Donald Kennedy, Stanford’s eighth president, dead at 88

Donald Kennedy, who served as Stanford’s eighth president, helped set the stage for its transformation into one of the nation’s top research universities.


Donald Kennedy, a neurobiologist who became the eighth president of Stanford in 1980 and helped set the stage for its transformation into one of the nation’s top research universities during his 12 years in office, died April 21, 2020, of COVID-19 at Gordon Manor, a residential care home in Redwood City where he resided for the past two years.

Donald Kennedy, president emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science. (Image credit: Stanford News Service)

Kennedy, who experienced a serious stroke in 2015, was 88.

In his scholarly research, which centered on the properties of small nerve cells, Kennedy established that complex forms of motor activity can be elicited by stimulation of single nerve cells located in the central nervous system of the crayfish. He subsequently pioneered a new technique of dye injection into single nerve cells so that the whole axon, dendrite and cell body of the cell can be seen in the light of the microscope.

His tenure as president was marked by a renewed commitment to teaching by the university, which opened the Stanford Humanities Center, expanded interdisciplinary studies and added campuses overseas. In 1988, Stanford launched Bing Stanford in Washington, which gives undergraduates the opportunity to live, study and work as interns with government agencies and nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C.

“As we mourn the loss of Don Kennedy, we also salute his enormous contributions to Stanford and to our country,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

“As a biologist, as a national voice for science, as a vigorous leader of Stanford University and as an engaging teacher beloved by so many students, Don brought to his endeavors an enduring commitment to academic excellence, a deep wellspring of warmth and good humor and a vision for the possibilities always ahead of Stanford.”

Kennedy encouraged students to engage in public service by launching a program now known as the Haas Center for Public Service. The Haas Center now offers the Donald Kennedy Public Service Fellowship, which funds summer service projects for undergraduate students.

He also led the Stanford Centennial Campaign, which raised nearly $1.3 billion and provided funding for new equipment, new buildings and expanded financial aid. At the time, it was the largest sum raised in higher education.

In his 2018 memoir, A Place in the Sun, Kennedy said that among the best of the many wonderful things about working and living at Stanford was the character of its undergraduate student body.

“Creative, compassionate, and, of course, intelligent are adjectives that describe the many amazing students who have walked those shady arcades of sandstone and tile. During my 12 years as University president, I made a conscientious effort to carve out time to interact with these talented young people. Through teaching, advising and cheering them on – whether on the field, in the classroom, on the stage or in the biology labs – some of my very best Stanford experiences involved my interactions with undergraduates.”

Kennedy served as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 1977 to 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, and as editor-in-chief of Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, from 2000 to 2008.

A 1990 photo shows Stanford senior Cory Booker, now U.S. Senator Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, lifting the six-foot-tall Kennedy off his feet in a bear hug at the end of a memorable football victory. An avid runner, Kennedy could be seen running the Dish – a Stanford tradition, for which, he gave an open invitation to students to join him and tell him what was on their minds. His personal interests also included trout fishing, skiing and birding, an interest reflected in the 2009 book he co-authored with artist Darryl WheyeHumans, Nature and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Science.

At the time of his death, Kennedy, Stanford President Emeritus, was also the Bing Professor for Environmental Science, Emeritus, and senior fellow, emeritus, of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

The Stanford campus reflects the university’s high regard for Kennedy. In 2014, Stanford named a new five-building complex in Escondido Village on the east side of campus in his honor – the Donald Kennedy Graduate Residences. At the naming ceremony Stanford held to mark the occasion, Jim Gaither, former chair of the university’s board of trustees, described Kennedy as the “students’ president,” not just for his teaching and advising, but also for making students a part of his daily life on campus.

“You welcomed students to join you on your morning runs,” Gaither said. “You walked and talked and laughed with them. You attended their rallies and performances. You even posed with the swim team – you in swimming apparel (what little there was of it) and the team in business suits – after they met your challenge of winning a second NCAA title. You brought scholars and singers, athletes and student leaders, graduate student and postdocs into your home and your daily life. It is most fitting that your name be placed on student residences like these.”

The Haas Center for Public Service offers the Donald Kennedy Public Service Fellowship, which funds summer service projects for undergraduate students.

An inspiring and dedicated teacher

Kennedy, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1960, was known as an inspiring and dedicated teacher in both biological sciences and in the Program in Human Biology, an interdisciplinary program that he helped establish, and directed from 1973 to 1977.

Kennedy’s unconventional teaching style delighted students, including two alumni quoted in The Program in Human Biology at Stanford: The First 30 Years, 1971-2001.

“I will never forget Donald Kennedy getting up on the lab table at the front of the lecture hall and assuming a quadruped position to demonstrate to us the concepts of dorsal, ventral, cephalo, and caudal,” said Ingrid Schwontes Jackoway, ’79. “His first concern was always with teaching effectively, not preserving his dignity.”

“My favorite Hum Bio memory is of Donald Kennedy demonstrating echolocation in bats by climbing up on the desk in the front of the room, making ‘bat noises,’ and flapping his arms,” said Catherine Garzio, ’79. “I’ve thought of it often over the years when other ‘important people’ take themselves too seriously. Human Biology in the ’70s was really cool!”

During Commencement in 1976, Stanford awarded Kennedy the Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education, one of the university’s highest honors.

Commissioner of the FDA

In 1977, Kennedy took a leave of absence from Stanford to become commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Jimmy Carter. He later told an interviewer that “the opportunity to serve government is one that scientists should come to regard as a routine part of their career patterns, just as many academic lawyers, political scientists and economists do.”

In deliberating over whether to accept the job, Kennedy said he also thought about his exhortations to students in Stanford’s Human Biology Program to get involved in matters of public policy – and he realized that he should follow his own advice.

Among the challenges he faced at the FDA were controversies over the banning of saccharin, the alleged cancer cure Laetrile, the risks associated with antibiotics in animal feeds, alcoholic beverage labeling, and chronic complaints that the approval process for new drugs either allowed dangerous drugs into the market or impairs innovation.

In 1979, when Kennedy returned to Stanford as provost, the New York Times praised his leadership of the FDA:

“When he came to Washington two years ago, the agency was torn by internal dissension and the charge in Congress that it had become chummy with the industries it regulates. Morale has been raised and the FDA’s reputation is decidedly one of independence. One measure of the respect that Mr. Kennedy won is that spokesmen for both consumer and industry groups, who seldom agree on anything, rate him equally high.”

In 1980, Stanford named Kennedy as its eighth president. He succeeded Richard W. Lyman, who became president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Challenges as president

Campus photographs show Kennedy in moments presidential and work-a-day. One 1983 photo shows him escorting Queen Elizabeth II on a campus tour. Another photo showed him bicycling in a suit and tie while carrying a slender briefcase. As president, Kennedy weathered one of the most challenging controversies in Stanford history: a high-profile disagreement with the federal government over reimbursement for the indirect costs of research. Stanford was ultimately vindicated, although the publicity surrounding the controversy was damaging to the university.

During Kennedy’s presidency, the university also weathered a natural disaster – the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, which caused $160 million in damage to the Stanford campus. A few weeks after the tremblor, Kennedy donned a hard hat to tour the old west wing of Green Library, which had suffered severe damage.

Kennedy’s tenure as president coincided with the South African divestment movement, which gained prominence on university campuses across the nation in the mid-1980s.

In the spring of 1985, hundreds of students took part in sit-ins outside his office, as part of a campaign to pressure the university to divest itself of stock in companies doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa. While a large number of students had supported immediate blanket divestment, Stanford decided that “the moral position” was to divest from specific companies that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, Kennedy said.

“I think we did it in the right way,” he said. “But we took a lot of disapprobation.”

In 2006, Kennedy joined one of those student activists on a panel that discussed the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement on campus and elsewhere.

When Kennedy stepped down as president in 1992, Stanford honored him with a tribute featuring speeches from campus leaders, including the provost, and the deans of the School of Humanities & Science and the School of Education. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz spoke. The program featured music, including “Donald You were Born to Run,” sung to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” performed by varsity athletes and Mixed Company, a student a cappella group.

Kennedy returned to teaching and turned his scholarly attention to issues relating to the environment and public policy.

In 1997, Harvard University Press published Kennedy’s book, Academic Duty, which discussed some of the challenges facing American institutions of higher education.

Editor-in-chief of Science

In 2000, Kennedy became editor-in-chief of Science. In an essay introducing readers to Kennedy, Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich called Kennedy “one of the broadest, warmest, most talented and most literate scientists ever to grace our business.”

“Among the privileges I most enjoyed at Science was oversight of the weekly editorial page,” Kennedy wrote in A Place in the Sun. “In my nearly eight years at the helm, I had the opportunity to express my views on more than a hundred occasions, writing opinion pieces on such areas of science and policy as dual-use [science can be deployed for good or evil], government secrecy, bioengineering, stem cell research, and climate change that I continue to find most compelling and in need of attention. On occasion I would inject a bit of humor, allowing me to flex my creative muscle.”

In 2008, Kennedy, who had been flying back and forth between Stanford and Washington, D.C., returned to the Farm, where he resumed teaching undergraduates, as well as master’s students enrolled in the Graduate School of Business. He engaged with students across the academic spectrum – from advising undergraduates and writing letters of recommendation for former students to serving on dissertation committees for PhD candidates.

Kennedy was active on a wide variety of boards, nonprofit organizations, foundations and scientific advisory boards, including the national advisory board of the Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, and the board of directors of QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto that connects the nation’s brightest students from low-income backgrounds with leading institutions of higher education and further opportunities. He served as scientific advisor to the PBS NewsHour, and as co-chair of the

Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Kennedy also served on the board of directors of Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation.

From Jan. 2005 to June 2013, Kennedy served as a trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which works with partners around the world for social, cultural and environmental change designed to improve the lives of children, families, and communities.

Kennedy, who was born in New York City on Aug. 18, 1931, earned a bachelor’s degree (1952), a master’s degree (1954) and a doctorate (1956) at Harvard University.

Presiding over Stanford’s annual Commencement exercises, Kennedy delighted in sending the graduates on their way with a favorite quotation from former Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. “Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came.”

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972 and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the National Commission for Public Service, and the American Philosophical Society.

Kennedy is survived by his wife, Robin Kennedy, of Menlo Park, California; children Page Kennedy Rochon, of Washington, D.C.; Julia Kennedy Tussing, of Menlo Park, California; Cameron Kennedy, of Washington, D.C.; Jamie Hamill, of Las Vegas; their spouses Mark Rochon, Ted Tussing, Rick Desimone and Rosario Hamill; and nine grandchildren.

A celebration of life will be announced by the family and Stanford University when family, friends and members of the Stanford family can safely congregate.