This interview

"I have particularly enjoyed teaching and working with young people, and that has taken various forms over the years, both in the classroom and outside of the university. Nothing is more exciting than the exchange of ideas with others who are engaged in questioning and pushing the boundaries of knowledge." -John Hennessy

Other Interviews

"For my PhD I worked on the model of a region where I was able to essentially capture a whole range of economic activities by which the demand for energy can be forecasted and predicted, then came up with supply options by which that demand can be met. So I worked on energy issues to begin with, then moved into the environmental impacts of the whole energy cycle. "
-Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman IPCC

Interview with Dr. John Hennessy, the President of Stanford University

September 2009

Today we are interviewing Dr. John Hennessy, the 10th and current President of Stanford University. A pioneer in computer architecture, in 1981 Dr. Hennessy drew together researchers to focus on a computer architecture known as RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer), a technology that has revolutionized the computer industry by increasing performance while reducing costs. In addition to his role in the basic research, Dr. Hennessy helped transfer this technology to industry. In 1984, he cofounded MIPS Computer Systems, now MIPS Technologies, which designs microprocessors. He has lectured and published widely and is the co-author of two internationally used undergraduate and graduate textbooks on computer architecture design.

Photograph copyright, Stanford University

Dr. Hennessy served as chair of the department of computer science from 1994 to 1996 and, in 1996, was named dean of the School of Engineering. As dean, he launched a five-year plan that laid the groundwork for new activities in bioengineering and biomedical engineering. In 1999, he was named provost, the university's chief academic and financial officer. As provost, he continued his efforts to foster interdisciplinary activities in the biosciences and bioengineering and oversaw improvements in faculty and staff compensation. In October 2000, he was inaugurated as Stanford University's 10th president. In 2005, he became the inaugural holder of the Bing Presidential Professorship. Dr. Hennessy earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University and his master's and doctoral degrees in computer science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. President Hennessy, We are very thankful for your kind consideration to interview with It is a great day for our website.

app2us: With path-breaking research, inspirational teaching, the launching of a company, authoring popular textbooks, and now leading Stanford - yours has been an amazing career. What is the achievement that you value the most?
Dr. Hennessy: Yes, I have been very fortunate in my career and had great opportunities. I have particularly enjoyed teaching and working with young people, and that has taken various forms over the years, both in the classroom and outside of the university. Nothing is more exciting than the exchange of ideas with others who are engaged in questioning and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Perhaps that is what I value the most: engaging with others in challenging work and through it, contributing to the greater community.

app2us: Stanford University has around 6700 undergraduate students and around 8000 graduate students. Most other top research universities have a significantly higher ratio of undergraduate to graduate students. Why is Stanford so different? Are there any plans to increase the number of incoming undergraduate students?
Dr. Hennessy: From its opening days, Stanford University has attracted both undergraduate and graduate students and was intended to be both an undergraduate and a research institution. As a research institution, the university has strived to offer undergraduates unique opportunities to pursue research and develop as independent scholars. The undergraduate population has been essentially stable for about 40 years, while the graduate population has grown, as our research programs have expanded.

More recently, I appointed a task force to look at the possibility of increasing the size of the undergraduate student population. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of qualified applicants, but we are able to accept only a small fraction of them. Increasing the size of our undergraduate student body would give more opportunities to gifted students. However, a number of issues related to housing and residential education would have to be addressed before that could happen. Given recent changes in the economic situation, we have postponed making any changes in the size of the undergraduate population in the near future.

app2us: What are the recent Stanford initiatives for the students from low-income families? Do some of the benefits for low-income students extend to students from other countries?
Dr. Hennessy: When Stanford University was established, founders Jane and Leland Stanford stated their goal that the university maintain scholarships for "deserving and exceptional" students. Today, we continue to take pride in maintaining need-blind admission and offer financial aid to students who would not otherwise be able to attend. In 2007, we announced that for typical families with incomes below $100,000, tuition would be free, and for families with incomes below $60,000, both tuition and room and board would be covered by the university.

Thanks to the generosity of our alumni and friends, we have established endowed financial aid funds to provide some support for students from countries outside of the United States; we cannot guarantee full financial aid for all qualified applicants. Although the global financial crisis has hampered our efforts to expand these offerings, we remain committed to expanding our financial aid programs for international students.

app2us: What are the key areas of focus for the improvement/development for Stanford University during your tenure as president?
Dr. Hennessy: Since I was inaugurated as Stanford's 10th president in October 2000, I have focused on the following areas: - increasing undergraduate opportunities for research and independent learning;
- enhancing financial aid both for domestic and international students;
- increasing the diversity of our graduate student population and our faculty;
- enhancing graduate education to better address 21st century needs;
- expanding the campus culture of creativity through increased exposure to the arts;
- increasing the university's international involvement by sending our students to study in other countries, bringing international students to campus, adding new overseas campus and launching new international research programs through partnerships with other institutions;
- encouraging collaboration and interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary ventures; and
- implementing university-wide interdisciplinary initiatives in healthcare and the biosciences, environmental studies and international affairs.

app2us: The founders of some of the most successful technology companies were students or recent graduates of the Stanford Computer Science department. Many professors, including you, advise top Silicon Valley companies. What are the factors that make the department such a thriving place for entrepreneurship?
Dr. Hennessy: The Computer Science department reflects the tradition of innovation and entrepreneurship found campus-wide and inherent in Stanford's founding. The connection to Silicon Valley is not an accident. Over a century ago, Leland Stanford wrote: "The Imagination needs to be cultivated and developed to assure success in life." Throughout the university, we focus on nurturing innovation and challenging conventional thinking. We interpret the founders' goal - to be a "university of high degree" - to mean achieving at the highest level. The students and faculty who come to Stanford from throughout the world contribute to this thriving intellectual community. We also believe that maximizing the impact of our research by helping to transfer it to the Valley is an important part of our culture.

app2us: Many students find it difficult to buy textbooks. Do you have any suggestions to make textbooks more affordable?
Dr. Hennessy: At Stanford, many students buy and sell used textbooks. Often they can find used textbooks at a discounted price and then resell them when the course is over. I am hopeful that with improved digital books, such as the Sony e-reader and the Amazon Kindle, we will finally see textbooks appear in digital form, lowering the cost.

app2us: What are the most fun aspects of being a Professor? Please give us a message for the bright students who are considering a career in academia but are not very sure about it.
Dr. Hennessy: There is nothing more exciting than being at the edge of discovery and advancing a field of knowledge. As a faculty member, you get to pursue your own research and to teach others; it is the best of both worlds that combines love of learning at the same time it contributes to the greater community. And, working with bright, inquisitive students in the pursuit of new knowledge is a thrill I still enjoy after 32 years as a professor!

app2us: Some of our readers are in a situation where they get an admission offer from Stanford without financial assistance, and also to some other good universities with funding. They need to make a choice regarding which offer to accept. Please suggest what factors prospective students should consider while making such a decision?
Dr. Hennessy: Every person's situation is unique, and there may be good reasons for accepting another institution's offer. But we hope students will weigh the educational opportunities, in addition to the funding. Stanford is one of the world's leading teaching and research institutions, and our students have opportunities to learn from some of the most renowned scholars in the world, to develop skills as independent scholars, and to collaborate across disciplines on some of the great challenges facing our planet today.

app2us: What is your impression of the free service we at provide? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? [our mission: ]
Dr. Hennessy: I believe the blog provides an important service, and your goals to "help students maximize their potential," "to simplify the admission process," and "to be the most trusted and affordable (free) source of information for US bound students" are admirable. I wish you continued success.

app2us: Do you have a message for students who are considering applying to Stanford University for their graduate degrees?
Dr. Hennessy: Stanford's distinguishing characteristic is its pioneering spirit and focus on research that contributes to the public good. There is no better environment for innovation. The world today is facing enormous challenges, ranging from emerging infectious diseases that become global threats to the impact of climate change on our planet's ecosystems, from threats of terrorism to the persistence of poverty. At Stanford, we believe we can help address these problems, both through groundbreaking research and through the education of the next generation of world leaders. For students who are interested in taking on the big challenges and making a difference, we hope you will consider applying to Stanford. We think you will find the university a place that will nurture your dreams and help you achieve your goals.

app2us: On behalf of our team and our users, we express deep gratitude to Dr. Hennessy for talking to us. We also thank the staff at the office of the President of the Stanford University for helping with this interview.

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