Stanford Report Online



Stanford Report, November 30, 2000
'What matters' to John Etchemendy

BY JAMES ROBINSON

Provost John Etchemendy had just attracted one of the largest-ever audiences for the “What Matters to Me and Why” series of talks at Memorial Church. He felt a little self-conscious.

“I don't like talking about myself. I find it very awkward,” he told about 75 faculty, staff and students gathered in the church's side chapel Wednesday. “Why should any of you care about what matters to me. But you come, so I guess you do.” The audience laughed. “Could you speak a little louder?” a member of the audience asked. “Louder? That makes it worse,” he said, smiling, and so the ice was broken.

Etchemendy, 48, is a philosophy professor who joined the Stanford faculty in 1983 and became provost in September, replacing John Hennessy, who became president.

Etchemendy said he was “surprised at how quickly and easily” he was able to come up with a list of what really matters to him, even if talking about it in public was a bit strange.

Easily number one is his family -- his wife and his son as well as the close-knit family he grew up in. His father was in the military, which meant the family moved frequently. “You end up relying on your family as a constant,” he said, remarking that, as a child, he had not witnessed anyone except his four siblings grow up.

Etchemendy's teenage years came during the tumultuous 1960s. Looking back at those times, he has newfound respect for his late father, who, with conservative political views, “had a houseful of quite rebellious teenagers during the Vietnam War. I'm impressed and admire how he handled the situation and how we made it through.”

The second item on Etchemendy's list of what matters to him had a more direct connection to his audience. “I don't know if you're going to find this boring or pathetic, but the next important thing is Stanford. I ask myself, `Is this normal?' The institution that up until September didn't even pay me enough?”

As it turns out, Etchemendy's mother is a Stanford graduate and he dreamed from a very young age of enrolling at The Farm. But, alas, the institution that today embraces him as a leader and tenured professor did not see fit to admit him at the time.

Clearly there are no hard feelings. After getting B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Nevada, Etchemendy received his Ph.D in philosophy from Stanford. “And I've been here, roughly speaking, ever since,” he said.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of Stanford's basic mission, Etchemendy said -- one of creating and preserving and transmitting knowledge “for the benefit of humanity.” The faculty, the staff and everyone involved in the university are playing a role similar to those of medieval monks who preserved knowledge for future generations, he said. “This is a huge responsibility.”

While freely admitting he is biased, Etchemendy said Stanford “is probably unmatched in the breadth of its endeavor and the quality of its achievement.” The university's successes, he added, are more than academic and include athletics and even the physical plant. They include “the people who design our buildings and mow our grounds. We are among the most beautiful campuses in the world.”

Talented people are drawn here because they, like the university as a whole, have lofty goals, he added. “There is not a member of the community who couldn't have personally profited more by choosing [to do] something else,” he said. “I like the fact that the institution I work for every day has these motivations and funnels those motivations to its lofty purposes,” he said.

Next on Etchemendy's list was teaching. “I'm an insufferable teacher. Ask my son, he'll ask a simple question and I'll give him a lecture.” But, he said, “I love to teach. I come away from it absolutely charged.” (He didn't mention that students also love him as a teacher; he won the Bing Teaching Award in 1992, the first year it was presented, having been cited for “the most extraordinarily positive testimony from students.”)

Finally, Etchemendy cited his desire to “achieve understanding, to achieve a clarity of understanding” as important to him. It is what led to him to an academic profession, although his pursuit of philosophy came in a roundabout way after eliminating several other disciplines. Of psychology: “I wasn't achieving the clarity and understanding down to the basic level that I wanted.” Of biology: “I couldn't understand the process down to the very bottom.” He called philosophy “the queen of the sciences . . . it has always been motivated by a desire to understand how things work, what underlies a process down to the very nitty-gritty.” Although he didn't mention them, his areas of academic interest are illustrative of this desire -- they include logic, semantics and the philosophy of languages, and his work has challenged views on the central notions of truth, logical consequence and logical truth.

He also said there is an interplay between his love of teaching and his love of understanding. “Because once you understand something, or the extent to which you can understand something, what you then do with that understanding -- well, you want to give it to someone else.”

Etchemendy said there are also some values that matter to him. “It's a cluster of values -- truth, in academic inquiry; honesty, also in academic inquiry but in life in general; and integrity are things that matter most to me. It's not that I think I'm a paragon of any of these values, but they are my values and I try to achieve them.”