In opening remarks to the Academic Council on Thursday, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne reflected that the past two years represent a unique moment in Stanford University’s history.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne speaks to the Academic Council during its annual meeting on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Not only has the Stanford community navigated new challenges posed by an evolving pandemic, it also successfully transitioned from the planning phase to the execution of its Long-Range Vision.

“Since March of 2020, over two years ago, our faculty, all of you, have helped us weather this singular time in the university’s history,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “… The past two years have reinforced, more than ever, the importance of our mission and the contributions that you, our faculty, make to understanding our world, finding solutions to our problems, and educating the next generation of citizens and leaders.”

Tessier-Lavigne reported on those contributions and other progress made toward the four pillars of the Long-Range Vision during the Academic Council’s annual meeting.

These pillars, or themes, include: sustaining life; catalyzing discovery; accelerating solutions; and preparing citizens and leaders. Woven throughout each theme is a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through the IDEAL initiative.

As the university implements its vision, the Office of Development is securing resources to fund these ventures, Tessier-Lavigne said. The lead donor phase of this effort was launched in September 2020.

“We are measuring the success of this philanthropy by its impact – how those dollars are put to use by our students, our faculty, and staff,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

On Wednesday, Stanford announced the gift of $1.1 billion from John and Ann Doerr for the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

“Their gift will help Stanford build fundamental knowledge of the Earth and its systems, accelerate the development of solutions to the climate crisis at scale, and educate tomorrow’s problem-solvers in this urgent area,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Other lead donors include Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki, and Angela and David Filo. Altogether, more than 25 donor households have made gifts to the new school totaling $1.69 billion.

Donors also provided key support for fundamental research initiatives, such as the Phil and Penny Knight Initiative in Brain Resilience, which will study the causes of cognitive decline and what goes right for those who keep their cognitive abilities intact. And the foundational gift from university trustee Lily Sarafan for ChEM-H accelerates transformative molecular research. In the first full year of the lead donor phase in the fundraising campaign, Stanford nearly doubled the number of professorships raised to 17 and established 43 new graduate fellowships and 54 new scholarship funds – increases of 65% and 60%, respectively, over the prior fiscal year.

The university also made strides over the past year in creating and implementing a model for applying knowledge to tackle urgent global problems.

“The accelerator model connects researchers with funding, infrastructure, technological resources, expert staff, and external partners so that discoveries made at Stanford can become solutions with impact far beyond Palm Drive,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

In preparing citizens, the university focuses on expanding access and opportunity, educating students for lives of purpose, and building healthy communities that equip all students to thrive, Tessier-Lavigne said. Since 2006, Stanford has more than tripled its financial aid investment, and nearly 20% of undergraduates are first-generation college students, up from 13.6% in 2008.

Through the university’s base budget, Stanford has committed 12 months of funding for every PhD student for up to five years. Stanford also announced new affordability initiatives to support scholars, including a staff and faculty salary increase.

Stanford is focused on educating students not only for personal success but to lead lives of meaning and purpose, the president said, a priority supported by the Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) program. The university also launched ResX, a new approach to residential education.

The university has further diversified its community of scholars with efforts such as the IDEAL Provostial Fellows program and the Race in America faculty cluster hire. The university will departmentalize African and African American studies and create an institute on race, ethnicity, and society.

“We know that we have more to do,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “But I am motivated by the steps we have taken so far, and I hope that by weaving these principles through the heart of our Vision, we can do our part to contribute to a more just future.”

Research and application

In a panel discussion moderated by Provost Persis Drell, four faculty members discussed how their research and activities tie into the four pillars of the Long-Range Vision.

Provost Persis Drell moderates a panel discussion with William Tarpeh, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Jason Yeatman, assistant professor of pediatrics, of education and of psychology; Monika Schleier-Smith, associate professor of physics; and Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, during the annual meeting of the Academic Council on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S), explained how repeated requests by the Stanford community for the university to recommit itself to a liberal undergraduate education that prioritizes citizenship and global perspectives, combined with a growing awareness in the U.S. and abroad about how fragile democracies are, led to the development of COLLEGE.

The program was approved by the Faculty Senate two years ago and launched for the entire first-year class this year. COLLEGE classes focus on providing students with communication skills necessary for civic life and engaging in deeper conversations with each other, particularly across differences of opinion.

“We believe it’s essential that all of our undergraduate students grapple with the questions around why democracy is so hard? What are the main threats today to democracies and also what can they do to help rebuild our societies, whether it’s exploring public service or figuring out how to do content moderation in a civic-minded way on social media?” said Edelstein, who is also faculty director for Stanford Introductory Studies.

Much of the panel discussion centered on the relationship between curiosity-driven, or fundamental, research and applied research that leads to new technologies.

Monika Schleier-Smith, an associate professor of physics exploring quantum mechanics, said she was excited by both. “I think that we really have to pursue both in parallel,” she added. “And often these are really they go hand in hand, the same set of tools that allow us to make fundamental discoveries also feed into technology. And those technologies actually go back and enable new fundamental science as well.”

Jason Yeatman, an assistant professor of pediatrics, of education and of psychology, studies brain development in children learning to read.

During the pandemic, bringing children into a lab suddenly wasn’t possible. This led to the Rapid Online Assessment of Reading (ROAR) research project as part of a collaboration with area school districts. ROAR is part of the Transforming Learning Accelerator, which supports researchers from across Stanford to collaborate with each other and external partners to co-create scalable and equitable learning solutions.

“More and more, I found that as we engage with the world outside, with trying to tackle real-world problems, that it feeds back and changes the way we think about these fundamental questions,” Yeatman said. “It allows us to think about the fundamental mechanisms in a way we just couldn’t if we had never left the confines of our lab.”

William Tarpeh’s work on global sanitization often gets him beyond the walls of the university. Tarpeh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, said accelerators can help fill a gap between academia and practice in an informed way.

In answering a question from the audience about what makes the new sustainability school different from others, Tarpeh said that what stood out for him about Stanford’s approach was the dual focus on sustainability scholarship and impact, as well as the “sheer intellectual firepower we have,” which he hopes will have a multiplier effect.

Tessier-Lavigne added that it’s important for the world to have many schools of sustainability in order to tackle such a vast issue, and that he hopes they will all learn from and enrich each other.

When asked what he found most surprising as plans for the new school have developed, Tessier-Lavigne said he was inspired by the “depth of passion for this issue that was greater than anything” he encountered in 11 years of running first Rockefeller University and now Stanford.

“I’m, of course, most excited about the impact this will have, both through developing knowledge and solutions and by inspiring young people to go out and develop further knowledge and solutions, whether at Stanford or all the many places they will go,” he added.

Intense debates

In her summary of the Faculty Senate’s activities over the past year, Faculty Senate Chair Ruth O’Hara noted that the pandemic brought several key academic issues to the fore and revealed tensions between academic freedom and academic responsibility.

Ruth O’Hara addresses the Academic Council during its annual meeting on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

O’Hara said she was particularly proud of the senate’s engagement with Stanford’s student representatives, who attended Faculty Senate meetings, asked excellent questions, and provided key input that led, for example, to a request for a campus anti-doxxing policy.

O’Hara also highlighted summer events hosted by Provost Drell and Hoover Institution Director Condoleezza Rice that brought together academic community members with diverse perspectives to engage and learn from each other through civil discourse.

These opportunities have continued through a weekly lunch hosted by senate leadership and the provost’s office. This academic year, Drell and Rice also provided a report on the Hoover Institution and its relationship with the university and plans for more effective collaboration and interaction.

The year often involved “intense debates, reflecting of course the diverse range of perspectives that our senators represent,” O’Hara said.

“In the wake of such debate, it is almost a cliche to remind ourselves that there is far more that binds us together in terms of shared values than actually divides us,” she added. “But, I would like to speak to what I consider a very palpable commonality, demonstrated daily by our senators through all our academic senates to date, which is their extensive commitment and the time they dedicate to the governance of our institution.”

O’Hara is also the senior associate dean for research in the School of Medicine, director of Spectrum, and the Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.