He joined Stanford in 1977 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and a self-described naive young faculty member. Along the way to the presidency, Hennessy founded two outside companies and served as chair of computer science, dean of the School of Engineering and in the powerful position of university provost.
Instead of speaking from a podium, Hennessy opted for a question-answer interview format with Susan Colby, who heads the McKinsey & Company management-consulting firm's North American education practice.
The relaxed format allowed Hennessy to cover a vast range of subjects, notably excluding any personal plans to retire as president. But he did cover innovation, the global economy, higher education and the years from preschool through K-12 that lead to college. He spoke of how technology has the potential of revolutionizing and improving education worldwide.
His core message was that Stanford is deeply rooted in the community, the Silicon Valley region, the nation and the world, and that Stanford and other universities must play a role in the well-being of all of those layers of civilization and the environment.
"Whoever thought two kids from Long Island would be sitting here talking about Silicon Valley and Stanford University?" Colby began, quickly leading into how Silicon Valley became the "hub of innovation" and a social and economic powerhouse.
"One of the big questions we want to hear from John about is how we stay the hub of innovation and what does the future of innovation look like?"
Hennessy replied: "We both came out when this was not the center of the technology world. It certainly had a semiconductor industry here, but if you wanted to go talk to leaders of the computer industry you got on a plane, you flew to Boston or to New York to talk to the leadership.
"And now everybody in the world comes to Silicon Valley because it is really the hub."
What built that hub? "Getting great talent, supporting strong people is why there's been such a strong movement in companies and universities here in the valley," he said. Talent also "is keeping that innovation going. I think the universities now play that fundamental research role that Bell Labs and Xerox Park and IBM research used to play in earlier times."
Another big factor is attitude, he added. "There's also an incredible optimism out here. People are willing to take risks. They are willing to think differently about problems. And we have to preserve that feeling.
"There's a very different sense of opportunity than you see anywhere else in the world. And we've got to be sure we keep it. There are really two parallel things we have to do. We have to continue to be attractive to the best talent in the United States and ... the world" — not an easy challenge.
"And while we're not a perfect meritocracy — we're not, no place is — we're a lot better than other places in the world. There's an opportunity for bright young people with great ideas to rise and bring in important accomplishments. We have to keep that track. ... We have to get visa reforms done. We have to get general immigration reform done as well.
"And if you think about these young people, the Dreamers now, who are going to college, getting college degrees, who came to this country this high (a small-child height gesture) and they're now stuck in the dilemma about the future of their ability to live in this country."
There are other core issues: "We've got to worry about infrastructure and housing. We have to figure out how we're going to make it possible for people to live in this area, to afford a house and not to have to drive an hour and a half each way to get to work." Using mass transit and some type of alternative approaches to housing within the region will be needed as the area moves "from a suburban environment to a semi-urban environment," with a caveat.
"And as the density goes up we're going to have to figure out how to make living and working in the valley as great as when we got here."
Hennessy cited major challenges, including assuring that women have equal opportunities for careers in all fields. He recalled that it was only in the mid-1990s that Stanford named its first woman dean, and today about half the deans are women — including the dean of engineering, "a big step forward for us." The 1,000-plus audience applauded. Yet the broader importance of those appointments is the example they set for girls and young women.
Supporting career and education choices also applies to people of diverse ethnicities and cultures, he said.
Stanford must maintain the balance between technology and liberal arts, from English to art and humanities of all types.
The use of MOOCs (for Massive Open Online Courses) will vastly change the face of universities and open opportunities for education worldwide, Hennessy predicted.
And the interdisciplinary research Hennessy has championed during his presidency has the potential for changing the world in areas of disease management, education, communications and society.
Asked about his "legacy," Hennessy moved beyond improving education to the future of the region. While it already is "a glorious place ... the best place in the world," he said there needs to be a commitment "to keeping it the kind of place that the next generation is going to want to come to and live in and commit their lives to, and make a difference."
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