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Stanford University inaugurates new president

Marc Tessier-Lavigne describes his vision for the 'purposeful university'

As Marc Tessier-Lavigne shed his black doctorate of philosophy robe and put on the Cardinal-red robe of the president, he ceremonially stepped into his new role as Stanford University's 11th president at his inauguration Friday morning.

The infrequent event, held at the university's outdoor Frost Amphitheater, was imbued with ceremony, tradition and ritual. The crowd of robed faculty, students and many alumni back at the Farm for homecoming and reunion events this weekend stood dutifully for the inauguration processional.

Steve Denning, chair of the Board of Trustees, conducted the official investiture of Tessier-Lavigne, and Eliza Adams, a neurobiology graduate student who came to Stanford with Tessier-Lavigne from his former institution, presented the president's robe.

Former Stanford presidents Gerhard Casper and John Hennessy, Tessier-Lavigne's predecessor, as well as outgoing Provost John Etchemendy, all spoke, invoking Stanford's history, the present moment and future potential.

In the new president's address, Tessier-Lavigne described his vision for Stanford as the "purposeful university" -- an institution that "promotes and celebrates excellence not as an end in itself, but as a means to magnify its benefit to society; a university that, relentlessly, educates students to be global citizens and leaders, fosters unlimited creativity and discovers and applies knowledge for the benefit of humanity," he said.

Three "key mainstays" are the bedrock of that vision, Tessier-Lavigne said: education, the generation and application of knowledge and the people and culture that make up Stanford.

A neuroscientist himself, Tessier-Lavigne reflected on a increasing shift in higher education away from the liberal arts and toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as vocational fields. He urged the university to remind students that "the liberal is the vocational."

While half a century ago, scientist and novelist Charles Percy Snow worried in his famous "Two Cultures" essay that science and technology were second to humanities and the arts, "today, the pendulum has swung," Tessier-Lavigne said.

"There is mounting pressure for a vocational focus, and STEM fields ... are promoted by politicians concerned about the economy and parents concerned for their children's job prospects," he said. "In the face of this trend, we must reaffirm the importance and value of a broad or liberal education -- liberal in the sense of 'liberating the mind.'"

A "broad-based education" that focused on a breadth of disciplines will be students' "best preparation" for a rapidly evolving, 21st-century world, he said. Stanford should support students in their diverse interests, not "unwittingly drive them to focus in particular areas," he added.

Tessier-Lavigne recognized Stanford's deep roots in and ties to Silicon Valley, tipping his hat to the university's many high-profile STEM alumni. But by name he acknowledged alumni like Stephen Breyer, a philosophy major who is now a Supreme Court justice; U.S. senators Dianne Feinstein, a history major, and Corey Booker, a political science major; California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia; and Emmy-award winning actor Sterling Brown.

The university's "second pillar," the generation and application of knowledge, is about nurturing those two activities rather than pitting them against each other, Tessier-Lavigne said. Stanford continues to face challenges in "advancing this dual mission," including declining financial support for research, he added.

"Today, more than ever, fundamental research needs vocal and ardent champions -- all of us. We also need to ensure that fundamental research and scholarship continues to flourish here at Stanford," he added, calling this commitment a "first priority."

A second but "complementary" priority is to apply and translate knowledge both at Stanford and beyond its walls, Tessier-Lavigne said.

Third and fourth priorities for Stanford's new president are to "ensure across-the-board strength in all disciplines" and to "explore the moral, legal and societal dimensions" of the university's many research efforts.

It was the final section of Tessier-Lavigne's speech, titled "diversity and freedom of expression" in a copy provided to the press, that garnered the most applause from the audience.

They applauded his commitment to diversify Stanford's faculty, particularly recruiting more women and minorities; his focus on inclusion for historically marginalized groups; and his "rejection of all forms of violence, including the sexual violence that has roiled our campus, for which we have zero tolerance." (Hennessy, too, in his remarks referenced the spotlight on sexual assault at Stanford, which has been particularly strong in the wake of the controversial sentencing of former student-athlete Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious and intoxicated woman on campus.)

Tessier-Lavigne, who was the first in his immediate family to attend college, also noted the need to make Stanford more accessible to all.

He went on to laud both the academic and advocacy work of Stanford neurobiologist Ben Barres, the first openly transgender scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

"That is the kind of courage we want to flourish here," Tessier-Lavigne said.

He ended with a similar call to the university's faculty, staff, students and alumni.

"Let us commit to being a purposeful university, a courageous university, a university of unlimited potential," he said. "Let us be fearless."

Tessier-Lavigne, 56, a native of Canada, assumed the presidency this fall after Hennessy announced last June that he would be stepping down after 16 years leading the university.

As a former Stanford faculty member, Tessier-Lavigne for the past five years led The Rockefeller University, a small, private biomedical research and graduate education institution in New York City. His wide-ranging career includes time not only as an educator but also a biotech company founder and Genentech executive.

Watch a video recording of the Oct. 21 inauguration here. Read Tessier-Lavigne's full inauguration address here.

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