Interview with John Hennessy

The computer scientist on the future of online education, seeing early demonstrations of Google, and why he wished he had cloned himself

August 9, 2018
John Hennessy of Stanford University
Source: Shutterstock

John Hennessy is a computer scientist and director of Knight-Hennessy Scholars, a global, graduate-level scholarship programme for study at Stanford University. He was president of Stanford between 2000 and 2016, co-founded MIPS Computer Systems and Atheros Communications and is chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. He jointly won the 2017 Turing Award for contributions to computing with his long-time collaborator David Patterson; virtually all phones, tablets and smart devices run on a computer architecture developed by the pair.

Where and when were you born?
New York City, on 22 September 1952.

How has this shaped you?
I am a native New Yorker, a product of the Cold War era. This certainly shaped my experiences growing up. I also met the love of my life when we became high school sweethearts on Long Island.

What has changed most in global higher education in the past five to 10 years? 
Two things have really changed. First of all, education has become truly global. Students are global, faculty are increasingly coming from around the world, students are looking for the best educational opportunities wherever they occur, and for global exposure. All these trends have increased in the past 10 years. Of course, the other thing that’s happened is the rise of various forms of online education. They are not necessarily replacing conventional types of education or undergraduate degrees, but allowing more widespread lifelong education. This trend is clearly what people need, given that they will often go through multiple careers in their lifetime.

How do you see the future of online education and higher education’s relationship with technology?
Online education has an important role to play. There have been some real successes, especially for working adults with college degrees seeking to enhance their skills and knowledge. Other domains have proved much more difficult, including the remediation sector, which still has significant potential. The challenge is that learning is a highly individualised process, and we need online educational technologies that are adaptive to different learning styles and speeds. A simple video explaining the material is not enough.

How should academics manage their relationship with big technology firms in light of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal? And what impact do you think the scandal will have on scholars who use social media data for research?
Obviously, the repercussions from this scandal will be significant and could undermine the ability of the academic community to get access to data that could be critical to future research efforts. I think both industry and academia have to make renewed efforts to ensure safe and appropriate use of data with full and clear consent by the user. This will require new consent agreements that delineate what data will be used and how it will be used. 

What’s your most memorable moment at Stanford?
I was especially proud when we announced a major change to undergraduate financial aid, dramatically improving the affordability of a Stanford education, and seeing the very positive reaction not only of the internal Stanford community, but also of our alumni community. Other memorable moments were shaped by people I met whom I really respect and who were generous with their wisdom – hearing Steve Jobs’ commencement speech and greeting the Dalai Lama are at the top of that list.

Which key attributes do you look for when selecting Knight-Hennessy scholars? What sort of leaders are you hoping to create?
We certainly look for academic excellence because we need students who will prosper in the academic programmes they’re in, and those are demanding programmes. But beyond that, we’re looking for people who are self-aware, have humility, have courage, and seek to live a life that makes a contribution that’s more than just about them. It’s about having a positive impact on the people they live with and the people they serve as leaders. We believe deeply in service leadership. That’s what leadership is really about, and we’re hoping to create leaders who serve the communities in which they live and work.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes, I've had several: seeing the first Xerox Alto (the computer that inspired the Macintosh), and seeing early demonstrations of Google and Yahoo! when they were both still Stanford projects.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
A common misconception about computer science is that it is a discipline where people work solo as programming serfs: in fact, all complex software systems are built in teams. A lot of effort goes into designing and organising these large team projects.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d tell myself not to worry too much about being a nerd; it will work out OK.

You were recently awarded the Turing Award – a $1 million (£762,000) prize. What will you do with the money?
I am proud to have received this award along with David Patterson. I intend to donate my half of the prize to a university.

What are the best and worst things about your day?
The best things are the incredible scholars that we get to meet and work with and also the faculty and visitors we can bring to the university to meet with those scholars. In my experience, the best thing is always the people. The worst thing is, I should have cloned myself! I should have figured out how to replicate myself so that I have a little more time in my day. That would be a very helpful capability.

What’s your biggest regret?
I suppose I regret never living or studying abroad. I travelled a lot but never had the time to spend an extended period in a different part of the world. 

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired. 
I’ve always had great admiration for Abraham Lincoln. He led the US through one of its most challenging and difficult times, and kept true to his core ethical principles.


Rebecca Lingwood has joined Brunel University London as its first provost. Professor Lingwood, who was previously vice-principal for education and professor of fluid dynamics at Queen Mary University of London, will be responsible for Brunel’s academic strategy and will also deputise for vice-chancellor Julia Buckingham. At Queen Mary, Professor Lingwood led the introduction of the “QMUL Model”, which put a personalised credit-bearing strand focusing on societal impact into every undergraduate programme. “Rebecca’s distinguished track record in both education and research, her commitment to Brunel’s unique academic mission and her evident future potential all position her to succeed in what is a critical leadership role,” Professor Buckingham said.

Charles R. Martinez Jr has been named the next dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Martinez, who will also hold the Lee Hage Jamail Regents chair in education and the Sid W. Richardson Regents chair, is currently Philip H. Knight professor in the department of educational methodology, policy and leadership at the University of Oregon. Professor Martinez, who will join UT Austin in January, also served as Oregon’s vice-president for institutional equity and diversity from 2005 to 2011. “Charles’ scholarship, extensive policy expertise and proven success as a university administrator make him poised to build upon its success and lead the college as it adapts to the changing landscape of education and health,” said Maurie McInnis, UT Austin’s executive vice-president.

Lawrence Abeln will join Richmond, the American International University in London, as its new president next month. He was previously dean of the School of Management at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok and, before that, dean of the University of Adelaide Business School.

Peter Smailes has been appointed as vice-president, finance and operations, at the University of British Columbia. He previously held the role on an interim basis and served as the institution’s treasurer before that.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles