At its Oct. 13-15 meeting, Stanford’s Board of Trustees heard an annual report from President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, discussed the university’s research ecosystem and heard a presentation on sustainability solutions from the dean of the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.

Trustees also discussed investment responsibility, received a briefing on the 2019 AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct at Stanford, and heard an update on the university’s application for a General Use Permit. They also honored departing trustee Ram Shriram.

Jeffrey S. Raikes, chair of the board, led the board meeting, which was the first of the 2019-2020 academic year.

Report by President Tessier-Lavigne

In his annual report to the board, Tessier-Lavigne reviewed Stanford’s accomplishments of the last academic year and also looked forward, in particular through the lens of the university vision that has been developed through the long-range planning process.

The vision, which Tessier-Lavigne launched last spring, involves a set of initiatives that are now in various stages of development in the schools and across the campus.

The president summarized the vision with the quote: “Fueled by optimism, ingenuity and a sense of responsibility, we seek to have a meaningful impact on the world.”

“I like that framing of the vision because it both sets a tone of where Stanford is going, but also links back to the original vision that Jane Stanford had for the university,” Raikes said. “He articulated how one piece of the vision has to do with supporting the university community because that is obviously foundational to the vision, but a key part, of course, is the academic vision – how we see research and teaching evolving in the coming years.”

Raikes said Tessier-Lavigne framed the academic vision with two very important themes: Accelerating Impact and Transforming Education.

Under the Accelerating Impact theme, the university has initiatives focused on empowering discovery and creativity; accelerating solutions for our planet, our health and society; and embedding ethics in innovation.

Under Transforming Education, the university has initiatives focused on renewing liberal education at Stanford and advancing the science of learning and development for all students, both here at Stanford and in the broader world.

“We continue to be excited about the vision of accelerating impact and transforming education,” Raikes said. “The Board of Trustees will be engaged on an ongoing basis, both as the initiatives are being built out and also as we look ahead to a campaign that will raise the financial resources to support a number of them.”

Research ecosystem at Stanford

Trustees heard two presentations on the university’s research ecosystem.

As part of his presentation, Tessier-Lavigne underscored the importance of investing in research and in mobilizing the government, the private sector and the academy to continue advancing knowledge and innovation. He also underscored the importance of the international exchange of people and ideas in the development of new knowledge, and the importance of the international members of the Stanford community.

Trustees also heard a report from Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research, who elaborated on those themes in her presentation. She provided an overview of the scope of the research ecosystem at Stanford, how it’s organized and what she sees as the university’s opportunities.

Moler noted that Stanford faculty continue to be very competitive for funding from external resources.

Jeffrey S. Raikes

Jeffrey S. Raikes, chair of the Board of Trustees (Image credit: Aaron Kehoe)

“Stanford has a very strong tradition of research collaboration across departments in interdisciplinary activity,” Raikes said. “But one of the points Kam made was that to really address some of the key questions of our time, we’re going to have to have even larger, more diverse and more flexible research teams.”

Moler also emphasized the importance of weaving data science into the university’s fabric by providing the tools and skills for data-driven research, because scholars in virtually every field today are using data and data science in ways that were never before thought possible. An important part of the university’s long-range vision is providing the flexible resources and platforms that Stanford’s scholars need, she told the board.

Moler emphasized that over the last 20 years, Stanford has lowered barriers across organizations by creating institutes and other opportunities to collaborate. She told trustees that Stanford can further transform its research ecosystem by lowering the barriers for individuals to collaborate with each other, and to access the state-of-the-art resources that they need.

“It was a great presentation that really helped all of the trustees get a strong sense of the research ecosystem,” Raikes said.

Sustainability solutions

Stephan Graham, dean of Stanford Earth, told trustees that Stanford faculty are developing an approach to accelerating solutions for sustainability that emphasizes both the basic knowledge needed for fundamental advances, as well as “action pathways” with partners to get those solutions out into the world.

He also told trustees that Stanford envisions sustainability as a vibrant thread that runs through each student’s time at Stanford – in the curriculum and in the campus experience.

While some of the research is long term in nature, Raikes emphasized that Stanford faculty are committed to accelerating efforts in the short term.

Graham discussed some of the areas where Stanford faculty believe they can tackle fundamental scientific advances that can then be applied at scale around the world:

  • New zero-emissions energy solutions, to limit the amount of carbon we put in the air and help limit global temperature rise
  • New data-driven adaptation and resilience strategies to help communities adapt to the climate change we are already experiencing
  • A new climate simulator research endeavor to anticipate future changes to the ecosystem, impacts on agriculture, and ways to ensure sufficient crop yields and food production into the future
  • New efforts to create an information decision-making platform for sustainability, building on the work of the Natural Capital Project, which has pioneered the development of a universal approach to putting a price tag on nature. The approach helps developers and urban planners financially value the environmental assets as they design new cities and build rural-area infrastructure.

Graham and the trustees also discussed how to more effectively bring all of Stanford’s assets to bear on the problem, including  faculty, laboratories, shared facilities, graduate students, research projects and undergraduate students.

“There was a strong round of applause from the trustees as we heard about these exciting efforts which are critical to our planet,” Raikes said.

In a new video, Stanford Climate Solutions, faculty describe how they are looking at climate change from multiple angles to limit impacts and to adapt when necessary.

Investment responsibility

Raikes said the board’s Special Committee on Investment Responsibility has set up a task force to consider the request for review from Fossil Free Stanford, a student organization, to divest from oil and gas companies.

The task force, consisting of several members of the special committee, will engage with students involved in Fossil Free Stanford and others in the university community to listen and to understand the underpinning of the divestment proposal more deeply.

The special committee is proceeding based on the new Ethical Investment Framework issued by Stanford Management Company (SMC) and an updated Statement on Investment Responsibility, which were both approved by the board last year.

Raikes said the task force will take steps to reach out to students and to the Stanford community during fall quarter.

AAU Climate Survey

Raikes said trustees received a briefing from Provost Persis Drell and Brian Cook, director of assessment and program evaluation in the Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support at Stanford, on the results of the Association of American Universities (AAU) 2019 Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct at Stanford, which was released Oct. 15.

“I want to echo what Provost Persis Drell said, which is the survey clearly indicates that we and other universities have a long way to go in creating the kind of campus culture that we aspire to have at Stanford,” Raikes said. “Sexual assault and sexual harassment need urgent attention, and they need the attention of both the institution and everyone – as individuals – in the university community.”

Drell also outlined some of the initial action steps the university will take to address the critical issues identified in the report. She also identified the steps in an Oct. 15 letter to the Stanford community.

“We certainly can’t be satisfied with our past efforts, and we can’t rely on any single effort to make a difference,” Raikes said. “It’s going to be many things together that are going to help us make progress. It’s a very, very important issue and I was very pleased that it was a very open and transparent discussion on the things that need to be improved.”

General Use Permit

Trustees also received a briefing on Stanford’s application for a General Use Permit, which would govern land use on Stanford’s lands in unincorporated Santa Clara County over roughly the next two decades.

The proposed permit includes provisions for new academic facilities, provisions for new housing and measures that are important to neighboring communities, including traffic mitigation and environmental conservation. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors recently began holding hearings on the permit application.

Raikes said Stanford leadership has put together a responsible plan for gradual development over the next 20 years that supports the university’s academic mission and adds much-needed housing.

“We’re hopeful for a positive resolution that advances our academic mission and is also good for the people and communities of this region,” he said.

Departing trustee honored

The trustees honored board member Ram Shriram, who is departing after 10 years of service on the board, with a dinner recognizing his generosity and service.

Raikes said that Shriram has served on a range of advisory boards and councils across the university. He was also involved in the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program from the outset, and he and his wife, Vijay, endowed the program’s directorship. Raikes noted that the Shriram Center for Bioengineering & Chemical Engineering and the Shriram Chair in the Department of Bioengineering bear their name.

Raikes worked closely with  Shriram as a vice chair of the Board of Trustees.

“Ram has brought an acute sense of strategy and a skill for being able to ask the right, thoughtful, penetrating question in order to aid the deliberations of the board,” he said. “Our real responsibility is oftentimes to be good thought partners with university leadership. Ram exemplifies how trustees can be effective in that thought partnership.”