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Where He Took Us

During a prolific and sometimes perilous 16 years, Stanford's first 21st-century president remade the university from the inside out.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

By Mike Antonucci

The secret to John Hennessy's sense of humor, says creativity guru David Kelley, is the way it has accommodated the president’s grueling schedule. He tells good jokes, explains the Institute of Design founder, but only short ones. 

Maybe that’s about to change. After almost 16 years as Stanford’s 10th president, Hennessy will soon bequeath his adventures and stresses to Rockefeller University’s Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who assumes the office on September 1. Hennessy explains his decision to step away with the kind of concise quip Kelley might expect: “I’m a computer scientist,” he says, chuckling, “and the powers of two are very important, so the next one is 32.”

Sixteen years is a formidable run for any university president, and Hennessy’s staying power was the foundation for many long-evolving initiatives. The last big task he wanted to oversee was the build-out of the so-called arts district, the new campus “front door” that includes Bing Concert Hall and a museum devoted to the Anderson Collection, 121 works of modern American art. Otherwise, he notes, “I might have left a year earlier.”

His friend John Bravman, former vice provost for undergraduate education and now president of Bucknell University, says Hennessy’s accomplishments put him among “a small group of Stanford titans.” The significance of Hennessy’s legacy, say those who observed his stewardship throughout a dynamic and tumultuous period, won’t be fully apparent for decades. His achievements are large, they contend; the framework he has put in place for continued progress is still larger.

Facilities underwent a cutting-edge remake amid an all-encompassing expansion that included more than 70 building projects. An emphasis on research aimed at solving problems altered the mind-set of the university, fostering a deep commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration. The deft and decisive handling of a devastating economic downturn returned the university to financial strength years before many other schools recovered. The arts were privileged as never before, through the construction of world-class performance and exhibition spaces combined with curricular enhancements that nurtured artistic expression and exploration. And the scale of the university grew vastly larger: The budget has more than doubled since Hennessy’s inauguration in the fall of 2000, and fundraising brought in $13 billion.

And it wasn’t only on the Farm that Hennessy’s imprint appeared. “On the strength of his superb work at Stanford, John Hennessy quickly became a prominent leader in efforts to maintain America’s leadership in scientific and engineering research,” says Richard Levin, ’68, former president of Yale University. “He is widely respected by his peers, and he has had substantial influence on government policies.”

“When I traveled around the country as part of the recent presidential search, I was delighted, but not surprised, to see the universal respect by our peer institutions for John’s leadership,” says former Board of Trustees chair Isaac Stein, MBA ’72, JD ’72.

The man who has been at the nexus of all of it is a Long Island native who fell in love with his future wife, Andrea, while working as a supermarket stock boy in high school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University and then returned to Long Island for his master’s and doctorate in computer science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He arrived at Stanford in 1977 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering, beginning a rapid rise through the academic ranks—while also searching for a local Italian restaurant that met his standards. 

A former chair of computer science and then dean of engineering, Hennessy has long been known as an innovator. He co-founded MIPS Technologies, which influenced the design of chips used to program computers. But his friend Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education at the School of Medicine, marvels at a different Hennessy characteristic—a lock-trap memory of unnerving capacity. Prober says he himself sometimes forgets details from a book while still reading it, whereas Hennessy can summon details from a book he read years earlier. 

Still, Hennessy acknowledges that there were gaps in his skill set when he took over as president. Prior to that, he says, “I had never given a speech that didn’t include visual aids.”

His growth in the job mirrors the depth of Hennessy’s commitment to—and appreciation for—excellence in all things. “Who would have ever guessed we’d go to multiple Rose Bowls and still have a football team that has a 99 percent graduation rate,” he says.

That sense of delight is notable at the end of a long tenure in an arduous job known to wear down even the most tenacious individuals. Despite all the pressures, despite the schedule that allows for only short jokes, despite all the social and political tensions that emanate from the diverse factions of a campus community, Hennessy has never lost his capacity for everyday joy.

“I love going to the freshman dorms,” he says. “I love seeing the students in all kinds of different settings. And the same with alumni. . . . One of the biggest surprises for me [after becoming president] was how much alumni love this place and are loyal to it.”

Hennessy - students
Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
IN THE MIX: One of Hennessy's favorite rituals was visiting incoming freshmen on move-in day.

One event that comes as close as anything to epitomizing Hennessy’s bond with Stanford is convocation, the ceremonial opening of each academic year. “The day the freshmen arrive is just an exhilarating day,” he says. “It’s a yearly rebirth. And in comes a bright, highly capable group of freshmen who, when you meet them, you just think, these people are going to do great things in the world.”

Sixteen cohorts of freshmen passed through Stanford during Hennessy’s tenure. Ultimately, they will be part of Hennessy’s legacy as well—but that story hasn’t yet been written. What we know today is what Hennessy did to make Stanford better, stronger and more capably situated for success. 

Among the many vexing problems plaguing the planet is this one: Hundreds of millions of people lack safe drinking water. It’s a significant cause of death and disease in the developing world, and children are often the most vulnerable. It also is the sort of global-scale problem that Hennessy had in mind when he set out to mobilize the Stanford faculty as solution-finders. 

Today, Stanford percolates with undertakings involving a network of interdisciplinary alliances, such as the collaboration between civil and environmental engineering professor Jenna Davis, who leads a research team for the Woods Institute for the Environment, and Stephen Luby, a medical school professor and infectious disease expert who is also a senior fellow at Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Davis’s group is perfecting plans for a mechanically simple, low-cost chlorination device that could bring clean drinking water to urban slums worldwide. 

The ambitiousness of these kinds of efforts, often fueled by new academic partnerships, illustrates a fundamental cultural shift, inspired by Hennessy. Roberta Katz is one of the chroniclers, because she was there at the inception.

Katz was enjoying retirement when she got a lunch invitation from Hennessy in the summer of 2004. It came “out of the blue,” she recalls, and she never anticipated what he was leading up to as they sat outside Hoover House eating tuna sandwiches.

He had a request, and he prefaced it by reflecting on how Stanford in the 1950s made a huge wager about its future by focusing attention and resources on engineering, science and medicine. Then, says Katz, he added, “I think we need to make an equally big bet now.”

Hennessy described a goal that would reshape education and research throughout the university, supported by a hand-in-glove expansion in facilities. It was time to open the silos that historically have isolated the academic disciplines, he told Katz, ’69, who was later appointed associate vice president for strategic planning. He wanted to launch an attack on societal problems through the collaborative force of Stanford’s sweeping expertise. 

One major advance on that front already had conspicuous footing: the interdisciplinary Bio-X program, established in 1998. Rooted in the intersections of biology, medicine and engineering, Bio-X was also a catalyst for broad thinking—enveloping all the sciences, ethics and entrepreneurship—in pursuit of better human health. In 2003 it moved into the new three-winged Clark Center, whose location between the medical complex and the main campus served as a physical conduit for the sharing of ideas.

But Hennessy was also thinking about the environment and energy, about international peace and security, as well as the swarm of issues involving human health. The upshot is arguably the signature of his tenure: the ascent of interdisciplinary teaching and research on a globally engaged scale. And its imprint at Stanford is everywhere.

The organizational innovation was highlighted by the establishment of new academic hubs that connect assorted research scholars with governmental, business and nonprofit entities. The list includes the Woods Institute, the Precourt Institute for Energy, and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. 

Almost every new building was designed to foster and facilitate joint missions or intertwined research. A new Science and Engineering Quad, for example, is a model of shared facilities and cross-departmental groupings of faculty.  

Funding for interdisciplinary projects, most conspicuously at Bio-X, galvanized a torrent of research. The number of seed grants, which the program awards every two years, has grown from 198 after the first round to 747 after the seventh round. Increasingly, the joint work also involves closer and more frequent interaction between the participating researchers, sometimes bringing together faculty that “one would never dream of bringing together,” says Heideh Fattaey, Bio-X’s executive director of operations and programs. Professors from music and neurology, for example, fashioned a “brain stethoscope” that represents seizures as music by converting electroencephalogram data into audible sounds.

The impact on students—on the cultivation of each one’s potential—seems to animate Hennessy the most. To help change the world, he says, “requires that you be an open-minded, broadly educated person who can collaborate, who has their own expertise. That’s why I love this metaphor of T-shaped people: somebody with real depth and expertise in a field but also the ability to relate to their fellow partners, who they will need to work with in order to achieve that change. And that’s why I think it’s an important part of how we educate people to be great global citizens.”

In that context, the Hennessy era is quantifiable, from the added programs and facilities to pioneering scholarship and curriculum reinvention. But there was an underlying accomplishment that was far less tangible: overcoming an inherent resistance—philosophical, psychological and political resistance—from many of the most pivotal educators at Stanford. 

Rose Bowl
Photo: John Todd/
DOWNRIGHT ROSY: The ascent of the football program, including two Rose Bowl victories, was achieved while also maintaining a graduation rate of 99 percent, the highest in the country.

Almost from the outset of their administration, Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy had assessed the university’s needs and strengths as open-endedly as possible. Recognizing the breadth of change that Stanford needed was a catalyst. The implementation process required a strategy. But understanding how to make it part of the university’s culture demanded a vision, plus the fortitude to sell it.

“That vision is more than just building interdisciplinary studies and joint facilities. It requires a change in mind-set at every level,” explains Etchemendy, Hennessy’s almost harmonically aligned partner for the last 16 years. The vision, he says, was to “build one university.”

To do that, the academy—all seven schools and their departments—had to get on board. Indeed, it had to lead the trip.

“The university is never run top down,” notes Etchemendy, PhD ’82. “That’s true of the faculty—we cannot start an initiative, or start an institute, without faculty support. It will fall on its face if we don’t have faculty leadership, if we don’t have faculty buy-in.”

Etchemendy and Katz have vivid anecdotes about the seemingly entrenched opposition that had to be overcome. Deans were uninterested in sharing resources; professors lionized pure or theoretical research over applied research aimed at topical issues. Katz remembers someone she took to be an elder of the academy calling her out while she was walking on campus, railing that “you and John Hennessy are ruining this university.” Etchemendy recounts how the dialogue with the executive cabinet—mostly deans—“took two or three years of meetings, and those meetings often drove us up the wall, in the sense that we were talking about the same things over and over and over again.”

The process called for intuition and experience; Etchemendy and Hennessy had both. The chairman of the Board of Trustees, Steve Denning, MBA ’78, emphasizes that they also had “a shared vision,” which underpinned their ability to draw out the best in each other. Hennessy always seemed to have one eye up to a telescope and the other peering through a microscope—the big picture was always shaped by his grasp of exact details. This is a consistent theme in other people’s appraisal of him: He is lauded for his steadiness, for finishing what he starts, and for an almost Solomonic ability to create consensus from jumbled interests and perspectives.

Bravman, at that time the vice provost for undergraduate education, marveled at Hennessy’s skill in navigating what Bravman says is a defining challenge for a contemporary American college president: “the multiplicity of constituencies you serve and you are answerable to, the differences between the constituencies, and the divisions within the constituencies.” 

When asked to assess himself in this regard, Hennessy invokes the collective goodwill that he believes was essential for success. “You have a very diverse set of constituencies, all with slightly different agendas for what they think would be best for the university,” he notes. “I think we try to keep in mind that we all want the institution to be better and to serve our students better. And if we can keep our eye on that, and perhaps put aside some of our own little peccadillos in some sense, we can make the institution better. . . . Fusing that common vision is key.”

The challenges on that front were incessant. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, a co-founder of Bio-X, recalls that, while serving as chair of the physics department, he became deadlocked with an administrator from another branch of Stanford about which university division should have final authority over a major new project. Hennessy, says Chu, asked both individuals to his office, heard both arguments, pronounced his agreement with Chu and secured the cooperation of the other person during that meeting. It was an example, says Chu, of Hennessy acting persuasively and proactively, without sacrificing time to reports or committees to vet the matter.

Nobody at Stanford is more publicly identified with interdisciplinary work than David Kelley, MS ’78, who in 2005 co-founded the Institute of Design—the acclaimed “,” where squads of diversely skilled graduate students have invented items such as lifesaving baby warmers and inexpensive solar-powered lamps.

A longtime Stanford instructor, Kelley had heard years of fruitless talk about interdisciplinary prospects before Hennessy upped the ante. Until then, says Kelley, the “messiness” of organizing such collaboration, of overcoming territorial obstinacy, frequently limited the results to nothing more than a division of funding. But unlike others who ended up stymied, says Kelley, “time and time again, John decided it was more important to blast through the messiness.”

For Carla Shatz, Hennessy offered both an opportunity and a gauntlet in 2007. A former Stanford professor who was chair of the department of neurobiology at Harvard, Shatz was discussing whether to return as the new director of Bio-X. Hennessy, she says, challenged her to prove that Bio-X, which was conceived in 1998, remained viable. “Hennessy said, basically, ‘If you want to come, I want you to figure out what it is. I want to hear what’s happened, and should we keep it going?’”

Before accepting the job, Shatz also had to answer another question: What would her support be like?

The answer, she concluded, was partly evident in Hennessy’s funding of grants that would help sustain Bio-X research while Shatz planned for the program’s eventual self-sufficiency. The funding convinced her of Hennessy’s foresight. “If I could figure out what it was, he was committed to helping it thrive.”

Shatz is still at the helm of Bio-X, and its résumé of advances, scientific and collaborative, is massive. As significant as those contributions are, says Shatz, it’s the insight and perception about how to stimulate and nurture such work that is most distinctive. “Nothing like this exists anywhere else in the country,” she asserts. “I don’t think other universities really understand the culture that has been supported.”

The global economic downturn known as the Great Recession hit Stanford hard. In retrospect, the jolts can be summarized in concise tabulations, none clearer than this: The value of the university’s endowment declined by almost $5 billion—from $17.2 billion to $12.6 billion—from the end of the 2008 fiscal year (August 31) to the end of the 2009 fiscal year. The full force of the global financial meltdown turned into a narrative of foreclosed homes, crushing unemployment and lost faith in financial institutions. Personal savings were devastated, corporations were pummeled, and investment-laden universities were knocked for a loop.

As the recession’s implications became clear, Hennessy and Etchemendy made a decision that would separate Stanford’s handling of the crisis from any comparable university. Instead of phasing in spending cuts drip by drip over a period of years, they chose to make sharp reductions quickly, slashing the payouts from the endowment to the budget in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and reducing Stanford’s operating budget by an estimated $300 million. Layoffs and early retirements from staff added up to the elimination of almost 500 positions. Hiring was curtailed, raises were suspended, and some construction went on hold. 

Hennessy By the Numbers

Such a drastic accounting is virtually unheard of in higher education, and Stanford had never experienced anything like it. But Hennessy’s experience as a Silicon Valley executive imbued him with a certainty about Stanford’s aggressive, albeit painful, course of action. Some members of the university community believed it especially valuable to have a president who was deeply “of the Valley,” and, indeed, the financial turmoil had a familiar sting to Hennessy the entrepreneur.

“This is where past history probably does help,” says Hennessy. When he needed to do a layoff at one of the companies he had started, he assimilated the lesson that “fast is better. . . . reset and then move everybody forward.” Hennessy points out that “two years after the crisis, we were back to normal business,” while other universities remained under stress from deficits and diminished resources.

Hennessy also had to buck considerable sentiment that amounted to “don’t do anything, just spend down the endowment.” He was hearing from a lot of people who judged the downturn to be only a small crisis. But he didn’t think so, and the alternative to Stanford’s all-at-once approach, notes Etchemendy, might have meant “little sliver cuts” for as many as five to seven years, continuing well after the economy had bounced back. 

When crunch time came for the decisions, the strength of the John-and-John partnership was as notable as the power of the strategy. “Provost Etchemendy became the principal voice for explaining the necessity of budget cuts to the campus, but it was President Hennessy who initially set the tone,” says Randy Livingston, ’75, MBA ’79, vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer. “The fact that Hennessy and Etchemendy shared the same perspective on the need for immediate budget adjustments is what drove our success as an institution. They were very articulate about the need, and willing to take the heat for some very painful cuts.”

They were willing to absorb more than the heat. They both took salary cuts. It sprang from a conversation between the two of them in late fall 2008, when they calculated the recession’s effect and recognized the need to rally support for the belt-tightening that was on the way. 

Etchemendy recognized the business experience that Hennessy was drawing on—“I wasn’t going to second-guess that”—and then suggested that they each take a 10 percent reduction in salary. The next step was to ask the executive cabinet to voluntarily take a 5 percent reduction. “Every one of them, every one of the deans, even the ones who were stressed financially, personally, said yes,” recalls Etchemendy.

Another keystone of their thinking focused on what they wouldn’t cut: student financial aid. Among the core principles of the university is accessibility, keeping costs affordable to qualified applicants from any economic stratum. The Stanford Challenge fundraising campaign that concluded in 2011 raised more than $250 million for need-based undergraduate scholarships. 

“Part of the greatness of this university is that it is rich, poor and middle-class,” said student Michael Tubbs, ’12, at that time. Raised by a single mom in Stockton, Calif., Tubbs was the first in his family to attend college, and went on to become the youngest city councilman ever elected in Stockton. He is now running for mayor. Tubbs, whose financial aid package made it possible for him to attend Stanford, noted that his story “is not singular.” Forty-seven percent of undergraduate students in this year’s freshman class received need-based aid, an average of more than $43,000 per student in Stanford-funded scholarships.

The endowment’s precipitous drop exerted pressure, but didn’t sway Hennessy from fiercely upholding foundational beliefs. He could feel some nervousness from trustees and was concerned about the ability of the university to meet all its financial obligations. He was particularly struck by the part of the endowment decline that sucked a billion dollars out of a portfolio that was supposed to be a buffer against extreme circumstances. But in the face of all that, he made student aid inviolate.

“We felt that the commitment to our undergraduates, and our graduate students as well—because we didn’t cut either one—was a crucial one,” says Hennessy. “Many of the families would already be under stress given the financial issues that they were facing; one parent losing a job or something else, so we felt that was crucial.”

Moreover, Hennessy says, he was inspired by Stanford’s history of egalitarianism and meritocracy, and believed that a retreat from the financial aid commitment would betray that heritage. “Ensuring that the ablest students can come to Stanford, irrespective of their family’s ability to pay, has been a vision for the university dating back to the Stanfords, certainly dating back to Jane,” he says. “So we tried to rally alumni around financial aid, we tried to figure out how we’re going to get there, and we dipped into a lot of our reserves.”

One of the more revealing side notes from the recession’s challenges was that Hennessy, for all his canniness in navigating the fiscal tumult, didn’t fully realize what his commitment to student aid would entail. “What we probably didn’t understand when we did that, was that our financial aid bill was about to go up by a significant amount, about 10 percent, just because of the shadow effect on families.” As people’s personal assets took a beating, more students qualified for more help under Stanford’s need-blind admission process. Hence another lesson on the long tail of crisis management: The drain on family wherewithal has faded away only in about the last year.

Hennessy often references either the arc of history or his sense of responsibility to the future. “When I was getting ready for my inauguration,” he says, “I was thinking about David Starr Jordan being in the job a hundred years earlier. And the fact that he, together with the Stanfords, had a certain wisdom about thinking about the future of the university and not hampering the future opportunities that might be available. Ensuring that Stanford can be a great university not just for the community of people here now, but that it’ll be a great university and offer great opportunities for people here 50 and 100 and 200 and 500 years from now.”

So it was when Bravman, ’79, MS ’81, PhD ’85, went to talk to Hennessy about the hardships the recession was exacting on undergraduate education. “The only person I know who loves Stanford as much as I do is John Hennessy,” says Bravman. He is a friend of Hennessy’s and had “many hundreds of hours” on the golf course with him, building understanding and trust. But Bravman was “badly shaken” by losses to new endowments, a downsizing to Sophomore College and a substantial cut for summer undergraduate research, among other reductions.

Hennessy—who even now talks with a tone of astonishment about how “scary” the peak of the crisis was—offered Bravman calm and composure. The conversation ranged from the 1906 earthquake to the scandal in the 1990s about allegations that the university had overcharged millions of dollars in indirect costs for federally sponsored research. The message, says Bravman, was “We are going to get through this together.” And he didn’t leave just reassured; he left recharged. 

The enhancement of the arts at Stanford in just the last six years has forced observers to scramble for adequate adjectives. “Transformative” probably has become most popular, and it’s hard to dispute. 

The arts have never lacked for energy from their Stanford disciples. But the performance venues—principally Memorial Auditorium and Dinkelspiel Auditorium—were subpar. The lack of adequate arts spaces not only inhibited students’ experience but also detracted from the university’s reputation. In both actual and perceived terms, arts lacked the upward trajectory of the rest of the university; their place at Stanford too often seemed to be in the shadow of other disciplines.

When Hennessy, Etchemendy and Vice President for Development Martin Shell were in the thick of planning for the five-year Stanford Challenge fundraising campaign that began in late 2006, they zeroed in on the environment, human health and international affairs as three primary themes. Feedback from alumni eventually spurred the addition of K-12 education. The remaining big objective, long in contention to emerge as one of the overarching priorities, was the arts. (The campaign set a goal of $4.3 billion; the final tally was $6.2 billion.)  

Hennessy invited a clear-eyed appraisal of the arts programs. “Here’s Stanford,” he says, recalling the conversations, “it’s just got all these great departments, but you know in the arts we’re not quite at the same level as some of our East Coast peers.”

The first priority was a world-class performance venue. Some of the impetus originated in one candid exchange between a music luminary and Hennessy. “Itzhak Perlman was giving a concert in MemAud, so I go back to see him at one point, greet him, and he says to me, ‘Mr. President, Stanford is a great university, but you have terrible performance facilities.’ Well, that’s a gift to a president, because there’s a story I can repeat from an expert.” 

Bing Students
Photo: Ian Terpin/Stanford University
FINE TUNED: Bing Concert Hall provides performance spaces that enable improved music education and serves as a symbol of Stanford's commitment to the arts. Above (l. to r.), Johnny Weger, ’18, Daniel Bereket, ’17, graduate student Chris Davis and Kevin Coelho,’17.

The key moment, says Hennessy, was the decision by Peter, ’55, and Helen Bing to contribute $50 million for construction of the Bing Concert Hall, a triumph of design and acoustical fidelity that became the centerpiece of a decade-long initiative to promote the arts. 

When Bing opened in January 2013, the sense of excitement among faculty was palpable. They admired the hall’s beauty and its acoustical properties, which enhance the experience for listeners, and appreciated what it enabled for students and colleagues.

Before Bing, says Stephen Sano, chairman of the department of music, “we couldn’t teach our orchestra musicians the fundamentals of playing in an orchestra because they couldn’t hear each other in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. . . . As a teaching facility, it’s opened up whole new horizons.”

He adds: “We can present music we couldn’t before,” and cites a collaboration at Bing between the Stanford Chamber Chorale, a select student choir that he conducts, and the TAPS Dance Division (from the department of theater and performance studies).

Sano, MA ’91, DMA ’94, says he also sees the concert hall as an inspirational wellspring of new music and new writing. That’s part of the significance, he thinks, of a work by music professor and composer Jonathan Berger, DMA ’82, and novelist Harriet Scott Chessman: My Lai, a “monodrama” concert related to the Vietnam War massacre of that name, which debuted at Bing last year with performers including the Kronos Quartet. It then went to Chicago in a more staged form.

A year after the Bing groundbreaking in 2010, the university announced a gift by the Anderson family—Harry W. (“Hunk”) Anderson, his wife Mary Margaret (“Moo”) and their daughter, Mary Patricia (“Putter”) Anderson Pence—of one of the most important privately held art collections in the world, along with plans for a museum to permanently house it. The Anderson Collection Building opened in 2014 next to the Cantor Arts Center. A year later, the McMurtry Building, a new studio-rich home for the art and art history department, opened on Cantor’s opposite side.

In combination, the edifices form—along with Cantor and Frost Amphitheater—an “arts district” that significantly enhances educational opportunities for students and has elevated the university’s profile in the arts. 

“Stanford has invested more money into the arts—with support coming from a generous donor group—in the past decade than the university had invested in the arts during the prior 115 years of its history,” notes Shell. “It is a striking story that has made Stanford now an arts destination in the Bay Area, and certainly among institutions of higher education.”

Andrea Hennessy
Photo: Alex Webb/Magnum Photos. From Stanford 125: A Visual Exploration (Spring 2016)
Hennessy credits his wife, Andrea, with inspiring his deeper appreciation of art.

For observers from afar, it may have seemed unusual that Hennessy would be the president to so effectively champion the arts at Stanford. His image, at least superficially, is dominated by his roots in electrical engineering, his reputation as a leading computer scientist and his administrative background as Stanford’s former dean of engineering. But those who know Hennessy well see no irony in his embrace of the arts. They have long admired the breadth of his intellectual life—“a catholic curiosity,” says Bravman—and the humanism that fortifies his thinking. 

“John was a compelling national spokesperson for the value of a liberal arts education,” says former Board of Trustees chair Leslie Hume, MA ’71, PhD ‘79. “His track record as an entrepreneur and his background as an engineer made his advocacy—and especially his championing of the humanities and arts—particularly compelling at a time when there is so much debate about the values of particular majors and a questioning of the ‘usefulness’ of studying subjects such as philosophy or theater.”

Burton “Burt” McMurtry, who with his wife, Deedee, provided the key $30-million gift for the building in their name, says, “The idea of an arts initiative originated totally with John.” McMurtry, MS ’59, PhD ’62, is a former chairman of the Board of Trustees and the person who initiated conversation with the Anderson family about the eventual home of its collection. McMurtry, who has helped with faculty recruitment, is keenly aware of Hennessy’s focus on academic excellence. It took him and his wife less than five minutes to commit to their building gift when Hennessy asked.

When McMurtry describes the connoisseur side of Hennessy’s personality, he details its uplifting quality. One example: A commentary Hennessy gave on a figurative painting by Elmer Bischoff, Interior With Cityscape (1969), that was a gift to Cantor. What stuck out to McMurtry was the sophistication of Hennessy’s observations without him “ever talking down to anyone.”

Hennessy credits his wife, Andrea, for expanding his appreciation for art. He describes her as “my art educator and inspiration.”

He adds: “I never would have become an arts aficionado without her passion for art.”

And that appreciation goes beyond the aesthetic: Hennessy sees the study of the arts as a critical element to educational and personal development. “One of the great things about the arts, you look at a Jackson Pollock or a Mark Rothko, and you think, well, what exactly does this mean? It’s not clear-cut; there’s ambiguity and there’s subtlety. . . . It’s influenced by the time in which it was painted and what was happening in the world at that time. Those are things, I think, that give a degree of depth to understanding human conditions, which are not simple by any stretch of the imagination.

“We saw . . . the arts as an important way to give our students another dimension on how do they think outside the box, how do they deal with difficult issues?”

Now, as Hennessy gets set to move on to his first post-presidency endeavor, that sensibility about complexity, about learning how to joust with the most nuanced or difficult of problems, remains at the forefront. He is the founding director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, designed to lure the “absolute best students in the world” to Stanford for graduate education. Announced in February and propelled by $400 million from Nike co-founder Philip Knight, MBA ’62, the scholarship-funded training is inspired by Hennessy’s desire to alleviate a “void of great leaders” who can lead organizations that grapple with the world’s biggest maladies.

The idea originated with Hennessy thinking, “Was there one last thing I really could get done here?” 

After 39 years at Stanford, as a faculty member, as a dean, as a parent, as provost and as president, Hennessy has seen the university from many angles, but his view hasn’t changed. It’s a place, he says, that is fundamentally “about giving people opportunities.” And doing something with them.

“You’re a global citizen, you’re born into this incredible world, you have an opportunity to come to this incredible university. We hope that you will give back in some way that makes the world better.”

Comments (1)

  • Dr. John Cole Bravman

    I count myself extraordinarily fortunate to have know John Hennessy professionally, and even more, to have become his friend. I know that his fondest wish will always be for Stanford to advance still further - and it surely will - but when the second century of the university comes to a close, 75 years from now, I fully expect that the principal author of what the university is then will be John Hennessy. He preached "impact" - and he has had more than anyone could have imagined was possible. Jane and Leland are very, very proud.

    Posted by Dr. John Cole Bravman on May 5, 2016 7:35 PM


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