From Stanford: Women in STEM – “Q&A with Provost Persis Drell”

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Persis Drell

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Today, Feb. 1, Persis Drell becomes provost of Stanford University. A longtime member of the Stanford community, Drell was appointed to the post in November by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, succeeding John Etchemendy.

Drell, a physicist, most recently served as dean of the Stanford School of Engineering and previously as director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Drell sat down with Stanford Report to discuss her approach to the job of provost, which serves as the university’s chief academic officer and chief budgetary officer and works in close partnership with the president to provide overall leadership for the campus. Video excerpts of the conversation are also available on this page.

What do you expect to focus on first as you step into the role of provost?

I think the most important thing really early on is to get to know the faculty, staff and students across the campus.

I have been at Stanford for a while, since 2002, so there are parts of the university I know well. But even the parts I know well, I’ve realized how dramatically different they are in culture. And so I’m expecting the parts of the university I don’t know so well are going to be even more diverse in terms of their culture. To do my job, I’ve got to learn what’s important to them, how they do things, how to communicate with them. That’s very, very high on the agenda. For the students, it’s really important for me early to reach out to them so that they get to know me as not some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Building 10. Then when issues come up, which they will, we’ll deal with each other as people, and not as adversaries.

We’re kicking off a long-range planning process for the university, and that process will be incredibly important to set the guideposts for where we want to be and what we want to do over the next decade. And, I also have to learn the day-to-day job of the provost! That’s going to be learning the details of the budget, and I’m already engaged in that now. And it’s going to be the academic responsibilities of how we ensure the quality, the breadth, the diversity that we value so much.

How do you envision the partnership you’ll have with President Tessier-Lavigne?

Marc and I are very aligned when it comes to our value system and our principles. He has a line he uses that I find inspiring, which is: Given the gifts we have here at Stanford, we have a responsibility to use those gifts to make the world better. So his vision for where he wants to take Stanford I feel totally aligned with.

That said, our styles are totally different! And I think that’s a strength. I just think that’s a strength. John Etchemendy and John Hennessy had totally different styles. But they were aligned in where they were going. Marc and I diagonalize on different axes, but that diversity of styles, I think, with an alignment of where we want to take the university, is the best I could hope for.

The recent executive order on immigration has been a major concern on campus. What are your views on that subject?

I value and will work to support all members of our community. That absolutely includes members of our Muslim and immigrant communities, who are among the communities feeling particularly vulnerable now. Marc, John and I issued a statement of principles that I hope people will read and that captures my thinking. I am deeply troubled by policies that restrict the broad flow of people and ideas across national borders, or that have the effect or appearance of excluding people based on religion or ethnicity. Such policies are antithetical to our mission and values as an institution, and to my personal values.

You have a scientific background, but you also have a love of the humanities and include chamber music among your hobbies. How important is breadth in undergraduate education at Stanford?

So, my career is in physics. I majored in math and physics. But I have always enjoyed the humanities. If I’m sitting at home with some time on my hands, I do not pick up a scientific journal to read. I pick up a novel. I happen to like 19th-century novels; that’s my preference. A lot of what I do, a lot of what all of us do, is deal with people. Even as a scientist, I’m dealing with people. I learn about people in reading a novel. I learn about people’s passions and emotions by playing music, and interacting with people and playing music.

And so I think there’s a false choice people are presented with, that you’re either going to be the scientist or you’re going to be the humanist. I think all of us need parts of both, and I try to live my life that way.

I think breadth in undergraduate education is absolutely critical. I was just having the discussion with a freshman recently who was looking at a winter quarter schedule of physics, computer science, math and another course. She was thinking about dropping her IntroSem [Introductory Seminar]. I told her, drop physics and take the IntroSem! I could just tell that she was really excited about the IntroSem, that it could take her in whole new directions. She thought she wanted to be an engineer, but she’s only a freshman. Getting breadth early, so that she can actually see what she really is interested in, is incredibly important. I do think this is something we could do better here at Stanford: helping our students understand how important breadth is, and then helping them explore early in their time at Stanford.

What are you like to work with? What can the campus community expect from you?

I’m a very direct person. I say what I think, and that’s the way I like to deal with people. I value transparency a lot.

And I value, above all else, the team. Probably the thing I enjoy the most about managing is that you have a team of people, and with each one, they have tremendous skills. And you want to understand those skills and then help them use those skills to do things that even they couldn’t have imagined they could do. But then everybody also has weaknesses, so you want to protect them from their weaknesses and also let them know you’re always there to support them. Figuring out how to get a diverse team of people together to work to a common goal is about the most fun thing I can imagine doing.

You often have spoken about the importance of diversity and inclusion. How do they enrich the education and research missions of Stanford?

Diversity is incredibly important to us here at Stanford. It’s a core value of the institution. And I’ve learned that why diversity is important can actually vary across the university. One of the things I’m doing now, as I go around and meet faculty from around the university, is starting to ask them, why is diversity important to them? Why is diversity important to the humanities? To the natural sciences? To the social sciences? I think an important part of our learning experience is being able to articulate the answer to that question.

In the School of Engineering, we were able to discover and articulate that being diverse was actually critical to our success as engineers. You need to have a breadth of thought and approach and background to understand the problems that need to be solved. You need a breadth of thought, background, approach in order to see what solution will fit in the context of the society where you want to implement your technical solution. Both of those require diverse teams of people and diverse approaches.

In terms of inclusion: One of my former physics students wrote this fabulous blog titled, “No, I Am Not Lost.” She wrote about how as a computer science major, a young African American woman, she would walk into Gates [Computer Science Building], and it would be a matter of a minute or two before somebody asked her if she was lost. That was a bit of a wake-up call for me on how we need to be welcoming and supportive to all of our students.

I feel that it is absolutely important for the success of every member of our community to ensure that they feel they belong here. I particularly feel this for our students. We do a fabulous job of admitting one of the most diverse undergraduate populations of any university. These students are terrific. We need to make sure that every single one of those students understands that they belong here and we are supporting them to be successful. And that’s fundamentally what inclusion means for me.

Your predecessor, John Etchemendy, served as provost for nearly 17 years. Does his time in the office impact how you approach the role?

John, for me, has been the heart and soul of this university for the time I’ve been here, since 2002. John convinced me, inspired me, encouraged me to do things that I didn’t know I could do. He saw opportunities for me that I couldn’t see for myself. And he encouraged me and supported me to be successful in really difficult and challenging times. He is my model, my inspiration, for the best kind of leadership at Stanford.

What are you most excited about as you take on the role of provost?

What I am most excited about as provost is where we’re going to be five or 10 years from now. We have a fabulous foundation. But we also have an institution that is not complacent and is ready to do what it takes to move to the future.

We have fabulous faculty here. They are innovative, imaginative, they range the spectrum from brilliant individual contributors to leading large teams. We value all of them, enormously. And I view a primary responsibility of the provost (a) to ensure the continued quality and excellence of those faculty, and (b) to figure out what we can do at the university level to support our faculty to achieve their aspirations. That is what carries Stanford to its future and keeps us great.

We have a staff that is absolutely fundamental to the success of the university and enormously dedicated to supporting the faculty and students. They are a central part of the future of the university, too.

I think we’re blessed right now to have a student body that really and truly wants to make the world better. They are impatient for change. I want to encourage their aspirations to make the world a better place. I want to encourage their impatience. And I want to work with them to achieve their goals.

Prepared remarks by Persis Drell at the ‘Reinvigorating Community: An Inauguration Day Gathering’ event.

“Hello. I am Persis. Every four years, we inaugurate a President, and every four years, I take this moment to reflect on what it means to be an American. For each of us, it means something different. I just want to share with you what it means to me. This is a personal story. Each of you will answer the questions I am about to address in a different way.

The first question I ask myself is: What do I mean when I say I am an American?

I get asked all the time – where does your name “Persis” come from? Are you Greek? Are you Persian? And I always answer, well, the word “Persis” is Greek and it means “a woman from Persia,” but I’m not Greek and I’m not Persian, I’m American. I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

For me, being American has nothing to do with the accident of being born in Boston. It has much more to do with the mixing pot of values, cultures and backgrounds that I emerged from.

To me, being American means that my father’s parents were not born in this country. They fled racism and religious persecution in Eastern Europe. They left everything behind and came to this country determined that their children would grow up in freedom and get an education.

My mother’s mother was one of six sisters and one brother growing up in Rushford, Minnesota. My great grandfather died young, and the family had a very difficult time, splitting up and living with various relatives to have a roof over their heads. Amazingly for the early 1900s, the family prioritized education, even for the daughters.

To me, being American means that the six sisters could pull each other up the educational ladder, one by one. The oldest sister, my great-aunt, was named Persis, which is where I got my name. It is a family name and has nothing to do with being Greek or Persian. It is in the Bible and was in the family for generations.

My mother’s father was a planter in Mississippi and his family was on the losing side in the Civil War. We don’t really know how he and my Minnesota grandmother met. She was a schoolteacher.

Being American – to me – means that two of my grandparents were Jewish. Two were Protestant.

My father grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and worked his way through college, going to Princeton as part of the Jewish quota allowed in at the time.

My mother was born and raised in rural Mississippi. And her mother insisted she had to go north and get an education. And she did, at Wellesley College.

My parents met at University of Illinois where both were pursuing graduate studies. I always marvel at random chance that brought them together from such different backgrounds.

To me, being an American means that my family is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and education has been the great enabler for us regardless of our background.

And while my parents’ story seems a series of improbably random occurrences, I believe it is the norm and not the exception. And I believe many of you have similar family stories with equally random events deciding the course of your lives. And I don’t think those stories could have been written so many times in any other country but ours.

And education, for so many of us, has been the route to personal happiness, professional happiness, and perhaps most satisfying, the route to being able to contribute to society.

And when I say I am an American, I mean that my arms are open to the people who arrive on our doorsteps today, with the same dreams for the future that two of my grandparents had when they arrived here 100 years ago.

The great strength of our country is that so many of us have backgrounds similarly or even more diverse. This diversity of backgrounds and thought and approach is not only this nation’s heritage, our shared experience, but it is our strength as a country. This country is built on a foundation that you have a place here regardless of your background. You have an opportunity to learn and grow — not only for yourself but so that you may contribute to the common good. By bringing people together from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, we stand stronger.

The second question I ask myself is: What does being an American mean to me?

I believe we live in the greatest country in the world. And I believe this country is great because of the opportunities that exist here and the freedoms we have.

Now let me be very clear. Inequity and injustice are not abstract concepts in our country. They are real and they affect real people.

Could the opportunities in our country be better? Yes! Could our society be more equitable? Yes! Are there injustices in our society? Yes! Are there many, many things that could be better in our society today? Yes! Are there many injustices in the world that we have a responsibility to make right? Absolutely!

What makes me think this country is great is my faith in our continuing ability to make the future better than the past. And that is because of our democratic process. Our democratic process, enshrined in the Constitution, affords us rights and responsibilities that I believe empower us to help mend these injustices, create a more equitable society with greater opportunity for all, and together tackle the world’s urgent challenges.

Democracy is messy and it is hard, but I believe that the opportunity always exists to make our country and our world better. So for me, being American means never losing my optimism about the future.

My optimism is based on the progress I have seen in my lifetime. My optimism is based on the potential I see in the people in this room. In fact, you give me the most hope about the future! Some of you dedicate your careers and lives to supporting and conducting research and teaching, and advancing the goals of this institution. Others of you will stay for a few years, graduate, and then go off and do amazing things with your lives elsewhere.

But every one of you, and each of your colleagues and friends here at Stanford, have made a commitment to the importance of education. And so it is your energy, your dedication, your values — you are the source of my greatest optimism.

You must believe in the future and you must work to make the world better. Believe in and work for what is best in people. Be positive about the contributions you are making. Use your education to build the country worthy of your aspirations. Work to ensure that others can receive similar educational opportunities so that together you can build a more just, equitable, and peaceful world.

The future of this country is yours. Embrace it!”

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