True Purpose: Perspectives from a Distinguished Visitor
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. The following is an abridged version of the first part of Dr. Ross’ reflections on his time as the Haas Center Distinguished Visitor. The full text will be published in installments throughout the summer.
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 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.
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 and 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, 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.
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, for lack of any better word, 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.
Watch for more in this series of reflections by Dr. Ross over the summer.