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Grooming the Leaders of Tomorrow

Former Stanford University president John Hennessy is the academic architect behind the knight-hennessy scholars program.
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former Stanford University president John Hennessy

No one would accuse Stanford University’s John Hennessy—co-founder of one of the first companies to commercialize RISC microprocessors, co-author of two widely used computer architecture textbooks, and the university’s 10th president—of being an under-achiever. Yet the man Marc Andreessen called "the godfather of Silicon Valley" stepped down from his administrative duties last year to focus on an ambitious fourth act: a multidisciplinary scholarship program aimed at grooming leaders who can solve the world’s most challenging problems.

It’s been just over a year since you stepped down as president of Stanford University, and it was surprisingly easy to schedule this call. I’m guessing that wouldn’t have been true in 2016.

I’m certainly traveling less, and my calendar has a lot of free time by comparison. At the moment, I’m on sabbatical, which my wife says I always fail at.

For one thing, you’re still deeply involved with the ambitious Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, which aims to "build a multidisciplinary community of Stanford graduate students dedicated to finding creative solutions to the world’s greatest challenges."

When we began to think about this program, in late 2014, we saw a growing disconnect between the kind of leadership that is needed to address the really big problems—whether it’s climate change or social inequality or how information technology will change the workplace—and the leadership we were getting. I think it’s a widely held view that things have gotten worse around the world in the last few years, and the challenges we face are more difficult. This is true not just in government, but in the corporate and non-profit settings.

So you decided to build the program.

The first thing we did is outreach—going around the world, talking to potential future scholars about the program. Many, many students have indicated an interest, and we’re hoping we can create a program that will make a real contribution toward closing this leadership void.

You also have returned to teaching.

I’m teaching a freshman seminar that’s called Great Discoveries and Inventions in Computer Science. It’s an opportunity to expose students to what is intellectually deep and beautiful about computer science as a field, and to go beyond programming to everything from computability to complexity theory to cryptography to AI.

How have your experiences as president of the university shaped your views coming back to the classroom? Do you think they have given you a broader perspective?

I think so. Computing is in a phenomenally interesting place, because despite everything that’s already happened with the World Wide Web and the Internet, the rise of machine learning and the use of big data are going to transform the world we live in. And that means computing is at the root of so many disciplines. In the social sciences, the use of complex, deep analysis of big data is completely changing the way we think about creating and evaluating theories about societal change and improvement. In medicine, the rise of big data provides an incredible opportunity to improve the quality of health while freeing up doctors to spend more time on the human side of helping their patients.

You have been involved with a number of interdisciplinary initiatives throughout your presidency. Let’s talk about some of the intellectual and pedagogical challenges interdisciplinary education presents.

I think the solution is not to say, ‘we need to teach everybody everything.’ It simply isn’t going to work. Instead, I sometimes say that we’re trying to educate people who will be ‘T-shaped,’ so they’ll have depth in a field—that’s the vertical bar of the T. But they’ll also be able to engage with other people, perhaps to learn some part of a new vocabulary from other fields, so at least the conversation will be on common ground.

These days, it’s difficult enough to keep up with all the changes in a single field, let alone across multiple disciplines.

Certainly now, in the field of computing, you have to. When I was a graduate student, I felt like I could go to anybody’s job interview talk or thesis defense and understand what was going on. But the field has grown so much now that it’s hard for a systems person to understand a thesis in theory, or for an AI person to understand a systems thesis. You have to assume that computer science will continue to grow and transform, and so, you have to be willing to learn new things.

What made you inclined to get involved with the administrative side of academia?

I’m probably the frog in the proverbial pot of water, where you raise the temperature slowly and the frog doesn’t realize it’s being cooked until it’s too late. I think what I found is that I’m just an intellectually curious person. I enjoyed talking to my colleagues in other fields and finding out what was the cutting edge of thought in their field; what were the interesting questions they were trying to focus on. When the chance came to become president, I jumped on that.

Nowadays, most people assume that being the president of a major university is less about satisfying intellectual curiosity and more about raising money— which you’ve undoubtedly been good at.

In fact, more of my time and more of my staff’s time is devoted to developing why we want to ask someone for money rather than actually doing the ask.

Most people who are philanthropic want to do something that has a good social return. They want a vision of how whatever they’re going to do will make a positive contribution and why it’s worthy of their philanthropic attention. So we spend a lot of time thinking about how to shape a vision for the university, what we could do, why it would be distinctive, and why it would make a difference. Once you shape that vision, it’s a lot easier to talk to people about how they might support it personally.

"You have to assume that computer science will continue to grow and transform, and so, you have to be willing to learn new things."

What do you make of the debate that the Knight-Hennessy program inadvertently sparked about funding institutions that are already well endowed?

I think there’s two parts to it. One is ensuring people believe you’ll be a good steward. Most philanthropists I know have worked really hard to acquire the ability to give to a cause, and they want to know that you’re going to be a good steward of their donation. The other part is the vision. I found that it’s very compelling to people when you can actually say, "You’re contributing to the scholarship of a deserving student who otherwise couldn’t afford to come to this institution."

I think the real challenge we’re facing in the U.S. is that our public institutions are suffering under cutbacks in state funding. Philanthropy is going to have to fill in, so we’ll need to articulate a message to potential donors so that they understand the need and why it’s important. And then we’re going to have to develop compelling opportunities, whether it’s hiring faculty members in a key area or supporting students on scholarship.

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