Searching for the Next President of Stanford: A Conversation with Kathy Chou

by Erica Toews

When John Hennessy announced that he would step down as the president of Stanford after sixteen years, Kathy Chou and eighteen others on the Presidential Search Committee were tasked with selecting the eleventh president of the university. The Committee ultimately chose Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of The Rockefeller University and former Stanford faculty member, to become Hennessy’s successor.

Kathy called seKathy Chou 2rving on the Committee “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” and emphasized “how rare of an opportunity it is and also how rare to have someone from Cap and Gown be able to do that.” The amount of time and work required of the members amounted to “a full time job”. Fortunately, Kathy had just stepped down as senior vice president of sales strategy and operations at Informatica to take a role at VMware and hadn’t started her new job yet.

The Committee consisted of eleven men and eight women. There were eight Stanford Trustees, seven faculty members, one staff member, one undergraduate, one graduate student, and Kathy representing the alumni. They met almost every weekend for five months, from September through February.

To gather initial data, the Committee conducted informational interviews with over 130 people at high-level educational institutions, including Stanford faculty members and presidents of other universities. They asked “three very simple questions: one, what was their understanding of Stanford’s challenges and opportunities? Two, what were the characteristics of what they would look for in the next president of Stanford? Three, who do they suggest?”

Next, they engaged “a search firm, but not in the traditional way at all. In fact, we really were the search firm, the nineteen of us. They provided us a superset list of hundreds of candidates, and we had to cull that list down.”

Based on answers from the informational interviews, the Committee created a set of attributes for the ideal candidate to determine the qualification of individuals on the list. They gathered common characteristics – “leadership and humility were mentioned so many times” – and created a job description.

The Presidential Search Committee set out to find someone “inspirational, enthusiastic, creative, and empathic, with high integrity and ethics.” They sought “a distinguished scholar with high intellectual standards, who displays a breadth of interest in the totality of the academic enterprise that is Stanford.” In addition, the next President had to be “an accomplished administrator able to understand complex organizations, with the fiscal acumen” to handle Stanford’s 8-billion- dollar budget.

Collaboration came up repeatedly as a desirable trait, so the Committee wanted to find someone with “a collaborative leadership style who could select and empower a talented and highly effective team.” They must “embrace the university’s long-standing tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

The job description emphasized the ability to build community at all levels, “sustain trusting connections and inspire and engage our constituents to work together and energetically support the university. We wanted someone who would foster diversity and make sure people felt included and respected.” The next President must “be concerned with all aspects of the student experience.”

The Committee searched for someone who “had a broad global perspective as we become more and more global, and would provide leadership not only on global but also regional issues.” Finally, the successful candidate “must be comfortable with change, display humility and humor, be self-aware, and be willing to continually learn and grow in the role. They must build on the strengths of the past, provide leadership to the university as it embarks on new endeavors, and advance our mission to create and disseminate knowledge in the twenty-first century.”

After considering people from all over the world, it was a unanimous decision to select Marc Tessier-Lavigne as the next President of Stanford. Kathy expressed her amazement that any one individual could embody all these traits: “This process is so thorough. Everyone is vetted over and over again. I don’t even know how people can make it through. Marc Tessier-Lavigne is absolutely the right candidate to take Stanford to the next level in this next decade.”

Industry background was not a primary consideration, but Kathy believes Tessier-Lavigne’s background in neuroscience will be a boon to Stanford: “Hennessy was the right president to usher in high tech. Marc will be the right president to usher in biotech.” With a philosophy degree from Oxford, he understands the humanities as well.

Kathy remains excited to see what new ideas Tessier-Lavigne has to offer. She said, “John Hennessy left, and leaves, incredibly big shoes to fill. And here’s the thing. We don’t want someone to fill those shoes. We want someone to fill another pair of shoes. John broke the mold for what he did. Marc will create his own mold.”