Inauguration address by President Richard Saller
President Richard Saller delivered these remarks at his inauguration as Stanford’s 12th President on Oct. 16, 2023.
I want to thank the trustees for the extraordinary, and unexpected, honor of appointment as Stanford University’s 12th president. I am also grateful to all of you for taking time for this ceremony, and to my predecessors in Building 10, the six presidents and provosts who bequeathed a university of world-leading excellence: Gerhard and Condi, John and John, Marc and Persis. Since the announcement of the appointment, I have received from faculty colleagues, trustees, and alumni good wishes and offers of support. That support will be most welcome in the coming year.
I want to preface this brief address with an acknowledgment of the soul-wrenching tragedy of the past nine days. This address with its optimism was composed before those events. I am not oblivious to the pain, but continue to be optimistic about Stanford University’s positive potential in the long term. So here is what I planned to say:
There is some irony in appointing a Roman historian as president of Stanford, a university famous for its forward-looking innovation, but I believe that history provides a valuable perspective and a sense of our trajectory. So let me start with a few words about the Romans. They ruled a Mediterranean empire of 50 million people for more than six centuries. Over that vast time span, they had virtually no innovative breakthroughs in technology to show for it. They had no universities to nurture research, no major advances in mathematics, an educational curriculum that has been characterized as “frozen” for a millennium, and as a result no sustainable economic growth. When the elder Pliny compiled the first western encyclopedia in the 70s of the Common Era, he listed 136 great inventors: the only Roman on the list was credited with the innovation of “daily shaving.”
As a result of this minimal innovation and economic growth, the imperial government’s budget of the Roman Empire at its height was about one-tenth the size of the current Stanford University budget as measured in tons of silver or bushels of wheat.
That contrast says something important about both the Roman Empire and Stanford. Stanford is perhaps the leading university in the world in discovery and innovation. Today the budget of Stanford and its hospitals is larger than the budgets of 13 states. That is one of the reasons for asserting that Stanford is a force in the world, and it must be a force for good.
For the university’s impact to be positive, in my view, it should be grounded in our fundamental mission, which I take to be excellence with integrity in education, research, and clinical care. By “integrity” here I mean education and research done with both high ethical and scientific standards, and deserving of trust. That sounds simple and straightforward, but in the current cultural, social, and economic context it is a challenge. Even as universities have become more and more influential in our society, economy, culture, and biological well-being, they have attracted more and more scrutiny and criticism. The national news media routinely carry stories about a culture of intolerance on college campuses, failure to comply with conflict of interest and commitment policies, or research misconduct, in ways that diminish the trust in higher education, and of course the more prominent the institution the more likely it is to feature in the stories. That puts Stanford squarely in the spotlight.
The importance of integrity in Stanford education has been increasingly recognized at all levels. The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society offers a Minor in Ethics and Technology. The School of Engineering is searching for a professor of ethics and engineering. The Graduate School of Business includes, as a standard component of its first year, a course entitled “Leading with Values.” And undergraduates must take a course in ethical reasoning, a requirement that can now be satisfied by the new COLLEGE course “Citizenship in the 21st century.” As a humanist, I believe that courses on ethics are just one of the ways that philosophy, literature, the arts, and history can help our students to find meaning and value of their lives.
We should not insist or expect that the ethics courses will instill a consensus about values among our students; rather, the aim is to sensitize the whole community about the critical need for ethical reflection. Our differences will inevitably lead to debate, sometimes heated. This is nothing new. From its foundation moral philosophy in Europe has generated fierce disagreements. In 399 BCE a jury of Athenian citizens condemned Socrates, the founder of moral philosophy in the west, to drink hemlock – a death penalty for corrupting the Athenian youth by his persistent questioning about the nature of justice. For not dissimilar reasons but with less deadly consequences, universities today are criticized for teaching students to question conventional values. It is crucial that the university protect the academic freedom to allow for conflicting views and productive debate. Despite the criticism and doubts, history seems to me to justify the optimism of President Wallace Sterling in his inaugural address in 1949: “Education has enabled [humans] to take the measure of many things. Its pre-eminent task today is to enable [humanity] to take [its] own measure – [its] own moral measure and the moral measure of the society of which [we] are a part.”
As for research, I am confident that the overwhelming majority of the work done by our faculty and students is done with integrity and is making remarkable contributions to the well-being of our own community and of humankind at home and abroad. Let me point to just a few striking examples from different fields.
Dr. Joseph Woo, professor and chair of cardiothoracic surgery, and his team are doing outstanding work, starting with basic science and engineering research aimed at developing new therapies, new medical devices, and new surgical techniques in the in vitro or ex vivo setting. One stunning example of their success is the report last spring that for the first time a donor heart was transported and then transplanted all the while still beating, leading to a successful outcome in the recipient. Surgeons at Stanford Medicine believe the new technique, which has now been performed on six patients, will improve health outcomes for recipients and boost the pool of available organs.
At the other end of campus, Daniel Ho, professor of law and political science, and associate director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, has used AI technology to demonstrate how the Internal Revenue Service’s policy of auditing the earned income tax credit led to a disproportionate auditing of low- to moderate-income filers. As a result, the IRS is now shifting how it examines tax returns of lower earners as part of its broader effort to make their enforcement more fair. That is a powerful outcome.
Or in the Woods Institute, a part of our new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Gretchen Daily, Bing Professor of Biology, has led The Natural Capital Project, which aims to improve the well-being of all by motivating greater investment in natural capital. Her work has had an impact, for example, on policies to improve flood control and sandstorm mitigation in China.
These are just three examples that would have to be multiplied hundreds of times to capture Stanford’s contributions to humanity. All three illustrate one of our university’s signature features – that is, the value of interdisciplinary research on a campus that is unique in having seven schools with world-leading faculty on the same footprint.
The positive impact relies fundamentally on the integrity of the research, and also on Stanford’s reputation for integrity. As Dr. Mary Leonard, chair of pediatrics, has recently emphasized, our reputation for integrity in clinical care is essential to earn the trust of the outside world. She wrote: “To ensure that the benefits of these advances [in medical research] are equitably distributed and realized, it is essential that we rigorously maintain integrity in the discovery process and that physicians and public health officials skillfully communicate findings in a manner that recognizes the information needs of a diverse public.”
This communication is not a trivial task. We live in a time of great social distrust and with a sense that things are morally awry. Our reputation for integrity and the trust people place in our research and clinical care are seriously threatened in an environment where trust in all institutions is in decline. One of the clearest illustrations of the difficult challenge of communication, to my mind, is Theranos. That fraud continues to appear in a stream of news reports, often with the Stanford name attached. Meanwhile, Dr. Joseph Woo’s discovery of a successful technique to transport and transplant a beating heart has received no attention from the national press as far as I can see. In the coming year, University Communications and I will work together to increase the spotlight on the powerful positive impact of Stanford research with integrity. By various metrics Stanford is a world leader in research; we and MIT can boast more Nobel prizes since 2000 than any other university; we need to do a forceful job to communicate what we do so well in research and also what we do well in teaching.
Let me end by returning to where I began, the Roman Empire. Historians have enumerated more than 200 causes for the fall of the empire, from lead poisoning, to moral degeneration, to the onslaught of German tribes. My own view is that a major part of the explanation must be that Rome did not have the institutions to generate a continuing flow of new knowledge and breakthrough technology to improve well-being and to fuel sustainable economic growth. Today research universities serve just that function in their discovery and education. That is why it is a true honor to be chosen to serve as president of the foremost research university in the world. I commit to try to earn the trust of the community.