The prestigious office of president at Stanford University carries with it significant heft – so when its name gets thrown around on a political issue, people notice.
Case in point: President John Hennessy’s support of Measure E, a local county measure which would establish an education parcel tax to fund local community colleges.
But how does the University decide when to utilize the considerable clout of the Stanford presidency?
According to Larry Horton, director of government and community relations at Stanford, when political issues come to the University, the Office of Public Affairs examines each issue and its precedent.
In this case, President Hennessy “got a request from a very highly respected former dean of our school of engineering, Jim Gibbons, who had been working on this issue.”
Horton said that his office supported having Hennessy endorse the measure. “I thought that this was wholly consistent with what we generally support,” he said. “We had the ballot arguments before us, looked at them, [and they] seemed to be perfectly agreeable. So we supported it.”
Although many people inside the University were involved in the decision to support the measure, President Hennessy has the ultimate say on what is endorsed. When asked if the Board of Trustees needed to agree on Hennessy’s involvement, Horton indicated that it was within Hennessy’s authority to support it unilaterally.
However, Hennessy’s decisions to support political matters are limited by certain guidelines that the University has put in place. Those guidelines include statements on who can support political issues and under what authority. In general, only the president and the deans are permitted to lobby on behalf of the University. Horton, who is a registered lobbyist in Washington, D.C., also lobbies on behalf of Stanford.
The guidelines also limit the types of issues for which Stanford or its president can lobby. For instance, Horton said, “We do not take positions on most political issues. Stanford never takes positions on partisan issues.”
According to Horton, Stanford has had a history of lobbying on issues that directly affect the University including “student aid,” “federally funded research,” and “immigration issues.”
The fact that Measure E addresses an issue related to education made it particularly relevant to Stanford. The revenue generated by the parcel tax will only go toward funding for the Foothill and De Anza Community Colleges. Although none of the funding will go directly to Stanford, the impact will be felt here, according to Horton.
“We’re talking about the education of people from Stanford. I’m absolutely sure that people living on the campus, children of the faculty go to Foothill and the surrounding schools,” he said.
According to Horton, supporting education-focused ballot initiatives is nothing new for the University. In fact, a long line of Stanford presidents have supported a wide variety of education issues. In addition to Hennessy, Presidents Casper and Kennedy have supported similar ballot measures in the past. In particular, Stanford has extended its support for “statewide referenda for bond funding for the University of California” and funding for the “state college system [and] the community college system.”
Beyond education, the only time in recent history that Stanford University had been involved with a local issue was the building of Sand Hill Road in 1997. For that issue, “Stanford not only took a position, but also managed the campaign for Sand Hill Road.”
In the case of Measure E, however, Hennessy will only be supplying his name, which appears on the Santa Clara county voter ballot as a backer of Measure E.
Although Hennessy was the last signatory to sign on, his name appeared first, a testament to the influence his office commands.