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Remarks by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Academic Council

Following is the prepared text of remarks by university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne for delivery at the annual meeting of the Academic Council on May 6, 2021.

Thank you, Judy, for your report, and thank you for your vigorous leadership of the Senate during this very unusual year.

I especially want to thank you and all the members of the Senate for the huge amount of work you did in an extraordinary number of meetings to tackle so many problems created by the pandemic, even as you continued with the regular business of the Senate.

The depth and breadth of issues you tackled together as a Senate are really unprecedented in living memory. So, thanks to all Senators once again.

We’ll move next to my annual report. I’ll offer my reflections on the year we’ve just been through – and my thoughts on our path ahead.

Following my remarks, Persis will moderate a panel of faculty members who will discuss the accomplishments of our community during this challenging year.

Then we’ll open the session to Q&A, for the panelists as well as for Persis and me. There is a box underneath the livestream video where you can submit your questions anytime during these presentations.

I want to begin by saying, to everyone in our community – thank you.

When the Academic Council met one year ago, we were only two months into the campus closure.

We were all still settling into remote working and teaching. Our students were still finding their way with remote learning.

We were very much in the early days of the crisis.

But we’ve learned a huge amount over the last year. Faculty members have come up with creative ways to enhance remote teaching and connect with students from a distance.

Our staff have helped reimagine university operations from the ground-up, learning new ways of working along the way, whether they’re in-person or remote.

We safely restarted on-campus research operations, with the support of faculty and staff.

We invited our graduate and professional students back to campus last fall.

And finally, this quarter, we were able to bring our juniors and seniors back to campus safely.

This progress has been made possible by the tireless efforts of people across our campus community – staff and faculty who have devoted countless hours to developing processes and protocols to bring our community back safely and to move forward with operations.

I want to offer a special thanks to the many members of the Emergency Operations Center who have worked so hard on this all year, and to Provost Persis Drell and Associate Vice Provost Russell Furr for coordinating their efforts.

Thank you, all.

I want to share an infographic, which represents a variety of different measures illustrating the magnitude of change our university community has experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.

Just look at some of the things our community has done:

  • You’ve taught 9,480 remote classes this academic year.
  • Even as you’ve pushed forward with your existing research programs, earning recognition and accolades along the way, you’ve also pivoted and received more than $100 million in funding for COVID-research, and filed 59 COVID-related inventions.
  • Telemedicine visits soared from 2,800 per month to 60,000 per month, so we’re now doing more telehealth visits each day than we were doing each month before the pandemic.
  • And all of these accomplishments happened as campus access dropped precipitously – illustrated here in the change of ID cards swiped onsite, and in Marguerite ridership, which is just 20% of last year’s volume.

This is just a very limited snapshot of the many things our community has accomplished, and the many ways in which our lives have fundamentally changed over the last year.

One development that’s not shown here is how we’ve broadened access to Stanford research beyond what we could have imagined prior to the pandemic.

Online conferences and events have typically attracted hundreds more attendees than usually attend in person, and in some cases thousands more.

Likewise, Stanford Arts moved content and resources online, making access to the arts broadly available at a time when people both in our community and beyond needed the meaning and comfort that the arts can provide.

In education, in research, in the arts, in telehealth, and in many other areas, the pandemic has shown us the potential to broaden our reach and improve access to many areas of our university.

These are opportunities we can continue to take advantage of and build on in the future.

The slide showed how much Stanford has changed at a macro level – but COVID has deeply affected each of us personally, too.

Some have lost friends and loved ones over the last year. Many more of us have missed personal and professional milestones.

We’re lacking in-person contact with family members, friends, and colleagues.

We have all felt the effects of the pandemic this year.

But while COVID has affected all of us – it has hit some harder than others.

This is true across our country and around the world, where we have seen disparate impacts on different populations, and where COVID has had the effect of further amplifying and accentuating inequities that already existed.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen these disparate impacts and inequities here in our own community as well.

Among our students who have learned remotely over the last year, some have had dedicated workspaces and great broadband, allowing them to more easily attend classes and focus on their work.

But others have been less fortunate. Some of our students have dealt with unreliable internet. Some share workspaces with family members.

Some have had to help support families who have coped with job losses or reduced income this year.

COVID has affected our faculty and staff disparately, too.

Faculty and staff members who have young families, who have contended with remote schooling or have other caretaking responsibilities, have been disproportionately affected by the stresses of the last year. Many female faculty and staff have been especially hard hit.

And pre-tenure faculty are particularly vulnerable to the loss of research time and funding opportunities.

We’ve seen these disparities, and we’ve tried to help mitigate them and to diminish the stress.

For example, we’ve extended the tenure clock, added a post-pandemic research quarter for junior faculty, and expanded leave time for caregiving and wellness.

We’ve also increased financial support for students and families who have been particularly affected by the pandemic.

Measures like these help, but they don’t fully reverse the effects of the pandemic. And there’s no denying that this level of stress takes a toll, and that it has had a very real impact on members of our community.

I know we’ll be feeling these effects for some time to come.

And while I am thankful that we are emerging from the pandemic here, we know that we need to remain vigilant, as many people remain unvaccinated and variants continue to circulate.

I’m also deeply concerned, as I know you are, for the parts of the world where the pandemic continues unabated, including in India and Latin America.

My heart goes out to all the people who are confronting the crisis in those places, and my thoughts are with those of you who have friends and loved ones who are affected.

It has been a hard year.

But in the face of this hardship, as a community we kept going. And at this moment, and in spite of the hardship, I personally am deeply optimistic about our future.

I am proud of how we kept going with our teaching and our research, and in supporting our community and our region.

And, even as we navigated the crisis, as we rebuilt university operations from the ground up, we kept our eyes focused on the future.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, we had laid out a Long-Range Vision that focuses on how Stanford can accelerate its impact across three areas: foundational knowledge, applied solutions, and education.

Throughout the pandemic, the Vision has been our north star. It has provided a framework to help align our resources, strengthen our partnerships, and pivot our work to address the needs of our community, nation, and world in this time of crisis.

The challenges we’ve faced over the last year have proven the value of the work that is already underway.

That is one reason I am optimistic.

A second reason I’m optimistic is that, as we look to the year ahead, our financial position has been improving.

The university faced huge financial challenges over the last year, and as a result had to make tough and painful decisions that affected all of us.

But it is now clear that those decisions also put us on the right course for our future.

Persis will provide more information about our outlook during her budget presentation in a few weeks.

But even more than those two factors – our Long-Range Vision and our improving financial outlook – what makes me optimistic about our future are the things we’ve learned this year about our Stanford community.

As we look back over what we have been through this year, and look ahead to rebuilding, we have a rare opportunity to reflect deeply on the values we hold and on the community that we aspire to be.

As I’ve reflected on these topics, I have found myself inspired and hopeful about the community we can rebuild as we emerge from the pandemic.

At heart, I’m optimistic about our future because of who we are at Stanford.

Who are we? I would like to spend a few minutes sharing my thoughts about five different characteristics of our community that have come to the fore over the last year.

These five characteristics, these attributes, exemplify who we are, and help fuel my optimism about our collective future.

Who are we?

First, we are committed to tackling the world’s great challenges.

Even before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, our researchers were studying the virus, its effects, and developing tests and potential therapies for it.

Dr. Ben Pinsky and his team realized as early as January 2020 that an accurate and readily available diagnostic test for COVID-19 would be crucial.

The team worked around the clock for weeks. By February, Ben stopped going home to San Francisco at night, staying at a hotel near campus to avoid spending time commuting.

This was at the beginning of 2020 – before most people even realized the threat we were facing.

Their efforts paid off. They launched their diagnostic test in early March 2020, at a time when nationwide testing was still extremely limited, and then scaled it rapidly for use across the Bay Area. Their work made Stanford one of the first academic medical centers to launch its own COVID test.

This is Stanford at its best – seeing a problem early; devoting energy, time, and resources to tackling it; and problem-solving at every step along the way until we reach a solution.

And since COVID-19 became a full-blown pandemic, our entire community has been working this way.

At Stanford Medicine, clinicians, researchers, and staff have worked tirelessly for more than a year – caring for patients, educating the community, studying the disease, developing treatments and therapies, and rolling out vaccines.

Outside of medicine, we’ve had researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and other fields working on insights and interventions to improve remote education, to reduce the spread among incarcerated populations, to understand how past pandemics exacerbated disparities and inequities and what steps can be taken to mitigate those effects.

The response across our community has underscored the importance of both of the research themes of our Long-Range Vision, namely:

  • First, supporting fundamental, curiosity-driven research that deepens human knowledge, which is at the heart of so much of what we do at Stanford, and is the essential underpinning of any attempt at application, and
  • Second, accelerating the translation of knowledge to tackle urgent problems facing the world.

This combination of deep scholarship to advance knowledge, paired with the focused and robust application of knowledge to develop solutions, is evident in the exciting research this year of faculty from all fields and from all across the university.

It has also been assisted by support from the Long-Range Vision initiatives – from the Changing Human Experience initiative to the Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute, from the Innovative Medicines Accelerator to the Stanford Impact Labs.

And now, we’re applying this model to another urgent challenge: tackling climate change and ensuring the sustainability of our planet.

One way to think about the importance of this challenge is to compare it to the COVID crisis.

Think of the upheaval, disruption and pain we’ve faced over the last year – and now, think about the additional upheaval, disruption and pain we will experience in the decades to come, if climate change continues unabated.

Climate change has been called “COVID in slow motion.”

Like COVID-19, ensuring the sustainability of our planet requires that we change human behaviors, at the same time as we deploy new technological solutions to tackle the crisis.

And, like COVID-19, climate change is a crisis that transcends boundaries. It is a global challenge, and one that will require the best minds from across disciplines to work together to find solutions.

In recent years, faculty in Stanford’s schools and institutes have made great strides in understanding the science of climate change, sparking discoveries across disciplines, and developing innovative green technologies.

They have laid a strong foundation for a new school focused on climate and sustainability, which I announced at this meeting last year.

The new school will drive sustainability research and scholarship across the sciences and engineering, as well as the social sciences, humanities, law, business and other fields.

An exciting component of the school will be an accelerator, aimed at rapidly translating knowledge into effective policy and technology solutions.

And although ensuring the sustainability of our planet may seem like a daunting task, this COVID year has also shown us what we can achieve when we focus our attention and our resources on the great challenges before us.

That brings me to a second characteristic of who we are that has inspired me this year.

We are committed to creating a learning environment that prepares our students to be engaged citizens and purposeful leaders.

The curricular reforms approved by the Faculty Senate almost exactly one year ago – including changes to make majors more accessible to all students, and a new first-year core requirement – are key steps in this direction.

The new first-year requirement, in particular, addresses one of our most urgent priorities – to prepare students for a life of civic responsibility.

The polarization of the last year, culminating in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, has reinforced how desperately our country needs positive civic participation and a recommitment to our democratic traditions.

And we, at Stanford, have an obligation to do our part to prepare the next generation of leaders for lives of active citizenship.

The Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement – also known as COLLEGE – offers every undergraduate, regardless of major, a forum to think deeply about their role in the community and learn how to engage in reasoned discussion, even about the most contentious topics.

The requirement will ensure that all of our undergraduates have the opportunity to refine their ideas, disagree constructively, and consider challenging ethical and societal problems within a rigorous academic context.

The COLLEGE curriculum is being piloted this year, and the student response has been totally enthusiastic. I can’t wait for it to be implemented in full.

We’re also prioritizing well-being and community engagement as, starting this fall, we roll out the next phase of Res-X, our initiative to refashion our undergraduate residential experience.

We relied on student input in designing Res-X. They’ve helped us create neighborhoods that will center a strong sense of community and promote well-being and personal growth among students.

Along with our Town Center and other community building initiatives, I truly believe Res-X will revolutionize residential learning at Stanford, and foster intellectual engagement across our entire community.

That brings me to a third attribute of who we are that has filled me with hope this year:

We are striving to make the world better – but, just as important, we want to make Stanford better, too.

One of the most striking – and, I think, long-lasting – developments in the last year has been the way that our community has responded to racial injustice.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year, I met with Black student leaders, who shared their personal experiences with racism on our campus and their ideas for how Stanford needs to change.

I was then, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their commitment to making our community better, even in the midst of their own pain and sorrow over the acts of injustice we have witnessed time and again in this country.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve also heard from faculty, staff, and alumni who have shared their personal experiences with racism and their ideas for meaningful reform.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who has shared their personal experiences with me, and with other members of campus leadership.

Your ideas and recommendations have informed our way forward.

Last June, we announced efforts to accelerate our research and teaching to advance a more just society, and, at the same time, to shine a spotlight on Stanford itself, and counter racism within our own community.

These efforts include establishing the Community Board on Public Safety, creating the IDEAL Fellows program, launching the Faculty cluster hire, and much more.

Matt Snipp will say more about these initiatives during his panel presentation, so I won’t go into detail about them now.

But I want to express how deeply grateful I am for the commitment I’ve seen across our entire community for advancing racial justice on our campus.

I also want to reaffirm my own dedication to this work. It matters deeply to me that every student, and every member of our faculty and staff, feel safe and welcome at our university.

It’s central to our values. It’s who we are as a university.

We haven’t always gotten it right. But I am committed to pushing hard to ensure that we continue to make progress.

My fourth point about who we are is this:

We are a community that believes in everyone having a voice.

Over the last year, the faculty senate has had deep and meaningful discussions about Stanford’s values and what our university stands for.

As our Senate Chair, Professor Goldstein, mentioned a few minutes ago, these have included robust and principled conversations about the meaning of academic freedom and the responsibilities that it entails.

Each time I’ve sat in on these discussions, many passionate, I’ve come away with an appreciation for the thoughtfulness that faculty members bring to all sides of this issue.

These conversations, which continue, aren’t easy. But I’m grateful that we’re having them, because academic freedom is at the very heart of the academic life of our university.

At its most fundamental, the university’s mission is to enable truth-seeking.

Because of that, one of our bedrock functions is to provide space for intellectual diversity and for robust, vigorous debate.

We all know that getting at the truth requires both deep domain expertise and an openness to different points of view, to being challenged.

Providing an environment here are Stanford where new and different ideas can develop, face critique, and strengthen and flourish in the face of challenge, is vital to the search for the truth.

We also need to provide this space for our students. I’ve already mentioned how critical it is that we empower them to engage in respectful disagreement and a fact-based approach to debate.

It’s crucial that all members of our community feel free to express their views and tackle areas of scholarship they think are important.

And although we can’t mandate respectful disagreement, we can strive to model it in our community.

No one did so better than George Shultz, who passed away in February.

George was a titan of public policy and world affairs, as well as a dedicated scholar and educator. He served three presidents and played a transformative role in American economic and foreign policy in the late 20th century.

His approach to tackling problems was to bring together people who often had very different views and persuasions, in an attempt to develop policy solutions that could elicit wide support.

He was a remarkable bridge builder. That was part of his genius. And he was enormously effective, helping to ease tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, paving the way for the end of the Cold War.

He serves as an example of what we can achieve when we approach our colleagues in a spirit of openness, rather than shutting out opposing views.

Finally, as I reflect on who we are, and how this community has given me reason for optimism after a year of crisis, I am also inspired by the fact that we are resilient and bold – a community that is always looking forward.

That resilience and boldness go back to our very founding, and the audacity of establishing this university on the furthest edge of the western frontier.

I’m always drawn back to something Jane Stanford said, addressing the Board of Trustees in 1904: “Let us not be afraid to outgrow old thoughts and ways, and dare to think on new lines.”

That set the tone for our university. And since then, it has been a part of our very DNA to try bold new ideas, to collaborate in new ways, and to push the very boundaries of knowledge.

Our boldness and optimism have seen us through tough times before. With every generation, students and scholars have taken on great challenges, from war, to disease, to natural disasters.

In the face of difficulty and hardship, they’ve found solutions that have made our world better.

That’s true of today’s Stanford, too.

From our COVID response to revolutionizing the undergraduate experience, and from our progress in racial justice to navigating the complexities of academic freedom, I’ve mentioned just a few of our community’s remarkable accomplishments during this incredibly difficult year. And I know that our panel has more examples to share.

As we emerge from this dark time, with our boldness of spirit, and with our Long-Range Vision to chart our course, I truly believe that our university’s best days are ahead.

And as I look to the future, I see so much to look forward to.

But what I’m most excited about is the opportunity to reconnect our fragmented community.

In this COVID year all of us have experienced that loss of connectivity with our fellow faculty, students, and staff.

Sometimes we’ve been able to compensate partially, but not fully.

For example, I’ve tried to maintain interactions with faculty by meeting hundreds of faculty members over the year by Zoom in groups of 8-10 – including new faculty members who arrived in the past year, as well as Faculty Senators, Department Chairs and Institute Directors, Senior Associate Deans, and others.

These events have been so valuable and enriching – they have enabled me to meet with fascinating colleagues and to hear important suggestions and concerns.

But my experience has nonetheless been, I expect, the same as yours: These remote meetings are just no substitute for the in-person experience that we all yearn for, that allow for a more spontaneous interaction and a fuller connection.

Just how important in person interactions are for me was further driven home recently, in two different settings.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interact with a group of frosh while out on campus.

As they approached me, their excitement was palpable. They were so eager to tell me about the courses they were taking, their favorite spots on campus, and, of course, what the year had been like for them, as frosh during this unusual time.

Above all, they told me, what they are so looking forward to is being able to interact in person with fellow students and faculty.

For me too, it was a poignant reminder of how much I’ve missed in-person interactions with our students this year – from visiting frosh dorms to the chance encounters I have with students on campus every day in normal times.

Our campus buzzes with energy when our students are here, and I can’t wait to have them all back with us once again.

The importance for me of interpersonal interactions was also brought home last weekend, when Mary and I, along with several hundred people from our campus and neighboring community, attended movie night at Frost, one of the in-person and socially distanced events that Stanford Live has organized, following the relaxation of rules state- and county-wide.

The movie was fun, but what was most gratifying to me were the hellos, the nods of acknowledgement, the casual chats with some people we knew, as well as with perfect strangers – and the sense that, despite the limitations still required by public safety rules, we are well on our way to reconnecting fully as a community.

And that is something to celebrate.

As spring advances and gives way to summer and there is new growth all around us, I’m excited and hopeful for the renewal and revitalization of our community, too.

We know it will require work to restart and reintegrate and get fully back on track, but that is a challenge that I think we all look forward to.

And so, as I think back on everything we have accomplished over the past year, I earnestly believe that our community will emerge from the pandemic stronger.

We have all been through so much.

But we also now have deep and firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to support one another through hard times, and we have been reminded of how much we cherish and are enriched by each other’s company, in person.

We understand better than ever what we need to do to work together to advance the collective good and to improve our own community.

And with everything we’ve achieved in the last year, just imagine what we can achieve when we are all together once again.

With that, I’d like to turn it over to Persis, for our panel of faculty leaders who will offer updates on accomplishments across the university.

Closing remarks

Thank you, all, for your questions, and for joining us today.

Thank you to Judy, Persis, Bonnie, Mary Beth, Tim, and Matt, for your contributions to the session.

The panel did a beautiful job of highlighting the accomplishments of our community over the last year.

Their examples emphasize who we are – and the many ways this community has been bold and resilient throughout a difficult year.

These characteristics will continue to serve us, as we emerge from the pandemic and work to renew and reconnect our community.

And to all of you who joined us today: Thank you for everything you’ve achieved this past year. Your hard work and dedication give me great hope and inspiration for brighter days ahead.

The meeting is adjourned.