Stanford University's first "geek president" celebrates his
10th anniversary this fall having established what many academic
observers call a new model for American college leadership, once
the province of tweedy scholars.
As the first high-tech entrepreneur to lead a top research
university, John Hennessy has re-rooted Stanford in Silicon Valley
-- while extending its global reach.
In a roller-coaster decade, the popular leader has presided
over more than $6.3 billion in gifts and dozens of new construction
projects that place the university in the red-hot center of
innovation, from stem cells and neurosciences to energy and the
environment. For four years in a row, Stanford has raised more
money than any university in the country.
When the recession triggered a plunge in the school's
endowment, Hennessy quickly made big cuts, positioning the
university for a rebound. This fall, he opened campus to its
widest-ever spectrum of freshmen, from 54 countries and every state
except South Dakota. Among them is Reed Jobs, the 19-year-old son
of the Apple founder.
Through it all, say observers, Hennessy, 58, has kept his
humor -- and golf game -- intact.
"I can play very quickly if I start at 6:30, when the sun's
coming up," he laughs.
In a rare interview, he tells the Mercury News this story on a
morning in the sun-drenched president's office, decorated with
books on leadership, a pair of cowboy boots and a Stanford boogie
board. He wakes at 5, without an alarm, in the president's Hoover
House, which he shares with his wife, Andrea. They met as teens, at
an after-school job at the King Kullen grocery store in Huntington,
Long Island; he was a stock boy, she was a cashier. He wowed her by
building a box to view a solar eclipse, then a mechanical
By afternoon, he'll be on a plane to Boston, where he'll wine,
dine and inspire hundreds of devoted alum. It is part of a global
outreach tour that has taken him to Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo,
London and major American cities.
A multimillionaire founder of the microprocessor company MIPS
Computer Systems, Technology, he sits on the boards of Google,
Cisco Systems and Atheros, owning an estimated $4 million in stock
in these companies, according to a Mercury News analysis. The Wall
Street Journal reported that he invested in elite venture capital
funds Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia
Capital and Foundation Capital. Since January, he's sold Google
shares worth $2.36 million and Atheros shares worth $543,436.
His experience as a high-tech entrepreneur gave him practice
in risk-taking, rigorous management and savvy business skills, say
observers, who compare him with legendary provost Frederick Terman.
And his valley connections have proved a fertile source of
donations and research opportunities.
"The university is blessed to have John Hennessy as president.
It's that simple. He has led Stanford's ascent to become one of the
great global universities," said Grant Heidrich, Stanford alum,
parent and partner emeritus of Mayfield Fund, who first met
Hennessy when the president was a 31-year-old associate professor,
a skinny guy with a promising startup that needed funding.
"John is pretty unflappable," said Heidrich, recalling
desperate days when MIPS verged on bankruptcy. "When under fire, he
stays focused and clear and finds out what the real issues
Adds Jonathan Holman, president of the CEO-recruiting company
The Holman Group: "Most professors don't have a clue about the
commercial world. John totally gets it. . . . Stanford is a huge
financial entity. In many ways, John is selling a product: the
reputation and performance of a university."
Hennessy has matured on the job, say observers, and never
displayed the solo-performer trait seen in many techies. Unlike
running a startup, university management is a collaborative
progress, highly dependent on consensus-building.
"He must love complexity because the more complicated an issue
is, the more John Hennessy shines," said Molly Broad, president of
the American Council on Education.
And the faculty finds him decisive but flexible. "John forms
very strong opinions about issues -- but you always feel that, when
discussing things with him, that he is not only listening to you
but also willing to change his mind," engineering professor Jeff
Increasingly, Hennessy ponders society's big long-term
problems -- energy, the environment, global health, international
stability -- that he believes have been abandoned by shortsighted
corporations and stressed governments.
"It is crystal clear that thinking long term -- seeking
solutions -- is what universities need to do," he said. "I am
trying to move Stanford toward my vision of what a university needs
to be in the 21st century."
It is this concern for the future that drives conversations
with donors, he said. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang gave $75 million
to the university. Netscape titan Jim Clark gave $150 million. Phil
Knight, founder of Nike, gave $105 million. Hennessy led a $1.1
billion campaign exclusively for undergraduate education -- the
largest of its type at the time.
"We talk about investing in Stanford, about making a
difference in the world, about investing in research which will
improve the quality of life for their children and grandchildren.
It's about investing in incredible students," he said. "It is a
long discussion around something that is important to them. They
know we'll be good stewards of their philanthropy."
Since his arrival, incoming freshmen and sophomores receive
greater access to senior faculty. He's broadened research
opportunities for juniors and seniors. He urges all students to
become more tech-savvy; 72 percent of all students have taken
Introduction to Computer Science.
He built more housing for grad students and young faculty
members. A $50 million gift from alums Helen and Peter Bing pushed
a new concert hall forward. He's boosted outreach to recruit women
and minorities. And he's made it easier for students to take
courses outside their core focus. For instance, law students can
also earn a master's degree in subjects such as public policy.
There's a new joint masters program between the business and
education schools, so tomorrow's K-12 leaders also have an
He's explored an increase in undergraduate enrollments --
while also proposing a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to
"My experience in the valley gave me two important skills. One
is to get comfortable with numbers, quickly," he said. "The other
is to make decisions with incomplete information, without knowing
exactly what the future will hold."
And when he wants to learn more, he turns to two sources of
inspiration: Bill Hewlett and David Packard, who met at Stanford
and kick-started Silicon Valley.
"I manage by walking around," he said. "It's a page out of
Dave and Bill's old playbook."
WHAT WORRIES HENNESSY
The plight of the public universities: