Donald Kennedy, 1931-2020

Tributes paid to former Stanford president who raised a record-breaking $1.3 billion for the university

May 14, 2020
Donald Kennedy, 1931-2020
Source: Chuck Painter/Stanford University

A neurobiologist who became the “students’ president” at Stanford University has died.

Donald Kennedy was born in New York City on 18 August 1931 and studied biology at Harvard University (1952) before going on to a master’s (1954) and then a PhD (1956). After working at Syracuse University, he moved to Stanford in 1960 and taught both biological sciences and human biology.

In his own research, Professor Kennedy was an expert on nerve cells. For the period 1977-79, however, he took a leave of absence from Stanford to serve as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under President Jimmy Carter, where issues he had to decide on included the banning of saccharin, the labelling of alcoholic drinks and the approval process for new drugs. When he left the FDA, he was praised by The New York Times for restoring a reputation for independence to an agency previously seen as too “chummy with the industries it regulates”.

After a brief period as provost at Stanford, Professor Kennedy became its eighth president, from 1980 to 1992. These years saw fierce debates with students about whether the university should divest itself of its holdings in South Africa; the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, which caused $160 million (£129 million) of damage to the campus; and a major dispute with the federal government about reimbursement for the indirect costs of research. It also saw a fundraising drive for the Stanford Centennial Campaign, which eventually generated close to $1.3 billion – then the largest sum ever raised in higher education.

After resigning from the Stanford presidency, Professor Kennedy returned to teaching and focused his attention on environmental issues. He was editor-in-chief of Science from 2000 to 2008, where – as he wrote in his 2018 memoir, A Place in the Sun – he often took the opportunity to speak out about issues such as “government secrecy, bioengineering, stem cell research, and climate change”.

Held in great esteem at Stanford, Professor Kennedy was honoured in 2014 by the opening of the Donald Kennedy Graduate Residences. At the naming ceremony, Jim Gaither – former chair of the university’s board of trustees – described him as the “students’ president”, noting how he had “welcomed students to join you on your morning runs” and “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 [National Collegiate Athletic Association] title”.

Professor Kennedy died of Covid-19 on 21 April and is survived by his wife, Robin, four children and nine grandchildren.

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