Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, October 25, 2000
'A university is vulnerable to other things besides explicit threats'

This is the prepared text of President Emeritus Richard Lyman's speech at the inauguration of John L. Hennessy on Friday, Oct. 20, 2000

I'm delighted to be taking part in the inauguration of my successor's successor's successor. Clearly, it is not all that hard to succeed to a university presidency -- it happens all the time. What is not easy, as all who have held the position know, is to succeed in one.

But John Hennessy is well positioned to pull it off. He is a techie in an institution where techies have often led the way. But he's a fuzzy as well -- just look at his chin. He is articulate in a job where articulateness is, after courage, the primary virtue, and meets the institution's primary need: to be understood.

I need hardly tell an audience that is at least partly local that this particular university at this particular time has a serious need to be better understood by its immediately surrounding community.

Throughout the history of universities there have been tensions between town and gown. In medieval Europe, the source of the trouble was usually university claims of immunity from local political or ecclesiastical control. Then, as now, the university would point, in justification of its claims, to the universality of its mission, as contrasted with the parochialism of more local concerns. Community members are likely to find this argument condescending, especially if both the claims and the justification are expressed in academic-speak, not the language of everyday commonsense. We academics for the most part are no longer speaking Latin, but on many topics we might as well be.

When the university says it must focus as many of its resources as possible upon teaching and research, in pursuit of its global mission, what many of our neighbors hear us saying is: "Stanford exists to serve the world. Your interests and needs are parochial. Therefore leave us alone to do our critically important work!"

The worst of it is that there's some truth in that. Stanford is an institution whose work can, over time, benefit millions of people -- even hundreds of millions. On the campus is an aggregation of highly able faculty and students capable of making major contributions to our understanding of the world economy, Shakespeare's sonnets, global warming, heart disease, arms control and our relationships with one another. There are not very many places in the world where such a body of talent can be found. Once seriously weakened or destroyed, such concentrations of intellectual power are not easily recreated.

To Stanford's critics, struggling with urgent, immediate and very real problems, and perceiving the university as rich, powerful and enormously well connected, for us to talk of such vulnerability seems both fanciful and self-serving. After all, no one is threatening to shut Stanford down, as well-organized groups of people were threatening 30 years ago.

But a university is vulnerable to other things besides explicit threats. Unless it can house both its people and its activities, even the strongest research university can be slowly strangled. Already we have well-documented cases of Stanford's inability to attract people it needs, whether postdoctoral students or established scholars, for lack of affordable housing. And the need for research facilities is as inexorable as it is difficult to predict.

When a department fails to fill an important vacancy, it doesn't shut down. Its deterioration in quality, if such failures persist, only gradually becomes apparent. And the harm done to the university as a whole by a series of such failures is even slower to become evident -- but it's nonetheless real.

Persuading both the public and its elected officials of the underlying fragility of this seemingly very powerful institution is difficult at best. The task is made harder by the natural tendency of the university to brag about its power to do good, even while saying "no" to vocal demands from the surrounding community to do some particular good right here in its own backyard. A touch of humility every so often would be a good thing, as would an admission on the university's part that growth is neither the answer to everything, nor feasible ad infinitum.

But if anyone can speak the language of Silicon Valley, it should be John Hennessy. When a strong appointment is made it often seems that the appointee has spent his or her entire life preparing for the job in question. I'm sure nothing is farther from the truth in John's case. He's not, after all, a masochist. But however little he may have anticipated the fate that has befallen him, John Hennessy brings formidable tools to the task. He'll need them all, and he'll need the rest of us, too. Let this be but the first of many rallies in support of him!