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t would be difficult to imagine someone more wired into the culture at the
nexus of technology and higher education than John Hennessy. A computer
scientist who joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1977, he started a
highly successful company, MIPS Computer Systems, in the 1980s. He rose
up through the academic ranks at Stanford, and then served as president from
2000 to 2016 — a period during which companies founded by university alumni
took the tech world by storm. Marc Andreessen, cofounder of the venture capital
firm Andreessen Horowitz, dubbed him “the godfather of Silicon Valley.” After
stepping down from the presidency, Hennessy returned to the classroom, and,
naturally, engaged in new ventures. He wrote a book on leadership, Leading
Matters: Lessons from My Journey. And he became the non-executive board chair
at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, where he has helped manage the
recent leadership transition as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped down
from their executive posts. And, backed with a US$750 million endowment, and
fueled by $400 million from Nike founder Phil Knight, Hennessy created the
Knight–Hennessy Scholars program, which aims to instill a culture of leadership
among an interdisciplinary group of grad uate students. In his office in Denning
House on the Stanford campus, Hennessy, 67, spoke with strategy+business about
the similarities — and crucial differences — involved in leading high-performance
organizations in the realms of education and technology.

S+B: You describe your path to becoming president of Stanford — a pinnacle of
educational leadership in the U.S. — as a somewhat accidental journey.
HENNESSY: I loved being a professor. I also loved being an entrepreneur; I could
have done either one and probably been perfectly happy. I discovered partly as a
by-product that I liked actually leading an organization. In much of academia,
the administrative side is considered the dark side. When I took the job as chair
of the computer science department, it was out of a good citizenship obligation;
everybody has to do it, it was my turn. And I discovered initially that I liked
creating opportunities for faculty and students. The one real turning point for me
was when President Gerhard Casper asked me to move up from being dean of the
engineering school to be provost in 1999, to replace [future U.S. Secretary of
State] Condi Rice, who was stepping down. I was really unsure. Being a dean was
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