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Neuroscience pioneer tapped as Stanford's new president



by Elena Kadvany

After six months and thousands of hours reviewing prospective candidates for a successor to Stanford University President John Hennessy, who announced in June 2015that he would be stepping down after more than 15 years of leading the university, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of The Rockefeller University in New York City, has been named the university's 11th president, the Stanford Board of Trustees announced Thursday.

Tessier-Lavigne, 56, is a former Stanford faculty member, neuroscientist and advocate for higher education. For the past five years, he led The Rockefeller University, a small, private biomedical research and graduate education institution with only 175 Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. students, according to its website.

"Marc Tessier-Lavigne brings to Stanford an infectious energy, confident leadership, a distinguished academic record and a lifetime immersed in leading initiatives to develop knowledge for the benefit of humanity," Steve Denning, chairman of the Stanford Board of Trustees, said in a press release.

Tessier-Lavigne was the unanimous choice presented to the Board of Trustees by a 19-member Presidential Search Committee that was tasked with conducting a comprehensive and inclusive global search for a new president, according to an announcement. The full board unanimously approved the committee's choice in a special meeting Thursday morning.

In a press conference Thursday, members of the search committee described the achievements and attributes that led to their unanimous selection of Tessier-Lavigne, from his pioneering neuroscience discoveries to a "bold," "inspirational" and collaborative leadership style.

"We knew that we needed a leader with a breadth of experience, stellar academic qualifications, proven ability to lead with conviction and also a track record for building consensus," said Kam Moler, chair of the Faculty Senate and professor of applied physics and physics. "Marc brings us these qualifications. He's first and foremost an academician, an outstanding faculty member. He led transformation in his field of research. ... But he's also highly respected by his colleagues as a leader, a collaborator, a mentor and a teacher."

"He is a coalition builder," Denning echoed.

"We were all impressed by his imaginative leadership," Denning added. "He has created new paradigms and fresh, new approaches at every institution he has led."

Tessier-Lavigne's resume is wide-ranging. He has held faculty positions at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. He conducted pioneering neuroscience research, identifying molecules that direct the formation of connections among nerve cells to establish circuits in the developing brain and spinal cord, according to the university. He served as executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, where he led 1,400 scientists in disease research and drug discovery for cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases, according to the university.

In 2011, he assumed his current post as president of The Rockefeller University. There, he led the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, moved the school "deeper in to the cultural fabric of New York" and launched an almost $1 billion capital campaign, Denning said. He also helped to establish the New York Genome Center, an international consortium of academic, medical and industry leaders working on translating genomic research.

Tessier-Lavigne is also a "tireless advocate for societal support of science," a university press release notes. He has testified before Congress on the need for federal funding of research and championed growth of the New York bioscience community, according to the university.

Tessier-Lavigne's early life was more humble: He was born in Ontario, Canada, to a father who didn't finish high school and a mother who didn't attend college, he said Thursday.

A "typical Canadian army family," they moved around the country a lot, and to Europe, where he completed most of his schooling, he said. He mostly attended French schools in London and in Brussels until college — experiences that gave him a "global view," he said.

Tessier-Lavigne went on to obtain an undergraduate degree in physics from McGill University and later a second undergraduate degree in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He said it was this exposure of physiology that led him to neuroscience. He then earned a doctorate in physiology from the University College London and did postdoctoral work there as well as at Columbia University.

From 1991 to 2001, he taught at UCSF, beginning as an assistant professor of anatomy and rising to associate and then full professor of anatomy and of biochemistry and biophysics, according to the university. From 2001 to 2005, he taught biological sciences at Stanford and held the Susan B. Ford Professorship, having been recruited by Hennessy. While at UCSF at Stanford, he was also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Last year, he also co-founded a San Francisco biotech company called Denali Therapeutics to research drug therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. He also previously co-founded a neuroscience startup called Renovis. (It was later acquired.)

Tessier-Lavigne said Thursday that his "first task" will be to meet with every segment of the campus community and " to seek to understand the opportunities and challenges facing the university, and to hear your aspirations."

"There's a fundamental law of great institutions that they never stay the same; they either move forward, or they recede," he said, "and our charge is to ensure that Stanford, as extraordinary as it already is, continues to get better and better, year in and year out.

"How will we achieve this? As a community."

Tessier-Lavigne said he couldn't speculate on what "specific plans" might emerge dialogue with the campus community, but identified several "core principles" that will guide the work.

The first, he said, is a sustained commitment to "the importance of liberal arts education as the best way to prepare students for an impactful life." He later commented on a declining appreciation in the United States for liberal arts education, "eroded over time as people become more and more focused on more careerist approaches."

"Marc's achievements at all stages of biomedicine -- basic research, translational research, and public application -- are truly exceptional," Denning said, "but equally critical for us is his deep commitment to strengthening what he sees as the endangered liberal arts values in our undergraduate education. He has stated his commitment to supporting and strengthening those doing research and teaching not only in STEM fields, but in the social sciences, humanities, arts and the professions."

Stanford also has a "responsibility to make sure that knowledge is applied for the betterment of humanity," a personal passion of his, Tessier-Lavigne said, reflecting on his neuroscience research. (His research has focused on the cause and treatment of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, as well as on therapies for spinal cord injuries, according to the university.)

Tessier-Lavigne said he also plans to focus on undergraduate teaching and education; research and "foster(ing) great inquiry in all disciplines, across the board."

Beyond this, there are many issues top of mind, particularly for students in recent years: diversity and inclusion, sexual assault, the health of the school environment for those who live and work there, he said.

"The university must strive to lead on these issues and be responsive to student concerns while remaining true to the core values and mission of the university," he said.

During the university's regular faculty senate meeting later in the afternoon, in response to a question from ASSU President John Lancaster-Finley about campus sexual violence, Tessier-Lavigne said that "as a parent of a daughter who will be going to college next year, I can't think of a more important issue."

He said working on education, prevention and other related issues around sexual assault will be a "top priority."

In response to questions from the media during Thursday's press conference, Tessier-Lavigne said he feels well-prepared to work with student activists on these issues, based on his experience interacting with students with similar concerns at The Rockefeller University.

He plans to "continue the same major focus that we've seen from the current administration, working in collaboration with students and with the campus community."

Hennessy will continue as president until Aug. 31, and Tessier-Lavigne will take over on Sept. 1, according to the university.

John Etchemendy, who has served as provost with Hennessy since 2000, will continue in his role with Tessier-Lavigne until a successor is appointed for his position.