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Stanford Report, April 24, 2002

Text of Hennessy's speech: 'Going Forward: The Challenges Ahead After A Year of Change'

In his State of the University address to the Academic Council Thursday, President John Hennessy said Stanford is uniquely positioned to engage in multidisciplinary efforts in research and teaching. His speech was followed by a panel discussion in which Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences; James Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering; and Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine, discussed various models that will allow for crossing disciplinary lines.

Good afternoon and welcome. I am pleased to see so many of you here today. This has been a year of tremendous challenge -- framed by the tragic events of Sept. 11 -- but also a year of tremendous accomplishment. Today, I would like to briefly review how we responded to Sept. 11 and the progress made on other important issues. I will then turn my attention to what I, and many of our colleagues, have come to believe is one of Stanford's biggest opportunities: expanding the role of multidisciplinary research and teaching. After my remarks, I have invited Deans Sharon Long, Philip Pizzo and James Plummer to join me in a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges in this area.

Response to Sept. 11

The events of Sept. 11 changed all our lives and have affected many aspects of the university this year. Just 10 days after the 11th, we began the academic year by welcoming our newest students and making every effort to make them feel safe and secure. As these new members of our academic community traveled from around the country and the world to our campus, many were obviously nervous and worried, both about traveling and about being so far from home. The Stanford tradition of a warm and friendly welcome eased the concerns of both students and parents, and I would like to thank all the faculty, staff and students who helped make the start of this year successful.

Of course, we were also concerned about the existing members of the Stanford community. Immediately after the 11th and in the following weeks, faculty, staff and students reached out to individuals at Stanford who worried that they might be targets of vengeance because of their religious beliefs or national origin. Whether it has been through supportive e-mails or dorm discussions or just a friendly smile, I have been proud of how the Stanford community has responded to these difficult circumstances.

As befits an educational institution, many students turned to classes, special seminars and similar opportunities in a quest to understand how this tragedy could have happened and how it might be prevented in the future. Record enrollments in classes such as International Politics and Security and Technology reinforced our mission to engage in the search for knowledge and understanding. I thank all my faculty colleagues who made extraordinary efforts to accommodate students in oversubscribed classes or who contributed to special seminars and panels, which helped us become better educated about the issues.

Numerous faculty also have responded to calls from the Alumni Association, the press or our government to discuss what happened and why, how such tragedies could be prevented in the future, or the complex tradeoffs between security and civil liberties.

In several community memorial services, we also honored those who lost their lives in the tragedy and offered comfort to those who lost a friend or family member. Five Stanford alumni were killed in the terrorist attacks. Working with family members of the alumni, five scholarships were created. These scholarships represent our shared belief that education can heal and transform, as well as our hope that the students who are supported by these gifts will contribute to peace and justice in our world.

In our variety of responses, members of the Stanford community displayed their compassion and concern for others and their willingness to assume a leadership role in addressing these complex and challenging issues. I have always been proud to be a member of the Stanford community, but never more so than this year.

Other highlights of the year

Although the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the campus response have shaped the year, there have been many other notable events since the last Academic Council meeting in March 2001.

On May 2, 2001, the Hewlett Foundation awarded $400 million to Stanford -- $300 million for the School of Humanities and Sciences and $100 million for the Campaign for Undergraduate Education. The School of Humanities and Sciences is at the heart of our university, and the Hewlett gift, which is to be used to encourage gifts to the endowment of the school, will play a key role in securing financial stability for our largest school. Already, 15 new professorships have been committed using matching funds from the Hewlett Foundation. We are deeply appreciative of the Hewlett Foundation's extraordinary generosity and its faith in Stanford and our mission.

Over the summer, construction on Building 160 revealed a time capsule left by Jane Stanford in 1898. The public was encouraged to join us for the opening of the time capsule during the Founders' Day celebrations, which served as the conclusion for the first-ever Community Day on April 7. Community Day celebrated many aspects of Stanford and featured activities such as music, tours, art exhibits, athletic events, faculty lectures, a children's carnival, research displays and a health fair. We estimate that more than 6,000 people attended the event and had the opportunity to learn about the vast array of activities going on in our university, or simply to enjoy a sunny day on our beautiful campus. I want to extend a special thanks to the many staff and student volunteers who helped make Community Day a wonderful experience for our visitors.

At the last Academic Council meeting, I mentioned the daunting financial hurdles to be overcome in the Stanford Medical Center. Although we will continue to face challenges, I am happy to announce that we have made significant progress. Under the leadership of Dean Pizzo; Chris Dawes, CEO of the Packard Children's Hospital; and Michael Petersen, the interim CEO of the Stanford Hospital, both hospitals have in the past few months been ahead of budget and, if the improvements can be sustained, will finish the year with much better performance than we anticipated. These results were achieved through a valiant effort by the leadership, faculty and staff of our hospitals, which I deeply appreciate. With the arrival of a permanent CEO, Martha Marsh, for the Stanford Hospital and Clinics, we are cautiously optimistic that we can continue to make progress on the difficult challenges facing academic medical centers nationwide.

An alumnus recently asked me what were some of the most important challenges facing higher education in general. On that list, I placed the ongoing goal of strengthening gender and ethnic diversity of the faculty. As you may recall, at one of the last senate meetings of the academic year, the provost and I announced a 10-point initiative aimed at improving the diversity of our faculty. Since that meeting, the trustees have endorsed our 10-point initiative, and we have implemented two important parts of this plan. First, we have added a new Provost's Advisory Committee on the Status of Women Faculty, which is chaired by Deborah Rhode. This committee has three working subcommittees:

  • a subcommittee on compensation, resources and recognition, chaired by Bob Weisberg;
  • a subcommittee on quality of life, chaired by Cecilia Ridgeway; and
  • a subcommittee on recruitment, promotion and retention, chaired by Phyllis Dennery.

We also have established the new Diversity Action Council, chaired by Renato Rosaldo, which has four committees:

  • a committee on faculty diversity, chaired by Claude Steele;
  • a committee on graduate student and postdoctoral fellow diversity, chaired by Al Camarillo;
  • a committee on undergraduate student diversity, chaired by David Palumbo-Liu; and
  • a committee on staff diversity, chaired by LaDoris Cordell.

The Provost and I look forward to working with these committees to make continued progress toward our goal of building a more diverse intellectual community.

In addition to these efforts on campus, we have renewed our commitment to engaging our diverse alumni population. As you may recall, in the early 1990s Gerhard Casper formed a task force on minority alumni relations, chaired by Harvard Law School professor and former Stanford trustee Charles Ogletree. Among other things, its work was instrumental in urging the university to build the new Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center as well as to create the new Alumni Volunteer Clearinghouse. Recently, I convened the task force again, and I am grateful that Professor Ogletree once again has agreed to lead this important effort. Over the next two years the task force will work to find ways to get minority alumni -- and, by extension, all alumni -- more actively involved in the work and life of the university.

As you all know, this past fall we planned to begin a series of Think Again events to share our recent enhancements in undergraduate education with alumni across the country and to introduce the Campaign for Undergraduate Education. In light of the events of early September, we thought a great deal about how to proceed. The first two events were immediately postponed. After much internal discussion, we decided to go forward.

We have now completed eight of the 12 scheduled Think Again events, and the response by our alumni has been overwhelming, with the attendance often exceeding capacity. In each city, Think Again begins with three students talking about their individual experiences, usually in undergraduate research or independent study. This panel is followed by a series of faculty-led seminars and panels that offer our alumni the opportunity to experience a slice of what it is like to be a current undergraduate at Stanford. The comments of the participants range from "I wish I were back in school" to "Thank goodness I went to Stanford when I did, because I certainly couldn't get in now!" I am sure we are accomplishing our goal of demonstrating to our alumni that Stanford is offering today's undergraduates an experience that is unsurpassed by any other educational institution. I want to extend my personal thanks to the faculty, students, staff and volunteers who have participated in these events, many of whom are already in New York preparing for our ninth event on Saturday. It is their dedication that has made this tour such a resounding success.

Given the downturn in the economy and the events of Sept. 11, many people have wondered whether our campaign goal of $1 billion was too ambitious. Today -- less than two years into our five-year campaign -- I am delighted to tell you that we have already received pledges for more than $730 million. We are making solid progress on every goal of our campaign, from endowing the recent enhancements to the undergraduate curriculum to the critical goal of adding $300 million in endowment for undergraduate financial aid.

Looking forward

In my inauguration speech on Oct. 20, 2000, I talked about three major academic opportunities and challenges for Stanford. The first opportunity was to continue our innovations in undergraduate education, especially by increasing the possibilities for undergraduates to participate in research and independent study. Under John Bravman's leadership, we have dramatically expanded such opportunities, so that this year the university will support over 1,500 students engaged in such programs.

A second area I discussed was continuing to build up the quality of our departments in the arts and humanities. The Hewlett gift provides the financial base to undertake these efforts, and the development of an exciting new plan for the foreign language and literature departments was an important first step for this critical segment of the humanities. Furthermore, additional planning efforts throughout the school are in progress under Dean Long's leadership. Obviously, strengthening as broad and fundamental an area as the arts and humanities is a project that will take a number of years, but one in which we continue to make progress.

The third academic opportunity I identified at my inauguration was the strengthening of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarship. This is the final topic I want to discuss today, and it will also be the focus of our panel of deans this afternoon.

To start, one should ask: What factors motivate an increased focus on multidisciplinary research and teaching? I believe that a major motivation is the need to explore large-scale, complex problems that cannot be addressed with knowledge and expertise from only a single discipline. A few examples of areas that require collaboration among multiple disciplines [follow]:

  • Issues in environmental studies ranging from the use of water resources to species conservation to the environmentally sensitive production and use of energy.
  • Fundamental research in the biosciences that, at the molecular level, requires collaborations among biologists, physicists and chemists.

• Comparative international studies, which require a broad understanding of the history, social norms and cultural traditions of a nation, to explore and understand the current political, legal and economic events in that country.

  • Translational biomedical research, which may require collaboration from the basic sciences, from engineering and clinical medicine, to deliver new methods to treat human health problems.

I am not implying, of course, that either the multidisciplinary nature of these areas is revolutionary or that these are the only areas that can benefit from cross-disciplinary collaborations. It does seem clear to me, however, that the sheer scale and complexity of these problems require a multidisciplinary approach. It is the only truly effective way to make substantial progress toward their solutions.

Multidisciplinary research programs also lead to graduate training and research opportunities that help develop scholars whose background and expertise are quite unique. Similarly, such endeavors will lead to new courses that build on material from different disciplines. Sometimes the mixing and fusing of disciplines can lead to the creation of a sustained effort that outlives the initial collaboration, and sometimes these collaborations lead to new degree programs. We have seen all of these mechanisms at work over the years at Stanford, which leads to the next logical question.

If such multidisciplinary research and teaching efforts are on the rise, how are we as a university positioned to take advantage of them? My reply is: "superbly well." Such activity plays to several fundamental strengths of Stanford. First, we have always encouraged collaboration across departmental and even school boundaries. Second, we have the significant advantage of breadth, which allows us to form multidisciplinary teams spanning a wide variety of disciplines. To take an example, in the area of carbon dioxide management, a problem of increasing importance to the world, we have strengths in plant biology, ecology, geosciences, environmental engineering, law, economics and public policy. Third, we have geographical compactness: Stanford's great range of disciplines and professional schools are clustered on one campus within a manageable distance of one another, which promotes both formal and informal collaboration.

I believe that these three characteristics provide us with fundamental advantages in what seems to be a much more multidisciplinary environment for teaching and research.

I mentioned several potential areas of focus earlier, and we have several efforts under way.

As you all are aware, faculty in the Medical School, Engineering, and Humanities and Sciences have been working to create a multidisciplinary initiative in the biosciences and bioengineering. This effort includes new cross-disciplinary collaborations in a number of areas including a new bioengineering department, which will be built as a joint effort between the schools of Medicine and Engineering. Other existing joint programs will be strengthened by this activity, including the programs in biophysics and the neurosciences. The range of activities under this multidisciplinary umbrella is likely to be quite large. Thus, although the Clark Center will serve as a hub for these programs, it will contain only a fraction of these activities. I have asked Dean Pizzo to speak about the opportunities and challenges in this area.

Another area that provides unique opportunities, and one where we have a growing collaboration, is environment and energy. Such a joint activity would build on the existing strengths and activities in the Department of Biological Sciences, the School of Earth Sciences, the School of Engineering, and in areas of policy, represented by the Institute for International Studies and activities in the Department of Economics, among others. An emphasis on effective use of natural resources -- and particularly, on the problem of environmentally sensitive energy production -- offers opportunities to bring Stanford's existing strengths to bear on problems of international importance. I have asked Dean Plummer to talk about the opportunities and challenges in this area.

Of course, a comprehensive effort to increase the resources we devote to multidisciplinary research and teaching creates several challenges and pitfalls. Some of the most significant challenges arise from a disconnect between interdisciplinary initiatives and the existing structure of schools and departments, which relies on a disciplinary model to organize teaching, research, and the allocation of resources. Engaging in cross-departmental, and cross-school, research and teaching will require that we are flexible and adaptive so that the very structure of the institution does not become a stumbling block. Stanford's faculty members are known for their ability to collaborate across such boundaries. All of us -- the Provost, the Deans, and I -- are determined that institutional barriers will not become stumbling blocks to these initiatives.

Perhaps the biggest concern raised by an increase in multidisciplinary activities is that it may lead to an inevitable weakening of the disciplines. This conclusion seems to assume, however, that faculty and students will be diverted out of the core disciplines into new areas that have less intellectual depth and long-term impact. I do not subscribe to the necessity of this conclusion or the inevitability of this process. Instead, I believe our focus must be on those areas where an in-depth research program consisting of faculty and students from multiple disciplines can produce new knowledge and new solutions. Multidisciplinary projects can and should be springboards for fundamental disciplinary advances. We must seek out opportunities to create alliances of disciplinary experts who share a broad vision and a willingness to collaborate across their disciplinary boundaries, rather than individuals whose breadth comes at the sacrifice of in-depth knowledge of any one discipline.

Although I am optimistic that we can overcome the organizational hurdles to such multidisciplinary activities and find a way to build activities that enhance rather than diminish our core strengths, I freely admit that there are many challenges and dangers in pursuing such a direction. Although Stanford has not let such fears determine its course in the past, it is wise to recognize and assess these dangers carefully. I have asked Dean Long, whose school has extensive experience in interdisciplinary programs, to share her insights on these challenges.


This has been a trying -- but ultimately rewarding -- year. Across the university, our faculty, our staff, and our students have demonstrated a deep commitment to the university -- and each other -- that has served us extremely well. Our alumni have been equally supportive. On behalf of the current and future members of the Stanford family, I thank you all for your efforts and commitment. I am incredibly optimistic about the future of our university. We have an outstanding faculty and staff. We attract incredibly talented students at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The leadership within the schools and departments is strong and retains the pioneering characteristic that has served Stanford so well. And our alumni are intensely proud of their university, just as the university takes great pride in them.

Thank you for your attention this afternoon.