is a great teacher and a brilliant researcher, with a touch of entrepreneur thrown in to the mix. He is the embodiment of everything that has made Stanford one of the world's great universities. I am confident that as members of Stanford's far-flung community get to know John, it will be abundantly clear why he was the unanimous choice of the search committee."

Claude Steele, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology and a member of the search committee, said simply that in his short tenure as provost Hennessy "has become a beloved person."

Civil and environmental engineering Professor Jeffrey Koseff, a member of the search committee and senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the School of Engineering, recalled going to a faculty leadership "boot camp" eight or nine years ago in which Hennessy participated.

"Just from the questions he had, the insightfulness he had, you just knew that this person was not ordinary -- that this person was already at another level and he was going to be something special. He's just an amazing guy -- and it's scary how smart he is," Koseff said.

Kristin Torres, a senior in international relations who was one of the student members of the search committee, said it is clear that Hennessy not only pays attention to students and their concerns "but he also understands them and cares about them. You can see that he's passionate about Stanford and that whatever needs to be done to keep Stanford excellent, that's what he's going to do."

A straight-shooter

Several committee members took particular note of Hennessy's willingness to be open-minded and of his penchant for not making promises he can't keep.

Kaleb Michaud, a member of the search committee who is a doctoral student in physics, has been impressed with his dealings with Hennessy on such sensitive issues as the need for more graduate student housing. While Hennessy may not promise the world, Michaud said, "what he says is what will happen."

Before Hennessy makes a decision, Koseff said, he will typically listen to many views and then synthesize them quickly. "Whether you agree with the decision or not, he doesn't leave dead bodies behind, I can tell you that," Koseff said. For example, he said, even though the combining of two departments in the School of Engineering had its detractors, "they don't harbor bitterness or bad feelings toward him. If you can do that and still have people feel that way about you, it means you must be something special."

Michael Hindery, senior associate dean for finance and administration at the Medical School, was the staff representative on the search committee. He said he was impressed with how well-versed Hennessy is on recruitment and retention issues. “One of the reasons [Hennessy] was our choice is that he’s given a lot of thought to these issues,” Hindery said.

The end of the search committee's duties means its members will have their first weekend off since the year began.

For Michaud and Torres, the student members of the search committee, the selection process was a major no-credit learning experience. "As students, being given this trust and responsibility was unbelievable," Torres said. She and Michaud said they felt as equals on the committee and that their views were taken seriously.

It was also somewhat of a learning experience for Karlan, who has been on the faculty only since the fall of 1998.

"As a relative newcomer to the university, I was just incredibly impressed with the other faculty, and the trustees were amazing. The amount of time and effort and intelligence the trustees put into the process was really heartening." SR

Eileen Walsh contributed to this report.

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