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H&S E-Newsletter: Past Dean's Messages

The Dean's Messages are archived from the H&S e-newsletter. Sign up to receive the quarterly e-newsletter.


October 22, 2020

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

These words, from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, are etched into his tombstone in Kaliningrad. During the pandemic, I’ve thought a good deal about them. They bring together two important ideas that relate—admittedly not straightforwardly—to how I think about our work at Stanford.

The first idea is that the universe is infinitely large, stretching in space and time, encompassing as Kant puts it “worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems”; by contrast our lives are finite, bounded, and brief. As parts of nature, we barely register, at least from the point of view of the universe, which is beautiful, full of mystery, and indifferent to human fate.

By contrast, the second idea, is that through what we can do with the short, bounded time we have, through the capacity we have to make meaningful choices in the midst of this indifferent universe, we have immeasurable worth.

A character in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen puts it this way: “A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.”

There are many ways to make meaningful and morally responsible choices within our finite time, but a life centered on the production and transmission of knowledge that enriches the human condition is one important way. (Note that by “enriches the human condition” I mean to encompass both knowledge that contributes to explaining and addressing social problems and work that adds to the great repository of human culture, ideas, and understanding.)

I have never felt as acutely as I do now, as the world is metaphorically and in some cases really on fire, that our work is important. To those who ask, “why bother?” we have a strong case to make. From diagnosing and explaining political polarization, to research on the underlying biological and chemical properties of COVID-19, to evidence-based efforts to make voting accessible during the pandemic, to understanding the roots of racial and ethnic inequalities, to efforts to direct technologies in a more human-centered way—what we do has public benefit.

And so too does our research that probes alternative pathways and possibilities, that transmits and remakes culture, and, yes, our research on the origins and paths of the starry heavens above.

We have not always made this case for public benefit as powerfully as we could across all of what we do, and we have sometimes let this role of research universities fall from our purview. The pandemic gives us the opportunity to recommit, as a school, to producing knowledge as a “public good.” A number of the long-range research initiatives put this mission front and center, such as the Stanford Impact Labs, the Changing Human Experience, and the Innovative Medicines Accelerator.

This newsletter calls out the individual work of some of our faculty—from the exploration of many-particle quantum systems to the study of US poverty and inequality—but I want to acknowledge the important work that you are all engaged in.

In the past three months alone, I have been delighted by reading recent books by our faculty in history and creative writing as well as in sociology and political science. I have even made my way through a classic work on black holes and string theory by one of our physicists. I have dropped in on webinars and heard inspiring talks by many of you. And I have met with some of your graduate students and been inspired by them, as well.

Although we face many challenges now, both within the university and without, our fundamental mission remains the same. I hope that you enjoy reading about some of the exciting work of your colleagues.

I’d like to remind everyone that we have an upcoming election in the United States, and it is important that everyone who is eligible—students, faculty, and staff—have the opportunity to vote.

The Faculty Senate has recommended that faculty be as accommodating as possible so that our students have the opportunity to vote and be engaged (e.g., taping lectures, not scheduling exams on election day, etc.), and I strongly support that advice. (I will be volunteering as an election poll worker.)

In addition, I have designated the week of the election as a “low-impact work week” for our school staff who really need time to regroup and have a break from endless Zoom meetings.

And don’t forget to tune in when you can to the school’s Democracy Matters series, which showcases the fantastic work of your colleagues on the issues our society confronts.

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

July 22, 2020

With Gratitude

During an unusually and extraordinarily challenging five months—for our school, for our country, for our interconnected world, and for all of us—you have helped sustain our core mission by continuing to produce superb scholarship and teaching. I know this has not been easy. You have had to grapple with uncertainty, the increased burdens of childcare and parenting, isolation, illness, and an upturning of all usual routines. I want to acknowledge your burdens and efforts and to assure you that what you have done is important.

Indeed, the last five months have also provided ample evidence that the research and teaching you do matters. From your research on racial disparities in health and wealth, to your studies on the future of work, to your probing the deepest secrets of nature and the universe, all of you enrich our world. While we may not be physically together again for some time, we are a community of scholars. I am grateful to all of you.

On Democracy

Next academic year, which is an election year, I’d like to showcase, and bring to bear, the expertise within H&S on contemporary problems for democracy.

Democracy around the world, including in the United States, is a tremendous historical achievement, but it also faces significant challenges. From the enduring racial inequality that undergirds Black Lives Matter to a pattern of economic growth that leaves so many Americans behind, our democracy faces what some have gone so far as to call an “existential threat.”

Many of our shared political institutions are failing to respond to the major challenges our society faces: poverty; economic, racial, and political inequality; climate change; unemployment; and a major pandemic. Basic goods such as health care, access to college, physical safety, and housing are out of reach for too many of our compatriots. For millions of Americans, faith in the inevitability of a better future has been called into question.

This is, of course, not the first time that democracy has been in trouble. It fell apart 2,400 years ago in Ancient Greece. It nearly died around the world in the late 1930s and 40s. And as Jill Lepore reminded me in her article “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” in the New Yorker, during that time of crisis, people talked about democracy, argued about democracy, and tried to fix it.

Scholars were called on to contribute to newspapers and magazines to argue about democracy’s meaning, its future, and its promise; and so too were groups of citizens engaged in stretching their participatory muscles. The challenges our democracy faces also present opportunities for reflection, change, and engagement.

Consider questions such as: can you have democracy without some commitment to truth and a shared reality? Are there economic preconditions for a functioning democracy, and if so what are they? What is the role of expertise in democratic decision-making? Are our elections fair? How can we address a degree of political polarization which prevents national solutions to public problems? How can police brutality be stopped? Does globalization constrain the scope of democracy? How might technology be harnessed to strengthen democratic decision-making? What motivates strangers to cooperate with one another?

As Lepore observes, “It is a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent.” We have experts across our departments and programs who can address these and other questions.

The school will showcase a series of events this fall—panels, talks, and debates—drawing on the expertise of our Stanford faculty. We will host ten “big events” in fall quarter, offered for all members of the Stanford community. We will also simultaneously offer this series as a one-unit course for undergraduate students. Videos of the events will be available online afterward and shared widely.

I hope that many of our faculty will attend and participate in these events; they will be interesting, informative, and challenging. But regardless of whether you attend these events or not, I also encourage you, if you are a US citizen, to exercise your democratic right to vote in November.

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

May 6, 2020

"'Where are we going, Pooh?' 'Home, Piglet. We’re going home because that's the best thing to do right now.'"
—A. A. Milne

We are all mostly at home. For now, although some students, faculty and staff remain, the campus is quiet. The steady drumbeat of events, talks, conferences and receptions—too many to attend most of them—has stopped. While there is something that has been lost in this unchosen quiet, I think there has been a gain in clarity; it brings into sharp relief our core mission: excellence in research and teaching. And that mission is accomplished and supported by people, from our faculty and our janitorial staff to our students and our department managers. It is the people here that matter.

I have been moved by the ways that so many have contributed to try to keep that mission going under difficult conditions in this challenging time. Let me mention three ways:

  1. Many of our faculty have quickly pivoted their research to address the biological/chemical and social challenges that COVID-19 puts before us: Several of our faculty have expanded a BSL3 lab—a lab with a high level of bio-safety—so as to be able to work with the virus with the hope of better understanding its mechanisms and effects. Others have built models to project the path and scope of contagion. Still others have been looking at the deadly ways that the virus interacts with the social inequalities of race, gender and class; exposes weaknesses in the U.S. health care system and social safety net; and has the potential to change the way that we practice medicine and teach. Our faculty have contributed historical perspectives, drawing on the past to help us understand parts of our future. All of this provides ample evidence of the value of a research university.
  2. It is amazing to me how quickly faculty, lecturers, students, and staff have rallied to transfer all teaching online. Probably many of you, like me, had never before attended a Zoom meeting and are now holding our classes on Zoom. (I am 5 weeks into my graduate class, but so far it is going okay and I hope that yours are too!) Some of our faculty have even come back from sabbatical to help with this effort, finding ways to engage students in everything from quantum physics to making music.
  3. Our incredible staff have also pivoted: we have more than 800 H&S staff working remotely to help maintain the operations that support our faculty and students. This has required people to learn new ways of doing their jobs and to solve new and unanticipated problems.

I know that as an institution, and as individuals, we will be changed by this experience. Things have been and will continue to be hard. But somehow the through line—research and teaching that contribute to humanity—while disrupted is being maintained and its value brought ever more sharply into focus. My highest priority, as we enter a time of economic disruption on an unknown scale, is to stabilize and grow H&S’s contributions to Stanford’s core mission. I want us to emerge from this an even stronger school than we are now.

In Camus’s The Plague, Dr. Rieux says that "the only way to fight the plague is with decency." As we physically distance, I hope that we do not socially distance: we must look out for one another and find ways to stay connected. And while we have gone to our respective homes, we will be together again.

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

School Matters

February 2020

The school’s two highest priorities are supporting the critical research mission of our faculty and ensuring that all of our students, graduate and undergraduate, receive the best education.

Keeping these goals in mind will become even more important as we receive news of the school’s financial situation in a few months. While we are projecting a deficit, I want to assure you that the school’s priorities will shape our approach to budgetary choices. To quote the British Prime Minister William Gladstone: “Budgets are not merely matters of arithmetic.” They provide a record of our values and where we direct our energies.  

Across the school and across all the departments, I am heartened by the H&S research I learn more about every day and the dedication of faculty to creating new knowledge and to mentoring and cultivating the many abilities of our students.  


Our faculty research contributes to addressing hard social problems like climate change, the persistence of poverty, political polarization, racial bias, and dilemmas of health care provision.

H&S faculty are also probing the natural world. They are making new discoveries about dark matter, developing small molecules that may radically change our treatment of previously intractable tumors, inventing systems that allow for the transfer of quantum information across long distances, and exploring the nanoscience of life.

They have generated new understandings of human culture, helping us to recover lost voices of the past; bringing to life the stories and artistic creations that help us better understand ourselves and the world around us; developing a better understanding of how we govern our own actions and behaviors; and opening our imaginations to new possibilities by showing us many different ways of organizing ourselves and our institutions in the past and present around the globe.

As you might see from this short list, faculty research spans an enormous landscape from small molecules to the universe, from our brains to our artistic expressions, and from our warming planet to our most serious social problems.

We are explainers; we seek to understand; we make things; we interpret the world; and we open up new ways of thinking and being. Our research is not constrained by considerations of financial profit, popularity, or the need for immediate impact. Research universities are, in these ways, a unique social institution. Ensuring the health of this research, helping it to be done as well as possible under the best conditions, and enabling its wide dissemination are my highest priorities.


Teaching is also core to Stanford’s mission. We are part of a species that, hopefully, will persist and improve, and we have a role in helping to educate a new generation of researchers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers, as well as helping them to become responsible, ethical, and innovative members of our fragile world.

To that end, as you know, the school has embarked on an effort to improve our teaching and has created a new senior associate dean position to steward those efforts. Professor Mary Beth Mudgett (Biology) joined the dean’s office in September as senior associate dean for educational initiatives.

Among other things, she has convened a Natural Science Intro Curriculum Committee to study the coordination and execution of pre-specialization education in the natural sciences with the following goals:

  • Build and execute a welcoming introductory pathway
  • Articulate a shared understanding of content and pathways
  • Determine what background knowledge from other fields is required
  • Adjust course offerings
  • Improve course placement and advising practices
  • Develop curricula and tutorials for students with varying degrees of preparation.

At the same time, all incoming assistant professors are now required to attend the three-day Course Design Institute offered through the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). To further support junior faculty teaching, departments will assign a senior faculty mentor to provide expert guidance and observe classroom instruction.

In addition to improving the quality of teaching throughout the school, the information gleaned from such observations will also inform the assessment of the candidate’s teaching at reappointment and during the tenure process. Student evaluations, while important, have known limitations and biases. Working closely with CTL, we seek to bring the spirit of peer review to teaching through this effort.

Despite the budgetary challenges we currently face, I remain optimistic about the future because of my excellent colleagues in our school. Your commitment to your research and our students inspires me every day.

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

The Role of Diversity in the Production of Knowledge

October 2019

In early October, a federal judge ruled in favor of Harvard University’s admissions process. Now, the Supreme Court will take up the ruling. This recent court case raises a recurring question in higher education: what makes diversity valuable? 

Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, raises this question in his new book, The Assault on American Excellence. His answer is bracing and provocative: he concludes that diversity is a “destructive force” in higher education, undermining the excellence of our faculty and students.

I profoundly disagree with Kronman on this point. Although there are quite a number of possible responses to his argument, I want to use my dean’s message to highlight one particular objection, which focuses on the production of knowledge, which is, after all, the core mission of a research university.

According to one theory of knowledge production—call it Cartesian—knowledge is created by great individual researchers pursuing their own projects. Universities identify excellent individual scholars and empower them with resources, including time and the freedom to pursue their ideas. Explicit attention to social factors like diversity in hiring, in this view, represents external interventions into the process of discovery and the creation of new knowledge. Whether such external interventions are justified depends on their costs and benefits.

But this Cartesian view largely misrepresents how we make knowledge. Knowledge production is fundamentally a social undertaking and is promoted by the different skills, life experiences and perspectives of inquirers. Not only is any single researcher limited in time, energy, competencies and resources, but also, and as importantly, individuals on their own are unreliable thinkers.

Indeed, it turns out that the most highly trained scientific researchers are as prone to the same cognitive biases as everyone else. Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Twersky explore such biases in their wonderful book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases (1982). For example, we are each prone to assign greater evidential weight to work produced by ourselves rather than others; evidence produced by our own specialties rather than work produced in other specialties; and evidence that supports our own research programs rather than undermines it.

Happily, even though no individual researcher can fully transcend her own cognitive biases and limitations, collectively we may be able to do so. But doing so depends upon our social practices of inquiry being structured in such a way that enables us to correct for, or at least balance, these biases. And just as a theory will be rejected if its proponents falsified their data, the justification of a theory is compromised if the scholarly community’s processes of inquiry that led to that theory systematically excludes or discounts the views of those who have access to a different set of relevant evidence, or who would provide alternative critical perspectives that correct the biases of that community’s membership. Helen Longino’s Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (1990) makes the case for this position.

Much more could be said about the relationship between diversity and research excellence, including calling attention to the biases that influence our very ability to recognize excellence. In Michele Paludi and William Bauer’s well-known 1983 study, “Goldberg Revisited: What's in an Author's Name,” groups who were told that a paper’s author was “John T. McKay” assigned it a much higher ranking than groups who were told that the same paper’s author was “Joan T. McKay.” Such biases undoubtedly play a role in judgment and have to be explicitly counteracted.

Consider also how the diversity of inquirers has led to new research questions in many areas: for example, the presence of greater numbers of women in economics has influenced the field of labor economics as well as our understanding of the economics of the family. And pathbreaking work by feminist historians has shed new light on what we know about the past.

In short, I am convinced that we need a diverse community to be excellent in research; in fact, on the social model of knowledge production, diversity is actually internal to the production of knowledge and not an external constraint or trade off with respect to it.

Consider this a short and incomplete précis on a very important topic.

My thoughts above reaffirm the importance of a democratic cast to our research. I want to close my message by calling out another issue important to democracy writ large: voting. I have expressed these thoughts before, with my colleagues, in an op-ed.

I hope that you will encourage your students to register to vote. They can do so by going to

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

What Is a Liberal Arts Education For? 

July 2019

I believe that we can do a better job in clearly communicating to our students, ourselves, and the general public the justification for the liberal arts education we, at Stanford, aim to provide.

I’d like to jumpstart a discussion on this issue, which will be taken up by the Faculty Senate in the fall, when we will discuss the role of the major and the first-year undergraduate curriculum.

The existence of majors responds to the goal of providing students with domain-specific knowledge that allows them to develop expertise in an area, including in an area that may equip them for a number of careers. It is important to recognize, however, that for many (if not most) of our students the domain-specific knowledge gained in the major will either 1) connect to their career choice indirectly; 2) connect directly only to a first job that launches a highly varied career; or 3) require supplementation by lifelong learning within rapidly evolving expert fields. Thus, the main thing our students gain within their majors is first-hand experience developing depth expertise itself, which cultivates broad, transferable cognitive skills.

Graduation with a specific major and a set of domain-based skills is important, but in this short note I want to address our reasons for requiring students to take courses outside their major, and to take up part of their education with classes and experiences that are not justified by career preparation alone. (I do not mean to deny that there are some career-based reasons for a broad liberal education, but I do not think that is the main reason why we ask students to undertake such an education.)

I think there are at least five justifications for the kind of broad education that we provide to students by asking them to take classes outside their majors:

  1. Overcoming provincialism. This is probably one of the most important goals of a broad education: overcoming narrowness of thought, our platitudes, and the things we just take as givens, and exposing us to other traditions of thought and experience, ranging across time and space. (Are all societies hierarchical? How did the universe begin? How many genders are there?)
  2. Equipping our students to appreciate the variety of methods that are relevant to understanding our complex social and natural world. (What is selection bias? What makes for a good interpretation? How can we design experiments that answer a question?)
  3. A democratic justification centered on the importance of a citizenry that can tell the difference between demagoguery and reasoned, responsible arguments. Students need the critical skills to evaluate arguments that affect not only their lives, but also the lives of others. (Is rule by the people compatible with the protection of human rights?) 
  4. An ethical justification: exposing students to the “warring gods” of value to reflect on their own values, to better understand moral and social disagreement, and to understand the way values infuse inquiry, choice, and decision. 
  5. Developing our enjoyment of art, literature, and the world around us, cultivating our sensibilities and thus enriching our lives. The former president of Barnard Judith Shapiro once told a group of students that what they should want from college is that they come away thinking that the “inside of your head is an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” This may be the most non-utilitarian of the goals of a liberal arts college education, but it is not for that reason the most unimportant.

All of these aspects of education are woefully undersupplied by the market; an education for jobs cannot therefore substitute for a liberal education. An education for jobs alone cannot prepare students for responsible citizenship, for a life of wonder and curiosity, for an understanding of the lives of others. Or, as W. E. B. Du Bois put it so eloquently in his debate with Booker T. Washington on the kind of education the freed slaves of Atlanta most needed: “…The true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”

I welcome your thoughts on this issue.

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science

Connect the Dots 

April 2019

This is the first issue of the School of Humanities and Sciences e-newsletter focused on faculty research across the school. This e-newsletter also hopes to build more community within H&S, which inspired the name “Building 1 Community,” (along with the location of the Dean’s Office in the Main Quad.) 

As the new dean of the school, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about the work that is being done by physicists who study how the universe formed and evolved; economists who probe how egalitarian communities can survive in a capitalist world; historians who ask how law and society interacted with each other in the late Middle Ages; and artists who construct allegories to portray the interactions between art and evolving life.

We are a large school, and unlike Stanford’s other six schools, which are organized around one domain (e.g., law, engineering, medicine) it might seem that there is little to hold us together except for our very high standards.

Yet I am struck by the common thread that connects our 23 departments and 23 interdisciplinary programs: all of our faculty are producing fundamental knowledge, adding to humanity’s wealth of insights about ourselves, the natural world, and our place within it.

Some of this knowledge is, to be sure, practically focused; some of it seeks to awaken in us a willingness to imagine experiences from perspectives other than our own; and some of it is able to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. But all of it, I believe, adds to our fundamental knowledge and self-knowledge, whether that is knowledge about glycans on cell surfaces or the limits of musical form.

I have two goals for this e-newsletter: The first goal is informational. Because the school is large and complex, many faculty and staff are unaware of the amazing work being done by their peers in other departments. While the Stanford Report sometimes calls out the work and accomplishments of our faculty, the scope of the Report is the entire university.

The Stanford Report is also aimed at an outside audience as much as an internal one.  By contrast, this e-newsletter (which will include some articles from the Stanford Report) aims at sharing our faculty’s research and work with other faculty and staff in the school. I also hope to share from time to time some information about the school’s priorities; the structure of the school’s administration and decision-making; and information on new initiatives.

The second goal is community building. Many of our faculty spend the majority of their careers here but have little knowledge of the amazing work being done one building away from them. They are also sometimes unaware of work that is relevant to their own interests. Our decentralized structure doesn’t provide enough opportunities for the kind of “random collisions” that, at least in my own career, have generated not only new research projects but also lifelong friendships. 

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science