"It's not that a white male can't lead. I've done it," says John Hennessy, the 65-year-old president emeritus of Stanford University, long-time Google board member, and new non-executive chair of its parent company, Alphabet. "It's that we all benefit by being exposed to a diverse cohort of people, working in a diverse community. Because if you're in a leadership position, you're not leading just people who look like you."
Hennessy has had a storied career at Stanford, starting at the tender age of 25 as an electrical engineering and computer science professor. Over the next 23 years he worked his way up from dean of the School of Engineering to provost and eventually president in 2000. He stepped down two years ago, after successfully steering one of the most vital periods in the 133-year history of the $24.8-billion endowment cap-and-gown institution. Just days ago he was awarded the Turing Award, also known as the Nobel Prize of computer science.
Stanford (No. 2 in the 2017 Top Colleges ranking) is, by far, one of the most dominant actors in Silicon Valley -- and its 222,000 (and counting) alumni residing in the U.S. are living proof. Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom, Snapchat's Evan Spiegel, and Reese Witherspoon, actor-producer-cofounder of the Time's Up coalition, attended The Farm during Hennessy's tenure. It's not overdramatic to note, counting additional famous students such as Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Peter Thiel, and Laurene Powell Jobs, that the school sits at the epicenter of global innovation, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and technology.
Which is exactly why Hennessy decided it was time to merge his two titles to create the Knight-Hennessy Scholars. Along with billionaire Nike cofounder Phil Knight (MBA '62), he is in the process of creating a template for what some see as the future of higher education and leadership: an interdisciplinary intellectual home that stresses collaboration.
Launching for the 2018-2019 academic year with plans for a $750 million endowment, Knight-Hennessy Scholars will be the largest fully endowed scholars program in the world. That number will fully fund the first three years of graduate education (from MBA or JD to MD or Ph.D. - tuition plus living and academic stipend) for the up to 100 students in the program annually. Those students whose degree requirements go past three years will be funded by their departments.
The point? To cultivate a new generation of leaders across disciplines who can "creatively address the world's thorniest problems." Hennessy, who possesses a blend of intelligence, restless energy and humor, discusses the "holy grail" of digital education and the future of leadership, including the #MeToo and #MarchForOurLives movements.
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