Neuroscientist to return to Stanford as its 11th president
Neuroscientist and entrepreneur Marc Tessier-Lavigne was named the 11th president of Stanford University on Thursday, returning to a school that is vastly more wealthy, more research-oriented and more globally renowned for its academic programs than when he served on the faculty more than a decade ago.
Tessier-Lavigne will succeed John L. Hennessy, who announced his intention to step down last June. Hennessy is widely credited with lifting Stanford to the highest ranks of the world’s elite universities during his 16-year tenure.
Tessier-Lavigne, 56, is currently president of Rockefeller University in New York City, a role he has held since 2011. He will assume his post in Palo Alto on Sept. 1.
The Stanford Board of Trustees approved his appointment in a unanimous vote Thursday morning.
Steve Denning, chairman of the board, called Tessier-Lavigne “an exemplary leader” with “a distinguished academic record and a lifetime immersed in leading initiatives to develop knowledge for the benefit of humanity.”
At Stanford, Tessier-Lavigne will oversee a campus of nearly 7,000 undergraduate students and 9,000 graduate students, with a budget of $5.5 billion.
In an interview, Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford has significantly improved graduate and undergraduate programs and interdisciplinary research and honed a culture of innovation since his faculty days.
The opportunity to build on those successes was a great lure in his return, he said. He was a professor of biological sciences from 2001 to 2005, having been recruited by Hennessy.
“With every great institution it is important to keep moving forward,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “My role will be to continue moving from strength to strength.”
He has not yet set priorities but will “listen and then work collectively with the campus community to develop a vision” and goals, he said.
Citing his own history as the first in his family to finish college, Tessier-Lavigne said he is committed to increasing socioeconomic and ethnic diversity at Stanford, which has surpassed Harvard and other Ivy League campuses as the most competitive in the nation for freshman applicants.
The school waives undergraduate tuition for families with annual incomes up to $125,000 and gives free room and board to those earning less than $65,000 a year.
The university, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, may study other measures to increase access, he said.
“My own background has conditioned my passion for this issue,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “My parents didn’t go to college but they knew how important education was and supported my desire to go. It’s important to make it possible for students of all backgrounds to attend Stanford.”
And Tessier-Lavigne vowed to continue to build on Stanford’s relationship with Silicon Valley, which has opened its arms to the university’s faculty. The university, in turn, has become a hub of tech innovation.
Tessier-Lavigne is more than familiar with that world. While working as a professor at UC San Francisco, he co-founded Renovis, a biotech company that was acquired by the German firm Evotech in 2008. Last year he co-founded Denali Therapeutics in South San Francisco to develop drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases. He said he has not determined whether he will maintain his involvement with the company.
Tessier-Lavigne was born in Ontario, Canada, and grew up mostly in Europe. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal in 1980 with a degree in physics and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he studied philosophy and physiology. He earned his Ph.D. in physiology from University College London in 1987 and came to the United States to become a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University.
He has long ties to California, beginning as an assistant professor of anatomy at UCSF in 1991. He went on leave from his faculty post at Stanford to join the South San Francisco biotechnology company Genentech Inc., now a part of Roche, as its senior vice president of research drug discovery. He joined Genentech full time in 2005 and was promoted to chief scientific officer in 2009.
He stayed in that role until 2011, when he became president of Rockefeller University. The 115-year-old school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side maintains 77 research laboratories in biomedical sciences and physics. One of them is headed by Tessier-Lavigne, who studies embryonic brain development and how cells in the brain respond to damage wrought by trauma or disease, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Tessier-Lavigne’s wife, neuroscientist Mary Hynes, was a researcher at Stanford from 2003 to 2011 before moving her lab to Rockefeller. The couple, though, still have a home near the Stanford campus. They have three children.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said many business, education and political leaders will be watching to see how Tessier-Lavigne will guide the campus and whether he can maintain Hennessy’s break-neck pace of fundraising, which has built Stanford’s endowment to more than $21 billion.
With his background as a neuroscientist, entrepreneur and university administrator, Tessier-Lavigne seems like “an amazingly good fit” for Stanford, Broad said.
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