Stanford in My Future

Michael McFaul sitting in Memorial Church Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, discusses "What Matters to Me and Why" with Sughra Ahmed, Stanford’s associate dean for religious life. Alice Wenner

This is part six of six in which Director Michael McFaul talks about his vision for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the accomplishments he's most proud of so far, and why he keeps returning to the Farm.

I came here as a 17-year-old kid, and I've ventured off many times, but I always come back. Stanford has been central to every aspect of my life. It's where I live. It's where I met my wife, it's where my kids were born. It's my employment, and my entertainment (I have Stanford season tickets to basketball and football). I see performances at the Bing Center and I'm also the Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. I'm deeply intertwined and connected to this place in all kinds of ways.

And it’s for a reason. Yes, I've been offered deanships. I've been offered endowed professorships and other jobs in government that I turned down. Who knows, maybe I'll go do another government job sometime in the future. But I know that Stanford will always be my base, and FSI is a core part of that base.

It will be my base because I enjoy and appreciate being in a place that values science. We don't argue whether two plus two equals four. We are all committed to that cause. That is a good base for me as I venture out into other domains, and policy arenas and places where that's not always the case. I like the fact that I can come back to a place where data, evidence, the scientific method matters all the time, every day of the week.

But the central reason I decided to sign up for another five-year term as director at FSI is because I want to learn. I'm not done learning. It's always been my working hypothesis that leading a diverse place like FSI gives me a wonderful way to diversify my intellectual and policy interests, much more so than if I was solely a professor in political science teaching courses about US-Russia relations. And people respond to my emails. They may not respond to my emails if I wasn’t the director of FSI. I'm joking, of course. But when I say, "Hey, I want to learn more about high tech in China," I usually hear back. It’s a great privilege to be a part of an intellectual community that I want to learn from.

And I don't just mean the faculty here, by the way. I don't have to teach anymore because of my other administrative responsibilities. I always teach at least one course a year because teaching is one of those spaces, especially a seminar, where I'm learning all the time. I almost never teach the same course more than two years in a row. We have some of the smartest students on the planet, wouldn't you want to interact with them to learn? I most certainly learn from them.

Lastly, at this stage in my life, the balance of what I do has shifted in ways that calls on me to be a translator, as being somebody that can find ideas, understand, read, research and then try to communicate those insights to the outside world. Be it in Washington meeting with senior officials, or on television where I'm reaching millions, or Twitter where I'm reaching hundreds of thousands.

I see my role as being somebody who can be a bridge between theory and practice. FSI is committed to that cause. It’s therefore a great platform for me to try to continue to do that with the years, and hopefully decades, I have ahead of me here as a professor at Stanford.

Read part one in this series, Showing Up at Stanford, or return to the Meet the Director page.