Leadership Through Innovation and Education

by President John Hennessy

John Hennessy, President, Stanford University

John Hennessy

Each year during Reunion Homecoming we host a Roundtable focused on the critical issues of the day. Our 2009 Roundtable featured a spirited discussion about “The Road Back: From Economic Meltdown to Renewal.” The general consensus among panelists was that the worst is over, and the way forward is through innovation and education. In closing, moderator Charlie Rose asked each of us if we were optimistic about the future. My response was unequivocal.

I see reason for optimism every day when I walk across the Stanford campus and talk to our students. They are excited — and determined — to make a difference. They are why I am optimistic. They are the next generation of leaders.

And they are the reason we must remain focused on our goals and steward our resources carefully over the next few years. Given the impact the economic crisis has had on the endowment and the likelihood there will be residual effects for some time, the central question is: How do we continue to advance the excellence of the university and provide these extraordinary students with the education they will need to become tomorrow’s leaders?

I believe this is a pivotal moment in history, a time when we could make transformational leaps in our understanding of many fields. Stanford has the opportunity to pioneer advances in knowledge and to apply those discoveries to the challenges at hand for the benefit of people around the world.

This past year, there have been promising developments in our initiatives in human health, the environment and sustainability, and international affairs. The challenge of finding economically competitive, sustainable energy resources is one of our most intractable problems, and in January, we launched the Precourt Institute for Energy to focus solely on global energy issues. The potential for advances in human health — especially in the field of stem cell technology — is significant, and Stanford’s faculty researchers in this area are among the best in the world. While this is a challenging economic time, our research mission has never been more important. It is critical that we not lose sight of these goals.

Supporting our faculty and students will be key to the success of that mission, and stabilizing the university’s finances is a priority, particularly in the area of financial aid. The economic situation put a strain not only on the university’s budget but also on many students’ families. In 2008, we expanded our financial aid program, and we are committed to keeping Stanford affordable for the best young minds, regardless of their families’ financial resources. This year, about half of our undergraduates received direct financial support from the university, even as the value of the endowment declined, and we anticipate requests will increase over the coming year. In the past years, we have been able to meet the financial aid needs of our students with endowment income and gifts to annual funds, such as The Stanford Fund. This year, and for some number of years to come, those funds have been insufficient, and we have had to rely on reserves, already diminished in the financial crisis. Our long-term goal must be to stabilize the funding for financial aid, so that we can maintain our long-standing commitment to keep the doors of Stanford open to the most qualified students independent of their family’s financial means.

Our faculty is at the heart of Stanford’s excellence, and enhancing the quality of our faculty throughout the university has been a major focus for the past 15 years. Unfortunately, the decrease in endowment, much of which directly supports faculty salaries, forced us to freeze about 50 faculty searches. Obviously, the ability to hire into those positions will be critical to keep the vitality of our faculty and to pursue new directions. Our goal will be to raise endowment to enable us to reactivate these positions over time.

While we focus on building endowment to support financial aid, graduate fellowships and professorships for the long term, we also look for ways to ensure support for today’s students and faculty. It is people who advance knowledge, who pioneer new discoveries, who find the great answers to difficult questions. It is the people we must support. And it is the people who are Stanford’s great strength.

Nine years ago at my inauguration as Stanford’s president, I posed the questions: What does Stanford stand for? How do we ensure that future generations will have the same opportunities we have had?

Stanford University is distinguished by its pioneering spirit and bold leadership. We ensure opportunities for future generations by supporting the current generation. We respond to the world’s complexities by forging advances in research and by educating the next generation for leadership. By not losing sight of these goals, Stanford will thrive and remain a leader in the years to come.