‘A time of potential turmoil’: Outgoing President Richard Saller reflects on a turbulent year

‘A time of potential turmoil’: Outgoing President Richard Saller reflects on a turbulent year

Outgoing President Richard Saller reflected on a tumultuous year at Stanford in a Friday interview with The Daily. As he prepares to hand over leadership to Jonathan Levin ’94 on Aug. 1, Saller discussed divestment demands, disciplinary action against protesters, institutional neutrality and concerns over political scrutiny of higher education.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Thanks so much for speaking with me. Your tenure as interim president is coming to an end, as Jonathan Levin will take over on Aug. 1. Reflecting on this past year, how do you believe your presidency will be remembered?

Richard Saller (RS): As a historian, I know that actors in history don’t have control over the memory of themselves. I think it’ll be remembered as a time of potential turmoil, and one where we’ve had a campus that’s been uneasy, but not had events as dramatic as many other campuses around the country. So I’m hoping that I will be credited with keeping things as calm as we’ve been able to in a context that’s been very difficult.

TSD: What achievements from this past year are you most proud of?

RS: I think we have begun to set a context for civil discourse and, hopefully, a feeling of freedom of speech in which it’s possible to express diverse and conflicting views without becoming personally aggressive and obnoxious.

TSD: Do you have any regrets from the past year?

RS: Yes. I have sometimes responded too quickly to requests for comment and not done enough in the way of background investigation to know what was motivating a question or request. I’ve had to learn that a Stanford president doesn’t really have personal, confidential communications, except with a few people in [the President’s office].

TSD: Was there a specific instance when you made a comment that you regretted?

RS: I’m actually, I think, not willing to answer that question, because I don’t want to give that controversy new life.

TSD: On the subject of public commentary, you and Provost Martinez have both expressed a commitment to institutional neutrality, saying that university leaders should not make statements about international or national affairs. Can you share your rationale for that stance?

RS: Yes, this is an important point, and it was confirmed yesterday by a vote of the Faculty Senate. The reason given in that statement is the reason that I would have. And that is, our campus is a community of people with very different views, sometimes directly conflicting views. It’s not the job of the President or Provost to issue an institutional orthodoxy about which view is right or wrong. Rather, it’s to perpetuate a context in which debate can take place.

Again, as a historian, I’m very conscious of the fact that in history, there have been views that were very unpopular that were censored at the time and then turned out to be correct in the long run. So it really is important that we have an environment where people can disagree, argue, but hopefully without becoming personally threatening, because I think that detracts from the value of the debate.

TSD: In April, a group of pro-Palestine students reestablished an encampment in White Plaza. Students involved with that encampment and some other demonstrations, such as an attempted takeover of the Mechanical Engineering Building, have seen disciplinary charges and legal action. A student was also allegedly banned from campus. Are free speech principles and disciplinary action against protesters contradictory or compatible?

RS: They’re compatible in my view. We’ve been very careful to actually allow a fair bit of flexibility for protest. We have said quite directly that students are welcome to protest on White Plaza, but camping is not protected by the First Amendment and it is perceived to be threatening by some in our community. We have not forcibly closed down the camping because we thought that would be counterproductive in the current circumstances. 

The attempted takeover of Building 570 really crossed the line, in the sense that it threatened the students who were working in the building. They wrote to me with very clear statements that they felt threatened and frightened. And they had reason to be frightened because there were dangerous chemicals and sophisticated equipment in the building. The building was defaced. That crossed the line into physical harm and threat of physical harm, so we took stronger disciplinary action in that case.

'A time of potential turmoil': Outgoing President Richard Saller reflects on a turbulent year'A time of potential turmoil': Outgoing President Richard Saller reflects on a turbulent year
(THOMAS YIM/The Stanford Daily)

TSD: In recent weeks, we’ve also seen police officers clash with pro-Palestine protesters at other universities such as Columbia and UCLA. What was your reaction to these events?

RS: I was almost in tears when I watched the New York Police march on Columbia’s campus. It was deeply unsettling, and it reinforced the position of the Provost and me that we are trying to de-escalate the tensions on campus and not take actions that escalate. I think [it] is partly due to our patience and partly due to the students’ generally restrained behavior that we’ve been able to avoid those kinds of scenes.

The one other thing I want to be clear about is, we did have a few weeks ago that intrusion by a counter-protester into the encampment. It was our [Department of Public Safety] officer who immediately took the intruder away to avoid any kind of repetition of what happened on the UCLA campus with the attack by counter-protesters against encamped students. The police and security presence around the encampment now is not meant to intimidate the students, but to protect them. And I think they have done a good job and they should be appreciated for that.

TSD: Have you ever considered authorizing law enforcement to police or clear protests at Stanford?

RS: We have thought about it. I would say we’ve not gotten close to that decision. But if there were an escalation on campus, we would have to think about that option more seriously than we have up to this point.

TSD: What would such an escalation look like that would demand law enforcement?

RS: I don’t think I can say, both because I’m not sure it would be prudent to say, but also because — as I’ve discovered throughout the last nine months — so much depends on context. It’s hard to say ahead of time. I know that students and faculty would like to have much more clear-cut rules about what punishment is going to come from what actions, but that’s not possible, partly because context does matter. Partly also because I don’t control [the Office of Community Standards]. We can refer to OCS, but I don’t control the outcomes of OCS.

TSD: What is your response to student protesters’ contention that disciplinary charges against student protesters are discriminatory or biased toward Muslim and Arab students?

RS: We’re applying the same standards to all students. If this were simply a matter of discrimination based on ethnic identity, we would be issuing a lot more citations than we have. The citations are based on specific actions that violate policy and disrupt.

TSD: Moving on to the concrete demands, what is your response to student protesters’ call for the University to publicly disclose its investments, including its endowment?

RS: That is something that has to go through a process with the [Special] Committee on Investment Responsibility. My understanding is that SCIR does have a petition that they’re going to consider, and I have brought to the attention of the Trustees the demands that you’ve mentioned. It’s not within my power to make those changes.

TSD: Protesters have also called for the University to divest from weapons manufacturers and businesses connected to the state of Israel. Do you have a position on those demands? Do you plan to propose a vote on divestment demands to the Board of Trustees?

RS: Again, that’s not within my purview, it would have to go through this Committee on Investment Responsibility.

TSD: But on their specific demand that you propose this vote at the next Board of Trustees meeting, do you plan to?

RS: It would have to be SCIR that would make a recommendation to the board.

TSD: I’d also like to talk about the broader national political context. Over the past year, we’ve seen university presidents and institutions of higher education face scrutiny in national politics, including from Congress. Where do you believe this scrutiny stems from?

RS: I think there are a couple of sources. I think the populist politics of the country right now lend themselves to criticism of elite universities, and we are elite, there’s no question about it. The resources we have, the level of support that we provide to students and faculty are in a category well beyond public universities.

I think that there’s also a backlash against the perception that universities, and especially elite universities, are ‘woke.’ There are wild allegations about the politics of our faculty that are just demonstrably untrue. But they are part of the public discourse now. I’ve watched some of the congressional hearings — there’s a sense that there’s political benefit to be had from severe questioning of university presidents.

TSD: Why do you think antisemitism has emerged as a [focus] for that scrutiny?

RS: I’m not sure about that. There are very different views, and I don’t know that I have a way of knowing which of those views is better supported by the evidence. I do think it’s very clear that the war in Israel and Gaza has put an intense spotlight on both antisemitism and Islamophobia and it’s something that we need to deal with.

I also think that there’s a long-standing political alliance between some groups of African-Americans and some Palestinian groups. So I think that then gets interpreted as antisemitism. I understand that it is such a complicated situation, that I guess I don’t have a definite answer to your question.

Probably while we’re sitting here, I’ll get the full report of the Subcommittee on Antisemitism and Anti-Israeli [Bias]. I’ll be interested to read what they say. I know that on the other side, our Muslim students are also feeling hostility and fear. I don’t think that this will disappear as long as the war and the tragedy of the war is going on in the Middle East.

TSD: Does that increased political scrutiny of higher education concern you? How do you think colleges and universities can build public trust?

RS: It absolutely concerns me. I can envisage a political scenario in which politicians in Washington heavily intrude and try to control or influence our curriculum and our hiring appointment decisions. The legislation in Indiana and Florida I find very unsettling, and I think it’s not impossible that we could get similar legislation at the national level. What the federal government has is the power to restrict research funds. Stanford could not be the university it is without federal research funds, which amount to more than a billion dollars a year in the Stanford budget. So I do worry about politicians telling us what should go into our courses and what kind of faculty we should hire.

I’m not sure how best to confront it. It won’t be my issue, because I’ll be leaving office at the end of the day on July 31. But I do think possibly a coalition of universities should try to convince the congresspeople to not go that route.

TSD: The Stanford administration has been the subject of intense criticism from some this year. Your home was also vandalized in January. If you’re comfortable sharing, how have you personally navigated so much criticism?

RS: My skin has become thicker. The words and the acts have had different effects. The cutout of me at the camp, I view that as not a personal attack. The students I work with personally, I think we have a lot of mutual respect. I see that as an attack on the authority of the office of President.

The vandalism at our home was regrettable and put us on guard. We have a better security system now. But it wasn’t serious damage. I guess the thing that I find most disturbing is some of the moral blaming that I get in scores of emails every day. Over time, I’ve gradually become a little more numb to them. Because on a typical day, just this morning, I’m getting moral blaming emails from both sides. It’s very clear that there’s nothing I could do that would make everybody happy. Often, there’s no way that I can make anybody happy. So that’s probably the most disturbing part of the job.

TSD: Do you have any advice for Dean Levin as he steps into the job?

RS: I have been meeting with him to give him background, but I don’t know that I would be so presumptuous as to give him advice. I’ll give him what background I have, but then he’s going to have to make his own decisions with the Provost. One bit of advice is that in my experience so far, the judgment of Provost Martinez has been excellent. I’ve been very fortunate to have her as a partner in all of this.

TSD: You’ve been at Stanford since 2007. What has serving as president meant to you in the context of your academic life?

RS: It was a complete surprise, and it’s an honor. I really do believe that Stanford is the best, or one of the two or three best universities in the world. To have the opportunity to be in this role for 11 months has been an honor. I have learned an enormous amount about how the institution works. I’d been dean of the largest school by faculty count for 11 years, but there’s still so much that I didn’t know. In that way, it’s been an adventure.

TSD: To go back to 2023, you succeeded President Marc Tessier-Lavigne after his resignation over an investigation into manipulated research. Why did you take on the job?

RS: Because I was asked. At that point, I had absolutely no reason to believe that the Pac-12 would dissolve a month later, that war would break out. It’s not just that the war broke out, but it is a particularly horrible war, I think, in the way that the fighting, the atrocities have gone. All of that has made it much more tense on campus. I certainly didn’t expect that.

But looking back, if I have helped the university navigate a particularly difficult year, I will feel as if I’ve done my job. John Hennessy, who was president for 16 years, said he thought this was the worst situation that the University has had to navigate in at least 40 years. When he said that, I was a little taken aback, but I can believe that it’s true.

TSD: Speaking of John Hennessy, how do you think your leadership style has compared to previous presidents, including Marc Tessier-Lavigne?

RS: As interim, I have been very careful not to make decisions that would impose burdens, obligations on my successor… Particularly with the protest issues and the athletics issues, I’ve been very much involved in just dealing with the next day, the next week and the next month. In that way, I think my work has been much shorter term. 

Because the times have been difficult, and I’ve seen what’s happened on other campuses, if I can get through this year and leave Stanford in a relatively stable position, I’ll have felt like I’ve done my job.

TSD: Looking to the future, what do you see as Stanford’s greatest needs and strengths?

RS: I think there’s no university with a better-quality faculty and student body. One of the strengths that we have, that no other peer university in this country has, is having seven schools, all of which are at the top of their peer group on the same footprint. The possibilities of interaction are tremendous, and truly unparalleled at any other university. I think that promises continued success. Being in an environment where we’re ready to make changes to meet new conditions, I think that’s particularly valuable. In that way, not being an Ivy League school probably helps us some.

As for the challenges going forward, I think the culture change that we’ve tried to start in the way of respect for different views and avoiding a sense of institutional orthodoxy is important. One of the most disturbing things that I’ve heard over the past months, and I’ve heard it from more than one student, is that they feel fearful to say what they really think in some of their essays, some of their papers, some of their work, for fear that the instructor will disagree or penalize them for it. That’s not the atmosphere that we want on campus, where students feel as if they have to please or write for the approval of authority.

TSD: Since 2000, the number of staff at Stanford has more than doubled. In 2023, the staff-to-student ratio was 0.94 staff per student. What explains that growth? Should Stanford try to reduce its number of staff?

RS: We are in the process of trying to figure out where the staff growth is and where it’s appropriate to reduce it. But the problem with that kind of bald statement is that it doesn’t take account of what kind of staff we’re talking about. The biggest single area of growth has been in clinical doctors. Should we say that we shouldn’t be hiring clinical doctors to provide high-quality healthcare support within our community and beyond our community? I don’t think so. Another part of the staff growth has come in the growth of research staff. When we start a new institute, like the [Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence] Institute, they have staff — that’s in support of the research.

Part of the problem with the crude, aggregate comparison is that much of the American public, and even people in our own community, think of universities as places of undergraduate education. So then, why should we have more staff if we don’t have many more undergraduates? Undergraduate education, in terms of budget, is only about one sixth of what we do as a University. It’s in a whole variety of areas that we’re adding staff, some of which is to serve undergraduates, but a lot more of it is in other areas.

TSD: The California State Assembly recently passed a bill that would prohibit legacy or donor admissions preferences at private universities in California. What is your view on legacy admissions preferences? Will the University comply with that bill if it [becomes law]? 

RS: We’re in the middle of that assessment. That’s particularly complicated because there are different stakeholders. I know that both the Graduate Student [Council] and [Undergraduate Senate] have voted to stop legacy admissions. There are other stakeholders who feel equally strongly that we should continue it. That is a discussion that we haven’t resolved yet, and it won’t be resolved before July 31.

TSD: Your background is in Roman history. How do you think your academic background has informed your leadership?

RS: I’ve said in my inaugural address and in other contexts that my work in Roman history has made me appreciate being at Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley. Because I believe that the Romans were notably devoid of innovation. The contrast with Stanford is quite remarkable. Related to that, I have spent a lot of effort studying Roman society, demography. It really is, I think, a good antidote to some of the feeling of despair that we’re living in an age of existential decline. We are so much better off than the average Roman. Knowing enough history, going back in time before the current problems — wars, turmoil — offers a perspective that’s useful.

TSD: Will you return to teaching in the Classics department in the fall?

RS: I will. I’ll be teaching a full load in the coming year. 

TSD: My very last question: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Stanford community?

RS: One of the reasons that so far this year Stanford has not had outbreaks of violence is that there’s generally a strong community feeling. There are obviously very strong disagreements. There’s a lot of pain. But I think in general, the community has held together better than at many other universities that have been in the news. I appreciate that. I’m grateful. It’s not been an easy year for me or for people who work in this [office]. But again, I have been grateful that, for example, the Faculty Senate hasn’t voted no confidence in me, to put it in the starkest terms.

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