Stanford Report, October 18, 2000
TEXT BY JAMES ROBINSON
What does a president do? Over the years, the duties of a university president have expanded dramatically. Stanford's president remains focused on and rooted in academics, but the job entails much more: raising money, making decisions about future land use and addressing the needs of a medical center, to name just a few of the responsibilities John Hennessy will formally assume Friday. On Oct. 10, Hennessy afforded Stanford Report a glimpse into his new position by allowing a reporter and photographer to accompany him and sit in on meetings and phone calls for the better part of a day.
The rainy skies are still dark when the day begins for Hennessy with a latte, a banana and some pages from a section on teaching in former Stanford President Donald Kennedy's 1997 book, Academic Duty, which argues that universities' duties need to be better understood by the public at large. Before long, Hennessy has logged on to his home computer and is exchanging e-mails with another early riser, Sharon Long, professor of biological sciences. "Then I woke up everybody else in the house," he says, referring to his wife, Andrea, and their two teenage sons.
Hennessy arrives on campus
dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, button-down shirt and a UNICEF
tie that bears architectural details of Rockefeller Center. His
Building 10 office was renovated over the summer and boasts new oak
cabinetry, several photographs of Venice and a map showing the
different vegetation that abounds at Stanford's Jasper Ridge
Biological Preserve. A bright red "hotline"-looking telephone is
for use during emergencies, such as a natural disaster. The
strange-looking contraption with a long handle on his credenza is
the device that embosses the Stanford seal on official documents.
But the focal point of his office space -- its 21st-century hearth,
if you will -- is a Power Mac G4 Cube and its 22-inch flat-panel
screen. Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs recently called Hennessy
to let him know that, on the web, he saw a picture of Hennessy with
the computer. Hennessy told him, "Next time, Steve, I want a free
Time for the "Tuesday a.m.," a weekly meeting with senior staff: Provost John Etchemendy; Acting General Counsel Debra Zumwalt; John Ford, vice president for development; Bill Stone, president of Stanford Alumni Association; Larry Horton, director of government and community relations; Alan Acosta, director of communications; Jeff Wachtel, assistant to Hennessy and Etchemendy; and Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Law School associate dean who is Hennessy's newly named assistant.
Hennessy, freshly caffeinated, asks Stone how registration is going for Reunion Homecoming Weekend. "We're at 6,200, our biggest ever," he says. Stone also produces the latest telephone book-size edition of the Alumni Directory. "We've sold 17,000 of these, and they cost about $75. There's a CD version, too." Hennessy, surely Stanford's most digital president, seems surprised: "People buy the hard copy, not the CD version?"
meeting is an occasion for frank discussion of some of the
university's most sensitive issues, ranging from strategy in
seeking a new General Use Permit (GUP) from Santa Clara County to
lawsuits the university both faces and is pursuing. The main topic
ends up being the GUP, with Hennessy in control but not dominating
the freewheeling discussion. The president demonstrates a seemingly
encyclopedic knowledge of the arcane details of the GUP process,
rattling off terms like "AGB" (Academic Growth Boundary) and "JSB"
(Junipero Serra Boulevard) as a dizzying variety of complex
land-use scenarios are considered. Shortly after the meeting,
Wachtel says Hennessy "is so far in front of everybody else on
details. You'll see this all day long."
Hennessy, Etchemendy and
Wachtel huddle briefly on the recruitment of a new dean of the
School of Medicine. The job descriptions for top university
administrators surely don't include child care for candidates'
children, but Wachtel and Hennessy are both volunteering their
families for the possible task a few days hence, when a finalist is
expected on campus.
Acosta buttonholes Hennessy in a nearby hallway. "Do you want to talk to a New York Times reporter for a story about the Nobels?" Hennessy suggests Engineering School Dean Jim Plummer instead.
Hennessy holds a brief scheduled phone conversation with Eugene Bauer, vice president for the Medical Center. They talk about the search for a new dean, and Hennessy agrees to participate at a meeting the next morning concerning children's health. "I have to figure out what to say in the right context," he says.
Sunlight breaks through the
clouds and filters through the office's wood blinds. As provost,
Hennessy remarks, he was the officially designated guardian of
endangered species on campus. Now, as he clutches a thick packet of
documents that he's been briefly perusing, he notes that as
president he's also a CEO of the Pac-10 athletics conference. Each
president of a conference school is a CEO, it seems. "That's
obviously a recipe for disaster," he jokes. On a serious note, he
expresses concern -- as did his predecessor, Gerhard Casper -- that
college athletics are veering increasingly away from their amateur
Before he can spend more
than a minute glancing at headlines on Yahoo, "GM is here,"
announces his longtime assistant, Margaret Rowland. For these
visitors, Hennessy quickly dons his suit jacket and walks to the
lobby to welcome Rick Wagoner, General Motors' chief executive
officer, who is accompanied by GM Vice President Michael Grimaldi
and Donna Lawrence, Stanford's director of university corporate
Hennessy quickly shifts gears, bringing to bear his experience as dean of the School of Engineering. "In the engineering domain, we're concerned about the shift more and more toward computer science," he tells the corporate executives, adding, "we don't need fewer mechanical engineers." He speaks of the efforts the School of Engineering has made to get students into labs earlier in their academic careers to combat the "delayed gratification" problem of the curriculum.
Wagoner changes the subject. "Your job must be interesting," he says. "I have lots of constituencies," Hennessy replies. "One of the most challenging parts of my job is that each [constituency] has its own agenda, which is not necessarily the agenda of the whole university."
The two men discuss how engineering and business schools can work more closely in order to address the kinds of needs corporations have. "I think there's continuing to be a sea change," with MBAs increasingly opting to choose careers with engineering firms and in technical management, as opposed to the tradition of going primarily into management consulting, Hennessy says. "What can we do to strengthen the relationship between GM and Stanford?" Hennessy asks. Wagoner asks Hennessy to help to ensure that the appropriate connections are made between GM and members of the Stanford faculty and that professors address "real-world issues" in their classrooms and labs. Earlier, Wagoner met with some mechanical engineering students. "Boy, those are the kinds of people we want to have relationships with," he says.
"You know, he never even got to read the briefing book" on the GM meeting, Rowland says. "He just dives right in. He used to do that for class." Rowland has some bad news for her boss -- the rain is leaking into his future home, Hoover House, whose roof is being replaced. Hennessy takes the news in stride, and while he does some paperwork, Rowland discusses how things have changed -- and not changed -- since she started working for him 17 years ago in the Computer Science Department. "He's always kept this busy," she says, "but now there are just so many things to do all of the time. There are so many meetings, you have to try to fit everything in between." She clicks on the scheduling software that shows every jam-packed day, from meetings to church to the occasional round of golf. Now, she says, they have to schedule "desk time" -- "and you have to make it sacred. Sometimes people here have to wait three to four weeks to see him." Little telephone icons represent conference calls, of which he often has five or six a day. Working for Hennessy is hard, she says, "but it's so interesting that you don't mind. There's always something new. The ways he solves problems are sometimes so different that you end up learning so much about the university when you're trying to implement his decisions. And he's always ready to go, always enthusiastic. He's the most amazingly even-tempered person I've ever met -- or it's more that it's an equilibrium that he has."
Hennessy, armed with a
bright red umbrella Rowland has lent him, walks across the Quad
toward the Faculty Club. He doesn't get far before sophomore Hiro
Iwanaga, riding a bicycle, sidles up to him. "I'm one of the four
sophomore class presidents and I just wanted to thank him for
speaking at the Sophomore Welcome," he says. And before long, he
adds, "I'm going to need to talk to him about funding for our
Hennessy has lunch with Al
Bowker, the 81-year-old former chancellor of the University of
California-Berkeley, former chancellor of City University of New
York, former Stanford dean of graduate studies and, in 1948,
founding chair of Stanford's Statistics Department. The meeting is
one of a series Hennessy is having with people who can help him
gain a perspective on issues of academic leadership. Over roast
turkey and cranberry sauce, Hennessy seems in awe at the challenges
the tumultuous 1960s posed to university leaders like Bowker. When
he was at City University, "we had a little crisis over Cambodia,"
Bowker says. "I was nervous." Hennessy reaches for his pager, which
apparently has vibrated. Bowker reminisces about Stanford. "You
know, Stanford used to be run by a clique," he says. Hennessy
doesn't disagree. "But things are less directed from the center
now, especially compared to the [Fred] Terman days," he says,
referring to the influential former provost and engineering school
dean. They discuss the Farm's evolution. "Where would Stanford have
been if it hadn't actively sought government funding? It would have
been a good university, but not a great university," Hennessy says.
As they part, he tells Bowker, "Well, if you've survived all these
jobs, Al, there must be some magic to it."
Back at the office,
Rolling Stone magazine has called looking for photographs of
Hennessy. As president, he says, "getting interviewed by Rolling
Stone is the only thing that's impressed my kids." He sits down
to sign some letters. "Oh, I have to call my spouse." Kelly Snyder
of the Development Office has come over to notarize some official
documents. As president for five weeks, what's it been like so far?
"Well, you never know what's going to come up in a given day. Some
days there are crises, or you're recruiting a staff member or dean.
Now there's the GUP. Everything creates a demand for time. One of
the potential dangers of being at the presidential level, or even
provost, is that you're removed from things, and people don't want
to tell you the bad news as well as the good," he says. At the same
time, when someone makes him aware of a problem, "you have to know
if it's just a single thing, something that reflects a local
circumstance, versus it being an institutional problem. A lot of
the success in good leadership revolves around uncovering problems
before they become crises." There's also the danger of looking
exclusively at things that are "time critical," he says. "The
problem is that you can put off some of the most important things,
strategic things about how the institution develops in the long
term." Asked how he masters the details of topics like the GUP, he
says a little sheepishly, "Well, I have a good recall if I've read
or heard something once."
Hennessy interviews a candidate for the position of chief financial officer, from which Mariann Byerwalter stepped down in June. A fair amount of turnover at high levels is not uncommon during a time of presidential transition. Stone recently announced he will retire from the Alumni Association at the end of the year, which means yet another search is to begin.
The day has turned out to be on the light side, at least as far as formal meetings and appointments are concerned. Because of the threat of rain, the Office of Development has canceled an outdoor event at which Hennessy's presence had been required. The president fields many phone calls instead.
Hennessy picks up an inch-thick Medical Center briefing book on children's health, which he needs to bone up on before the next morning's meeting.
He rushes home for a quick bite to eat.
He attends a school event for his son, who is being inducted into the school honor society.
home, he attends to more e-mail and scans the children's health
briefing book before retiring until very early the next