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Stanford cannot mandate cultural unity, Casper tells frosh
STANFORD - Stanford University's incoming freshmen and transfer students will have an unprecedented opportunity to meet and learn from campus "strangers" of various nationalities, colors and experiences.
However, it is individuals - not the university - who must decide how they will blend in or remain separate, "create an amalgam or a cacophony," Stanford President Gerhard Casper told 1,616 new freshmen, 120 transfers and their parents in his annual welcome speech Sept. 23.
Gathered in Frost Amphitheater was a somewhat wilted crowd that had spent the morning excitedly hauling suitcases and boxes into dormitory rooms. Casper read to them from a letter he had received last May from the parents of a graduating senior.
The letter asked if Stanford was not "fostering separatism among its students" through special events sponsored by ethnic and religious groups at orientation and graduation.
"Let me begin by making the obvious point that students, like all other human beings, are individuals pursuing their individual aspirations, but they are also social beings," Casper said.
"When they congregate with others on campus it does not necessarily mean that they are segregating themselves. Almost all of us have a tendency to hang out with people who are familiar, who share our background, who are 'our own kind.' "
At the same time, he said, experiences of social and political inequality have heightened emphasis of cultural differences throughout the world, from America to Yugoslavia to South Africa.
Stanford University, he said, has "no particular mandate" to create a "culture" out of these various identities, "be it an amalgam or a highly differentiated one," he said.
Indeed, it could not if it wished to do so. "Thinking in terms of 'cultural wholes,' in terms of distinct cultural identities, each more or less complete, neglects the fact that there are myriad crossroads, bridges and borderlands, especially in a nation of immigrants such as ours," Casper said.
"I have acquired an American 'cultural identity' intermingled with my original German and European identifications . . . but my identity, like yours, reflects myriad cultural influences and role expectations, which I have fused, adapted, integrated in my own individual way.
"Each one of you will develop your own version of cultural identity, will become a person," he said. "Culture is a highly dynamic concept. . . . It is not for the university in its institutional role to tell you to blend in or to remain separate, to embrace an amalgam or to reject it."
Yet "while the university has no right to tell you who you should become, with what groups to associate or not to associate, university citizenship entails the obligation to accept every individual member of the community as a contributor to the search to know," he said.
"In a university discussion, your first question in response to an argument must never be 'Does she belong to the right group?' Instead, the only criterion is 'Does she have a valid argument?' An argument must not be judged by whether the speaker is male or female, black or white, American or foreign."
The republic of learning, he concluded, "knows no national or cultural boundaries."
Casper was followed by Vice Provost for Student Affairs Mary Edmonds, who urged the new students to take time for introspection and values clarification, to pay attention to their own physical fitness and health, and to get involved with student activities - so long as they don't interfere with academic responsibilities.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions James Montoya - who had spent much of the morning walking around the dorms meeting the students his office had worked so hard to select and enroll - urged the freshmen and transfers to take full advantage of their short time at the university.
"Plan on leaving Stanford with few regrets," he told them. "You have the best possible traveling companions."
The Frost Amphitheater welcome was the kickoff for nearly a week of receptions, parties, lectures and tours designed to acquaint the students with the university and each other (see photos, page x).
The activities were coordinated this year by Ann Porteus, associate director of residential education; Nomi Martin, assistant director of new student orientation; and head student orientation coordinator, junior Victor Madrigal; with the help of fellow students Debbie Kahn, Monte Klaudt, Una Lee, Lety Leva, and Dana Weeks.
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