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True Purpose: Perspectives from a Distinguished Visitor

Stanford University is blessed with extraordinary resources and reputational standing. What is the next step for a university that is already considered at the top of its field?

Robert K. Ross, MD, was the 2023 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor. He has had an influential career in public health and philanthropy, most recently as CEO of The California Endowment. 

I convey these thoughts to the Stanford University leadership as I conclude my four-month tenure as Distinguished Visitor to the campus, hosted by the Haas Center for Public Service. I begin with a shout-out of gratitude to Faculty Director Juliet Brodie, Mimi Haas, and the Haas Center staff for their gracious hospitality and unwavering support during my stay.

I believe I was invited to serve as Distinguished Visitor because of my track record as a leader in California philanthropy, and our foundation’s work in advancing health equity, health justice, and racial justice as a philanthropic institution. The insights and perspectives I pass along emanate from this frame. 

Dr. Bob Ross (right) in conversation with Marc Philpart and Nicole Taylor at the 2023 Distinguished Visitor Lecture

Prior to 2023, I had never spent more than two consecutive hours on the Stanford campus. This visit changed that, and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in this remarkable institution. Its people and students are brilliant and diverse. In contrast to so much of our world, the Stanford campus is a bucolic, little-piece-of-heaven bubble.

It is with this picturesque impression of Stanford in mind that I offer some perspectives as an invitational challenge to the leadership and residents of the Stanford community. Given where our nation is, and Stanford’s immense standing as an institution, what does “true purpose” look like? This set of perspectives will be provided in three parts: The National Context, The Gems, and The Opportunities.

The National Context

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

On July 4, 2026, our nation will celebrate the 250th anniversary of our birth as a republic. It will be an opportunity to invite, debate, and reexamine some very fundamental questions about America: Who and what is America? Who and what is an American? Does America have a shared set of values and story as a nation? To the extent that the Declaration of Independence offers a shared narrative and vision for America in 1776, what does that look like now?
I am an African-American who views himself as a patriot, devoted to the professed ideals of this country. The Founders asserted a lofty and inspiring vision for America—democracy, freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. But the “for all” came with a huge and discomforting asterisk. At that time, my people—African-Americans—were enslaved; we would eventually be constitutionally deemed as 3/5 of a human being. Native Americans would be genocidally assaulted, and their lands stolen. Women were not considered worthy of voting or democratic participation.
The joys of our democratic, capitalism-supported freedoms come at a price, and that collateral damage is inequality and inequity. Capitalism comes with requisite winners and losers. It’s our role in the nonprofit sector to address the resultant gaps in equality and equity, and we have two primary tools.

Charity vs. Change

The private foundation I lead—The  California Endowment— has shifted decisively from charity, in our early years as a foundation, to change. Charity is much easier and quicker to prosecute; you make a grant to a homeless shelter to serve more homeless people, or to a food bank to feed more hungry people, or to a community clinic to treat more uninsured people. Charity does not call into question why such gaps in human dignity exist – it primarily and heroically attempts to fill them. Change, for us, assumes that the nation’s thorniest domestic challenges of affordable housing, access to affordable health care, economic inclusion, public education, food security, and climate insecurity are structural and systemic.
Ironically, this re-framing from charity to change relies heavily upon the embrace of the very democratic tools that the Founders and Framers conceived of—even if half of them were slaveholders: citizen power, voice, mobilization, activism with the intent of shaping and re-shaping systems and structures to advance opportunity, equity, and equality. At The California Endowment, we aim to make grants as close to the pain of injustice and inequity as we possibly can. We believe that grassroots leaders have powerful and transformational ideas about advancing democracy and equity, and wellness – and should not be viewed merely as supplicants for charitable funding.
This is how we have chosen to show up in the fight to achieve a “for all” equity agenda in California, and, hopefully, as a tone-setter for the nation.

Strategic, Moral, and Spiritual Purposes

The “fight” has a threefold set of purposes, equally compelling in weight. The first is a strategic purpose: How can our multiracial democracy—aided by a more inclusive (as opposed to rapacious) form of capitalism—strengthen and grow our economy and the nation? The second is the moral purpose: How does a nation built upon slavery, genocide, and structural racism reconcile its past in service of a brighter future? And the third purpose is spiritual: Who are we as Americans, and what is our shared story as a nation of belonging and inclusion, rather than exclusion and bigotry?
With this framing in mind, I pass along the question to my colleagues here at Stanford: What is your role in the fight to improve opportunity, equity, and equality in our nation? Are you in the audience as curious, neutral observers and chroniclers of what is unfolding? Are you a judge at ringside, tallying scores of who is winning and who is losing? Or are you a tone-setter, institutionally in the ring, alongside communities who are struggling in the fight? Are you nurturing leaders who are morally compelled and preparing to be in the fight?
What is an already-extraordinary institution like Stanford called to be, and to do? With what our nation most desperately needs in the years and generations ahead—leaders of the bold and brave and daring variety with a willingness to reimagine systems—isn’t it time to reexamine Stanford’s highest sense of purpose? To help answer these questions, I turn to the gems in what is already underway at Stanford and the Haas Center for Public Service. In most cases, the answers to pressing questions lie at our feet.

The Gems

“There are gems of wondrous brightness, ofttimes lying at our feet….” – Rudyard Kipling

Stanford boasts a range of wonderful little gems of programming and partnerships, many of them housed or supported by the Haas Center for Public Service. I elevate a few that caught my attention, not the result of a disciplined review, but based on:

  • An emphasis on community in a spirit of inclusion 
  • Community organizations or residents as meaningful partners in the effort, not merely as subjects for research
  • Mutuality of benefit between and among students, faculty, and community
  • An equity orientation—providing a lift to a community or population historically marginalized, ignored, or oppressed 

To follow is a selection of these gems to build from, with cause for celebratory notice.

  • The partnership between various Stanford departments and Next Door Solutions, a San Jose nonprofit offering solutions and services to families impacted by domestic and intimate partner violence. Students and faculty serve as a supportive resource to the staff and clients through service, research, community-engaged learning, and sustainability projects. 
  • Cardinal Service, administered by the Haas Center for Public Service, which includes four programs designed to be transformative for students and beneficial to communities and the public good: 
    • Cardinal Quarter – quarter-long, fulltime, funded opportunities to work with nonprofits or government agencies
    • Cardinal Courses – classes that include community-engaged learning and research
    • Cardinal Commitment – long-term commitments to public service through volunteering and leadership training
    • Cardinal Careers – support for students pursuing careers in public service including year-long fellowship placements 
  • COLLEGE, Stanford’s first-year Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement, which prepares students for a lifetime of inquiry and encourages students to think critically across disciplines, reflect on their values, and consider how their education can lead them to lives of purpose and engaged citizenship. 
  • capstone requirement for all undergraduate students to complete a project integrating learning from different aspects of their studies, which can have a community-engaged learning or research component.
  • The partnership between Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) and the Haas Center’s East Palo Alto Stanford Academy and High School Support Initiative. These programs represent youth-centered approaches to learning and leadership, with Stanford students as key allies and partners, recognizing the experiences and struggles of young people of color in East Palo Alto.
  • The Haas Center’s Partnerships for Climate Justice in the Bay Area, a place-based initiative to engage undergraduate and graduate students in collaboration with community organizations to build climate resilient communities and advance climate justice and sustainability for underserved communities in the Bay Area.
  • The Stanford Medicine Commission on Justice and Equity, a collaborative effort to dismantle systemic racism and discrimination in health care, resulting in part from the advocacy efforts of Stanford medical students and pediatric residents. Their report includes a roadmap for advancing health equity through a racial justice lens.
  • Stanford’s Department of Pediatrics is a national model for how academic institutions can advance health equity and community wellness. Gems include:
  • Stanford’s support for the 30x30 California initiative, through participation in public outreach sessions, meetings with the plan’s leadership, and a letter of support signed by faculty members from all seven of the university’s schools. Stanford students completed research projects to inform the initiative’s implementation. 
  • The REACH Scholars in Health Equity Program, an MD/master’s program to develop and equip physician leaders with the skills and resources to promote social justice and health equity.
  • The Graduate School of Education’s impressive educational equity agenda—keep pushing! 
  • Stanford Redwood City Sequoia School Mental Health Collaborative, where Stanford faculty-staff-students work at the intersection of research and practice through community partnership in the public school setting.
  • Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic, staffed by faculty and Stanford law students, working across a range of social justice and legal justice issues for struggling community residents. I met with a couple dozen of these law students and their penchant for social justice was inspiring.
  • Community engagement and leadership work on climate justice in the new Doerr School of Sustainability. The Doerr School sees the intersection of climate change and environmental justice—and is exploring how “ecopreneurship” can strengthen the capacity of under-resourced nations and communities to better prepare for climate change realities.
  • The Haas Center’s Tom Ford Fellowship in Philanthropy, which educates Stanford graduates about the role of philanthropy in society and encourages them to enter the field.
Students at Otero, the public service theme dorm
  • Otero House, the Public Service and Civic Engagement Themed Residence. Student residents have the opportunity to learn about the various approaches to public service, engage in service activities on and off campus, and consider how service can be integrated with their academic work.
  • The School of Medicine’s annual Community Health Symposium, which features the work of students, faculty, and staff working in collaboration with community organizations on research projects and on issues related to community and health equity.

During my time at Stanford, I was blessed to engage a cohort of university faculty and administrators as leaders—each doing their part to advance meaningful community engagement, full inclusion, and in the spirit of racial equity and racial justice. A few of these are leaders named Juliet Brodie, Joyce Sackey, Lisa Chamberlain, Terrance Mayes, Lisa Goldman Rosas, Jorge De Luna, Ann Banchoff, David Chang, Luke Terra, Mary Leonard, Mary Chen, Anthony Oro, Baraka Floyd, Megan Swezey Fogarty. Their energies, wisdom, passion, and spirit should be cobbled together and collectivized for an institution-wide movement at Stanford.

A word about “Institutions”

Moral and strategic stewardship requires both leaders and institutions—leaders inspire institutions to greater heights, and institutions support and inspire leaders. The Haas Center for Public Service represents a thing of beauty at Stanford, where the words “realizing a just and sustainable world” come to life; it is the hub of Cardinal Service. The Office of Community Engagement (OCE), led by Megan Swezey Fogarty, is younger as an institution, but represents university-wide structural and strategic support for purposeful community engagement at Stanford. The Hass Center and the OCE provide Stanford with a “heartbeat” in public service and community engagement.

The “Gems” I have briefly described—many housed or supported through the Haas Center—individually and collectively embody the threefold, strategic-moral-spiritual purposes of Stanford in leadership as an institution.  Strategically, they each reflect a problem-solving orientation of challenges faced by the broader community. Morally, they demonstrate how the Stanford institutional brand makes a statement about inequity and racial injustice.  Spiritually, they say to those in struggling communities adversely affected by exclusion and marginalization: “As Stanford, we see you. We see your story and your struggle and your value.”

The Opportunities

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required.” – Luke 12:48

According to former Stanford President John Hennessey, Stanford’s mission is “to advance knowledge and contribute to society through research and the education of future leaders.” As an institution of higher learning, the advancing knowledge element is self-evident. But I would argue that, given the developmental and contextual trajectory of our nation, institutions of higher learning must up their game vis-a-vis the matter of purpose. I hold my own field of institutional philanthropy to the same standard. 

The issue of contributing to society is more complex. In my view, the education of already smart, brilliant, inquisitive young people so they result in being smarter, more brilliant, and more inquisitive a few years later is a necessary but insufficient response to what our nation requires of the next generation of leaders. Plainly, my generation of Boomers did a poor job of promoting civic participation and democracy, advancing economic inclusion, protecting the planet, and cultivating a spirit and ethos of belonging and full inclusion. My generation proved to be far too self-absorbed to prioritize contributing to society with a sense of purpose.

To put it bluntly, what this nation needs from Stanford is to lean more purposefully into the fight for a vibrant democracy, and through the lens of racial injustice and inequity. More and better lawyers, skilled corporate money makers, and innovative killer app developers are already in abundant supply. Whether they enter public service, community service, or the corporate sector, our nation is in short supply of younger, energized, passionate leaders whose brilliance is most needed in making our democracy and our economy work for more—if not all—Americans. Leaders with new, transformative ideas and courage.

The Next Stage

I see three developmental stages of community service; Stanford should evolve from Stage 2 to Stage 3:

  1. Community exists primarily to serve the Stanford research and education agenda, and forms the basis for the relationship. But the relationship is lacking in respect and reciprocity.
  2. Community exists as in a “service” frame; more respectful, but in a charitable relationship.
  3. Community serves as a meaningful, authentic partner in an equity frame; community leaders and institutions are seen as possessing transformational ideas and energy about policy and systems change; true reciprocity; racial equity is served as the University examines its own historical role in, perhaps unwittingly, contributing to racial injustice. 

Stanford’s vision statement reads (my italics for emphasis):

“Stanford’s vision arose out of the ideas of our community members, who proposed innovative ways the university could achieve our founding purpose of promoting the welfare of people everywhere. … Our vision guides Stanford's approach to research, education and impact and includes new initiatives that accelerate the creation and application of knowledge, anchor research and education in ethics and civic responsibility and promote access and inclusion across our activities. And it recognizes the need to forge deeper partnerships in our community and in the world to move ideas into action.”

The section on “Living Our Values” states, “Infused throughout the vision is a dedication to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment on our campus and in our research, and to addressing racial justice in our community.” 

The welfare of people everywhere… forging deeper partnerships with community… addressing racial justice—these are your words. These words capture the next rung on the ladder of institutional excellence at Stanford, the third stage of community service. They are not, I would add, the words of politically correct “wokeness” gone awry. As an African-American, when I hear political operatives and attention-seekers derisively characterize the history of slavery, Jim Crow, genocide, and structural racism suffered by my ancestors and other communities of color in our nation it brings me trauma, hurt, and anger. I fear that our academic institutions will cower under politically motivated assaults and hide under the rock of political neutrality for safety. Courage and moral standing will be required. There should be freedom of speech, of course; but freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness must be a “for all” rather than a “for some” proposition.

Fortunately, Stanford has laid down some building blocks for this next, required, developmental leap.  I have witnessed such building blocks during my time here, and prepare to depart my visitorship pleasantly surprised. The Haas Center houses a number of these assets, and Stanford must build further upon them.

Specific Considerations for Action

  • In preparation for the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026, issue a statement from Stanford leadership—its President and Board—that preparing leaders to contribute to our nation’s multiracial democracy is the sine qua non of Stanford’s purpose. The message should be clear: for the future of our nation, race matters, and democracy matters. 
  • Build on Cardinal Service programming—take it further; double or triple the capacity and reach over the next five years. Ideally, every Stanford undergraduate student, graduate student, and faculty member should experience Cardinal Service and public service during their time at Stanford. Public service must be elevated from a “nice to have” to a “must have” spirit. I am not in favor of mandating or requiring it, but I am most definitely in favor of elevating it; this is as much about culture as it is strategy.
  • Create new ways for the institution to reward and incentivize public and community service.  Admissions criteria, grading systems, tenure evaluation, awards, and recognition might be areas for exploration.
  • Along the lines of thinking globally and acting locally, Stanford should adopt a more robust place-based strategy to partner with community leaders to advance racial equity, economic inclusion, climate justice, and community wellness. Engage in public-private efforts to realize ground-up partnerships to advance equity and democracy in 5–7 low income Bay Area communities. And stick with it for a ten-year duration.
  • Reinvigorate the terrific Stanford Medicine Commission on Justice & Equity report—there has been some progress but accelerate the implementation through focused attention and support.  And by the way, Stanford Health must do a better job of engaging patients and communities served by Medi-Cal.

Given Stanford’s reputation as “the best of the best,” these and other considerations for action will send a powerful message to institutions of higher learning across the nation and around the world: We can imagine a better world, we believe in a better world, and we will attract and prepare leaders who will contribute in service of this vision.