Badasses of Stanford: President Hennessy

Posted by at 10:55PM

When people on my tours ask what my favorite part of Stanford is, I always respond, “the people.”  I always mean it.  And now I’m going to tell you why.

This is the inaugural article of my new series on the badasses of Stanford.  Every week, I’ll feature a new, fantastic member of the Stanford community who exemplifies the incredible passion and persistence that Stanford embodies.  Some of them will be people you’ve heard about, and some will be Stanford’s stealth superstars whose awesome contributions go largely unnoticed.

To kick off the series, who could be a more appropriate representative of Stanford rockstardom than President Hennessy himself?

Bill Gates shows Hennessy his sweet dance moves.

Hennessy the International Superstar

President Hennessy is easily as busy as a national president.  He gets up at 5 a.m. every day and tackles dozens of conference calls and meetings, serving as Stanford’s constant ambassador, administrator, and figurehead.  Indeed, who’s to say he isn’t a “real” president?  At 8,180 acres, Stanford is roughly 20 times the size of Monaco.  Had Stanford been its own country in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, we would have placed 19th overall in the world in medal count, beating out 69 real nations.

President Hennessy is kind of a big deal.

How big of a deal, you ask?  He’s tight with the Dalai Lama.  He’s an international adviser to universities abroad.  He’s the kind of guy who casually dines with the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, and Larry Ellison.  Right.

President Hennessy has been interviewed by Rolling Stone, and there have been speculations that Hennessy’s raw sexual energy alone would be sufficient to provide Stanford with all the clean, renewable energy it could desire.

Entrepreneurial President

All joking aside, President Hennessy really does have what it takes to power our awesome university and propel us to greatness.  In his own words,

It is crystal clear that thinking long term – seeking solutions – is what universities need to do.  I am trying to move Stanford toward my vision of what a university needs to be in the 21st century.”

And there’s no doubt that he’s doing an extraordinary job.

As Stanford’s first “geek president” (per the Mercury News), Hennessy has “re-rooted Stanford in Silicon Valley – while extending its global reach.”  Indeed, according to Grant Heidrich, partner emeritus of  the Mayfield Fund, “he has led Stanford’s ascent to become one of the great global universities.”

President Hennessy approached his 2000 appointment as Stanford’s 10th president with a mission to revolutionize education at Stanford, declaring, “I have always taken our motto as an invitation to free and open inquiry in the pursuit of teaching and research, and as an encouragement to be bold in seeking out new knowledge.”

Hennessy set out with the goal of revitalizing three main tenets of Stanford academic life:

  1. Stanford Introductory Studies
  2. science and engineering programs
  3. arts and humanities

Revolutionizing undergraduate education and making it look easy.

He promptly instituted the 5 year, $1.1 billion Campaign for Undergraduate Education – an unprecedented program in which “few corners of the university… remained untouched.”  Despite his own tech background, President Hennessy particularly emphasized the importance of the liberal arts, even in his inaugural address: “we are not doing enough for the arts and humanities at Stanford.”  His efforts have brought about the resurgence of Stanford Lively Arts as well as the institution of the Stanford Arts Initiative to make art more accessible to undergraduate students of all disciplines.

President Hennessy has likewise presided over the emergence of Stanford’s unique interdisciplinary programs, and his inspirational speeches have covered a variety of topics geared towards pushing Stanford in the right direction.  Some of my favorites are his talks on the responsibility intrinsically tied to a Stanford education, the future of women in science and technology, and the importance of pursuing academic excellence in challenging economic times.

The Visionary

You can’t glance across a Stanford campus map without seeing physical manifestations of Hennessy’s impact.  During his tenure he has presided over more than $6.3 billion in gifts and dozens of new construction projects.  SEQ?  Arrillaga Alumni Center?  SIEPR?  Clark Center?  Knight Management Center?  Bing Concert Hall?  Yeah, none of those were here before Hennessy got here.

But President Hennessy realizes that Stanford is intertwined with the world around us and, as a result, has a responsibility to the world beyond our sandstone arches:

Stanford’s future is inextricably tied to the future of our community, our state, our nation and our world.”

Ten years and going strong

With impressive goals for the years to come, I really hope we won’t lose President Hennessy anytime soon –  despite the historical pattern of Stanford presidential terms lasting approximately ten years.  According to Mark Heinrich, Hennessy’s former student and current prof at Cornell’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, “Hennessy is renowned and admired for his ability to see the Big Picture.”  The world needs places like Stanford.  And Stanford needs people like John Hennessy.

Stanford dream personified?

President Hennessy is, in many ways, Stanford personified.  Indeed, a cursory Google image search suggests that, to many, President Hennessy is even synonymous with Stanford.

He's more than good, he's grrrreat!

Our president has worked as a researcher, teacher, entrepreneur, author, and administrator.  He has a CV that’ll knock your socks off, and it would take several paragraphs for me to do his various awards and accolades justice.  This, to me, is but one more reason why Hennessy has been the perfect leader to chart Stanford’s course into the 21st century: he’s lived the Stanford dream.

He joined Stanford’s faculty in 1977 to lead the University’s research on reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture as part of the EE field of very large scale integration (VLSI).  After beginning Stanford’s MIPS (millions of instructions per second) project  in 1981, he co-founded MIPS Computer Systems, which sold for $333 million in 1992.  After his turn in industry, Hennessy skyrocketed through the ranks back at Stanford, chairing the CS department from ’94 to ’96, serving as Dean of Engineering from ’96 to ’00, then assuming the presidency with the turn of the millennium.

But President Hennessy is a badass most of all because his success hasn’t gone to his head.  According to CS prof John Mitchell, “if you think nice guys finish last, [John Hennessy] is living proof to the contrary.”

Just can’t get enough?

Don’t take it from me that he’s an inspirational speaker – check out any of the following videos and interviews.  Then pull on your best Stanford rally gear and dance to this.  Go Stanford!

  • Podcast interview here
  • Charlie Rose interview here
  • Interview more specifically regarding international students here
  • Tech interview with gamehacking.org here
  • YouTube videos here
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2 Responses to “Badasses of Stanford: President Hennessy”

  1. So true! says:

    First off, great idea for a series on TUSB! I think too many students are unaware of how many AMAZING people we have around us. I remember when I first read Hennessy’s background and was really surprised–I knew he had to be accomplished to be president, but seriously his research contributions alone make him a total baller among professors, nevermind the litany of recognitions he has.

    Members of the communities at Harvard and Princeton continually complain about the job their presidents are doing, sometimes calling for them to step down (and the last one at Harvard *was* asked to step down), saying they’re screwing up the school, etc. At least in my four years here I have not once heard or read online anyone ever criticize Hennessy on his job. That probably does happen (everyone has critics), but at least it’s infrequent enough to seem nonexistent. Yale’s management supposedly runs a pretty tight ship, and their president is a candidate for heading the NEC; I was unsurprised when I discovered that the alma mater of both the president and the provost of Yale is Stanford. No wonder Yale runs like butter. :)

    Lastly… because I have to say it, I’ve thought it for so long, wanted to mention it but never found an opportunity… so… does anyone else notice the way that Hennessy’s mouth moves when he talks? Does he just have a slight lisp or something? Something weird goes on with his tongue. Or lips. I mean, he’s totally awesome and also a really really nice guy (he was when he served me and a few others breakfast!), but I just wanted to bring this up once before I graduate.

  2. Great article says:

    Hennessy is going to be leaving sooner rather than later–there was a Daily article recently in which he briefly mentioned it, but said something to the effect of, “I do want to get back to teaching etc. but not quite yet.”

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