Persis Drell, 13th provost of Stanford University. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Persis Drell, the 13th provost of Stanford University who has been the university’s chief academic officer and chief budget officer for the last six years, will step down from the role later this year.

Drell, who became provost in February 2017, will step down in the fall quarter, as soon as a successor appointed by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne can be in place. Drell, a physicist, will continue to be a member of the Stanford faculty, and she plans to remain active in teaching this fall.

“I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to serve Stanford as provost. I have learned so much from our students and our community, and I so deeply appreciate my colleagues on the faculty and the staff for everything we have been able to achieve together,” Drell said.

“This is the right time,” she said. “I began sharing with Marc some time ago my thoughts about the rough timeframe to complete my role as provost. Making the transition now provides the opportunity for a new provost to be in place in the fall quarter. I look forward to continuing to focus on the work of the Provost’s Office until my successor is in place.”

Tessier-Lavigne will establish a faculty-led advisory committee of Stanford community members to lead the search for a new provost. The committee will be chaired by Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. More information will be provided to the university community as the process gets underway.

“Persis has led vigorously with spirit, candor, good humor, deep thoughtfulness, and steadfast dedication to Stanford’s mission of teaching and research,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “She has worked with our faculty to support and continually advance the academic excellence of Stanford, and she has had a major impact on nearly every aspect of university life.

“At a personal level, I could not have wished for a better partner than Persis as we have focused together on countless initiatives and issues throughout these last six years. I am grateful for all she has done for the university, and I have found it enormously fulfilling to have had the opportunity to work so closely with her. I wish her the very best in the next chapters of her accomplished life and career.”

Drell became provost in 2017 after serving as dean of the Stanford School of Engineering and, before that, director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. She is the James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering, a professor of materials science and engineering, and a professor of physics at Stanford.

As provost, Drell’s principal role has been to advance Stanford’s academic mission. In service of that goal, Drell worked closely with Tessier-Lavigne on the university-wide process that led to the creation of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, championed diversity and inclusion initiatives to better prepare Stanford for a more diverse future, and led the university’s operational response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She also has continued to teach undergraduates.

“Persis has heartfelt thanks and admiration from the board for her energy, her leadership, and her unflagging dedication to preserving and amplifying the academic excellence of Stanford,” said Jerry Yang, chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees. “As board members, we respect her decision to complete her role as provost, and we extend our gratitude for all that she has done to support Stanford and its community during this challenging time in the world.”

The provost administers the academic program of the university, including both teaching and research. The responsibilities of the role are broad, and its direct reports include the deans of Stanford’s seven schools and vice provosts with leadership roles in research, education, student affairs, budget, faculty development, equity and access, and other areas.

“I take special pride in the team of vice provosts and deans that Marc and I have built over the last six years,” Drell said. “They are a fantastic group, and we have worked together effectively and collaboratively through some very difficult times. I am deeply grateful for their partnership and friendship.”

“Persis has provided strong leadership in an extremely challenging time period for Stanford,” said Jenny Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. “She calmly helped steer us all through the unprecedented problems of the pandemic with grace and fortitude, all the while advancing other important measures like the IDEAL initiative. She fostered a strong spirit of collaboration among the deans and schools, which is not always common at universities, but is essential for the kind of interdisciplinary work that sets Stanford apart.”

Provost Persis Drell provides the annual budget report to the Faculty Senate on Thursday, May 19, 2021. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Among her activities as provost, Drell has spearheaded IDEAL, the university’s initiative to advance Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access in a Learning Environment.

Academic initiatives under IDEAL have included new faculty hiring efforts, including a Race in America faculty cluster hire. Drell created the IDEAL Provostial Fellows program that brings to Stanford early-career scholars in the study of race and ethnicity. A Framework Task Force convened to recommend a new infrastructure for the study of race and the effects of race on society, developed recommendations that are leading to the creation of an academic department for African and African American Studies as well as a new Institute on Race.

IDEAL also has worked to support the Stanford community through initiatives including the university’s first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion survey; new dashboards providing more transparency about the composition of the university community; the IDEAL Learning Journey for staff; and many others. Vice Provost Patrick Dunkley now serves as executive director of IDEAL, as part of a structure Drell created to focus on advancing equity and access at Stanford.

IDEAL itself is part of a broader Long-Range Vision for Stanford as a purposeful university that came out of a university-wide planning process led by Tessier-Lavigne and Drell.

Today, numerous initiatives associated with the Long-Range Vision have been implemented or are moving forward. They include the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, the university’s first new school in more than 70 years; the new Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) program for undergraduates; and a series of accelerators to speed the application of university-generated knowledge in a range of academic fields.

As part of the vision, Stanford also has continued to expand undergraduate financial aid and last year adopted a series of affordability enhancements for the Stanford community more broadly, including enhanced graduate financial support, expanded housing assistance, and new financial support programs for early-career, pre-tenure faculty.

When COVID-19 upended daily life in 2020, Drell quickly pivoted to provide day-to-day leadership of the university’s operational response amid a public health crisis. She organized the university’s response structure and chaired its policymaking committee, working to provide support and continuity for the university’s academic mission amid the challenges of a decentralized university environment and a quickly changing public health situation.

Drell has continued teaching students during much of her time as provost. For several years, she has taught a winter-quarter companion course to introductory physics for undergraduates who had limited exposure to the subject in high school, and this academic year, she co-taught a course in the COLLEGE program for undergraduates. She also has been a part of efforts to build student understanding of Stanford’s institutional structure and how to advocate for change in the university.

Drell also has been a visible and engaged member of the university community.

An avid cellist and lover of chamber music, Drell has been active in Stanford’s music community throughout her time as provost, playing in string quartets and holding house concerts at her home. She has enthusiastically joined other Stanford leaders at light-hearted campus events ranging from Dragfest to Midnight Breakfast, and she has spent evenings on ride-alongs with members of the Stanford Department of Public Safety. Drell routinely hosts faculty dinners at the provost’s residence and is often seen doing walking meetings with colleagues on the Dish trail in the Stanford foothills.

Drell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. She also has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Drell is the daughter of the late Sidney Drell, a celebrated physicist and Stanford professor. She grew up on the Stanford campus before pursuing bachelor’s and PhD degrees from Wellesley College and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively. She was a member of the physics faculty at Cornell University from 1988 until she joined the Stanford faculty in 2002 as a professor and director of research at SLAC. She is married to accelerator physicist Jim Welch and has three children.