The Stanford Board of Trustees approved the creation of the Department of African and African American Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) this week. The department – years in the making – officially opens in January.

Trustees also heard updates from the university’s new leadership, reports on the needs of students with disabilities and advancements in the arts, and moved forward several building projects in the first board meeting of the 2023-24 academic year.

President Richard Saller discussed his focus on the fundamental mission of the university, which is one of excellence in education, research, and patient care with integrity. Despite the simplicity of the message, it involves complicated work to ensure faculty and students are supported in this mission and pursuit of the university’s Long-Range Vision, Saller explained.

As part of her new role as provost, Jenny Martinez has been speaking with students across campus, and a top priority for her is strengthening the student experience, Martinez told trustees. For undergraduate students, their education includes not just what happens in the classroom but everything that affects their development as individuals – from athletics to art and music activities to social interactions, she said. For graduate students, she looks forward to working with the graduate student union, and also continuing to work more generally on student concerns. Other priorities include increasing support for research, ensuring academic freedom, supporting athletics in its conference transition, and reassessing admission programs in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning the long-standing practice of race-conscious university admissions.

Trustees also attended a private ceremony to formally install Saller as president. Saller is serving as president of the university while a committee continues its search for the university’s next president.

‘Got to love it’

The university has had a Program in African and African American Studies (AAAS) for more than 50 years, but long-standing efforts supporting AAAS departmentalization were galvanized by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. “Events since 2020 have made it increasingly apparent that the time has come for Stanford to put our work in AAAS on a permanent footing …” said R. Lanier Anderson, the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of the Humanities and professor of philosophy.

In 2021, a task force convened by former Provost Persis Drell and H&S Dean Debra Satz recommended the creation of a department.

Ato Quayson, the Jean G. and Morris M. Doyle Professor in Interdisciplinary Studies and professor of English, will serve as the AAAS department’s inaugural chair. The department will have tracks in African Studies, African American Studies, and Global Black Diaspora Studies. Also, it will provide opportunities for community-engaged learning, for students to study a language pertinent to Black Studies, and for creative expression in collaboration with the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Quayson said in a presentation to the Committee of Student, Alumni, and External Affairs.

Shortly before the vote approving departmentalization, Quayson pulled out his well-worn original copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and gave a moving rendition of the character Baby Suggs’ sermon: “You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you.” Trustees enthusiastically applauded both Quayson’s reading and the vote approving creation of the AAAS department.

The power of the arts

With renewed momentum, Stanford Arts is supporting interdisciplinary collaboration, creative research, and initiatives that seed joy and inspiration while catalyzing change, said Vice President for the Arts (VPA) Deborah Cullinan. Cullinan was appointed last year as Stanford’s first dedicated vice president of the arts, a role focused on ensuring the university unleashes the full potential of the arts on campus and in the community.

“Students and faculty understand how the arts are crucial to their own lives, to their futures as informed and effective citizens, and to a more equitable and just society,” Cullinan said.

VPA launched the inaugural Faculty Creative Project Seed Grant Program this past spring to offer support for faculty creative projects.

In a presentation at the Cantor Arts Center, Cullinan introduced trustees to the museum’s new leadership. Veronica Roberts joined Stanford last year as the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Arts Center, and Marion Gill took the helm as deputy director just weeks ago.

Cullinan also hosted a panel featuring Adam Banks, faculty director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts and professor of education, and Hideo Mabuchi, newly named faculty director of the Stanford Arts Institute (SAI).

Mabuchi, a professor of applied physics, said he is excited to see how SAI can normalize the idea that the practice and experience of art can enhance research.

Banks agreed, adding that “our students, even on the techiest sides of campus, have really well-rounded interests in the humanities and the arts. We are poised to make an even greater connection for the well-rounded education that we all want.”

‘A major change’

In the last several years, Stanford has crossed a tipping point in student demand for and complexity of disability needs, said Susie-Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs (VPSA) in a presentation to the Committee on Student, Alumni, and External Affairs.

The matter, which has key intersections with mental health and wellbeing, has thus become a priority for VPSA and other campus departments, Brubaker-Cole said.

“This is a major change that’s happening everywhere,” Brubaker-Cole said. “The needs of all students coming into every community college and university across the nation are part of a ‘new normal,’ and our staff, faculty, and administrators are working hard to understand and serve these needs.”

Stanford has seen a substantial increase in students registering with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) in the last decade, and the university is challenged in its ability to meet the growing needs, most urgently in courses and housing accommodations.

The most common category of disability, as well as the one with the largest increase, is psychological, and the most common psychological disabilities reported by students include depression, anxiety, and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

VPSA’s response is guided by recommendations of the Students with Disabilities Task Force, Brubaker-Cole said. It includes increased hiring in the OAE office to meet the surge in demand, and creation of a new pilot centralized testing center to streamline the testing experience for students with disabilities, and relieve faculty and departments of arranging accommodations.

Building projects

The board moved several building projects forward during the meeting. Trustees approved concept and partial construction for phase one of improvements to the university’s electrical distribution system – which will target areas prioritized by safety concerns, those impacting reliability of service for research and community use, and renewal of aging equipment and infrastructure. Construction on the project’s high-priority areas is expected to be completed in multiple phases over the coming years.

Trustees provided design approval for reconstruction of the Stanford Softball Stadium, a new three-level structure that will improve team spaces and fan experiences. Construction is projected to begin next summer. The board also approved design for the Arrillaga Tennis Center, which will allow for full viewing of matches on a dozen courts and include a new two-story tennis center; construction is expected to be completed in early 2026.

The board approved design and partial construction of a structural steel cover over the Arrillaga Tennis Center – Taube Pavilion. The weather-protected tennis courts will be used for both competition and recreation, and can also provide a covered back-up venue for large university events. Construction is projected to be complete by August next year.

Lastly, trustees approved construction of an underground expansion to Maples Pavilion to provide new and enhanced lockers, showers, and team meeting space. The expansion – expected to be completed in spring 2025 – will accommodate improvements in performance support, more technology available in sports analysis, and sports medicine and nutrition in team performance.