Controversy swirls in Silicon Valley: Elite and tech-heavy Stanford University has recently weathered numerous public scandals and lawsuits, ranging from free speech debates and allegations its president falsified research data to a student’s suicide.
Now, rumors are swirling about whether Stanford’s president, neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, will step down. Tessier-Lavigne has headed the university for the last seven years, but is in hot water after a bombshell investigation alleged research misconduct in a handful of the president’s scientific publications.
As scandal after scandal strikes Stanford, some blame Tessier-Lavigne and his administration. Numerous Stanford faculty and community members told The Standard that they had either heard rumors of Tessier-Lavigne’s potential resignation, or would not be surprised if that were the outcome, given the university’s repeated woes.
“When he became president, the chairman at the time said, ‘Marc, we’re giving you an institution at the pinnacle of higher education, with high hopes for you,’” said Edwin Dorsey, a recent alum who runs They Must Resign, a blog that targets Stanford’s top admins.
“Seven years later, he’s done everything he can to shoot Stanford in the foot,” Dorsey said.
Rumors are to be taken with a pinch of salt—but the negative publicity and near-endless controversies are placing unprecedented pressure on Stanford’s top administrators. Some faculty suggested that previous provosts or administrators could step up to replace the beleaguered president.
But if Tessier-Lavigne resigns or, worse, faces dismissal, he could be the first in university history to leave on such a tarnished note.
Tessier-Lavigne became the subject of scrutiny in early December, after The Stanford Daily unearthed allegations of altered images and other research misconduct in at least five papers co-authored by the president.
In the months that followed, more allegations about "falsified data" surfaced at Tessier-Lavigne’s former research lab, South San Francisco-based Genentech. The university’s board of trustees are now investigating these claims, and other major research journals have opened up separate inquiries about the accuracy of images in a handful of Tessier-Lavigne’s 229 published papers.
The allegations rocked Stanford and the biosciences world, given Tessier-Lavigne’s stature as a renowned neuroscientist in Alzheimer's research, but also because of his position at the helm of a major research institution and power player in Silicon Valley.
Immediately after the first set of allegations was announced, a handful of Stanford professors suggested that Tessier-Lavigne should step down. Others said the mounting allegations make his future at the university contested.
“Whatever happens with the investigation and the fact-finding, I wouldn't be surprised if he said he decided to step down—if the investigation turns up facts that are similar to those that [The Stanford Daily] has reported from anonymous sources,” said Hank Greely, a bioethics professor at Stanford Law School.
The science community remains divided about some of the research misconduct allegations, however. Seven Stanford biosciences professors wrote a letter defending the president, cautioning the public to withhold judgment until after investigations are complete. Genentech’s recently released investigation findings, for example, exonerated the president of some allegations, but nonetheless identified problems in his lab at Genentech.
Still, investigations into Tessier-Lavigne’s research are ongoing, adding scrutiny to a university already mired in public controversies.
Kent Jarrell, a spokesperson for Tessier-Lavigne, said the president is set to make a full refutation of all the allegations against him to the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees.
"As the committee pursues its work, I am fully committed to faithfully fulfilling my responsibilities as president of Stanford and discharging my duties, consistent with the university’s mission and in the support of all of our faculty and students,” said Tessier-Lavigne via Jarrell.
Students and staff say the broader Stanford administration has created more problems than it has solved—especially as the school employed 11,336 managerial and professional staff in 2021. In 2019, that staff numbered 8,984.
Recent controversies at Stanford Law sparked debates about the university’s pattern of handling free-speech disputes, particularly after student activists protested a recent speech by a Trump-appointed federal judge.
Lawsuits allege that the university is also responsible for at least two student deaths, one due to fentanyl overdose and the other to suicide after a disciplinary hearing. And current undergrads continue to bemoan the college’s "War on Fun" and alleged a lack of mental health resources.
Many concerned alums, students and faculty attribute these disputes to administrative incompetence—adding more pressure to Tessier-Lavigne. And some faculty fear that continuing controversies will erode public trust in the university, especially amid turbulent political conditions where science and education institutions have come under fire.
In recent months, conservatives across the country have attempted to stamp out LGBTQ+ and African American history from grade school curricula, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges and universities.
“The most conspicuous failure of university leadership over the last generation has been our failure to communicate to the broader public what we do and why it matters,” said history Professor James Campbell, who has taught at Stanford for 15 years. “Because of our own corruption, and our mystifying reluctance to speak truth to power, we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by others.”
Campus coffee shop CoHo was bustling on a recent Monday, full of students preparing for the first day of spring quarter classes. Outside, a crowd of graduate students clustered in White Plaza as their peers gave impassioned speeches and announced plans to form a union for graduate student workers. Online, Tessier-Lavigne sent a start-of-quarter email blast to the whole university. In it, he doubled down on his commitment to defending campus free speech and academic freedom, in the wake of the law school protests.
Business is continuing as usual on campus, but the dark shadow of Tessier-Lavigne’s research misconduct allegations and the university’s numerous scandals looms large over students and faculty—many of whom are not certain what comes next.
“It'd be very, very hard for him to survive as president,” Greely said. “It's not a fun job, and it's certainly not been a fun job in the period of time he’s had it.”
But longtime veterans in the university say that, though the media circus and public scrutiny has intensified in recent months, Stanford will survive. It’s never been more competitive to get into the school either, and its admissions stats reached a record low of 3.68% accepted.
“These are teaching moments, where we can begin to have harder and more nuanced discussions about how we draw lines between what we do and do not cherish,” Campbell said. “That takes effective political leadership to do, and it also takes the building of cultures that have the ability to withstand these things—these moments of explosion.”
The Standard reached out to Stanford for comment but has yet to hear back.
Joe Burn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org