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Casper withdraws Strategic Communications Plan

STANFORD -- President Gerhard Casper withdrew the university¹s fledgling Strategic Communications Plan at the Faculty Senate meeting Nov. 30, largely because of the media¹s lampooning of six key words.

³The newspapers took out of context a half dozen words from one page of a 30-page document,² Casper said. ³The adjectives were meant as labels summarizing descriptions. . . . This was not meant as a Œspin¹ but as a simple way to say what is special about Stanford.²

While Casper maintained that it is impossible to summarize the university in labels, he said he would stand by the now famous words when used in the context of the fuller descriptions provided for each one in the plan.

³Indeed, as somebody who has the responsibility to defend and define Stanford and distinguish us . . . I am using many of these terms all the time and I will continue to do so,² he said.

The six ³essential Stanford attributes² presented in the document are incomparable, challenging, pioneering/western, vibrant, boundless and stunning.

Casper¹s remarks came in response to barbed criticism from classics Professor Marsh McCall, who characterized the adjectives with words of his own: ³reductive, anti-intellectual, vapid, self-defeating, embarrassing, insulting and crying out to be jettisoned.²

³If we took [the document¹s] terms and went out to the corner of University and Emerson, I will guarantee you that no one will say these terms describe a world-class university,² McCall said at the senate meeting. ³There is not a single word of the mind in this set. Not a single one. They might describe [a company] in Silicon Valley . . . but they would not, they could not, describe a university.²

The terms, perhaps with the exception of ³western,² fail to separate Stanford from other universities, he added. ³Do you think Yale is going to back off from those terms? Do you think even Harvard is going to back off from them? No way.²

McCall¹s harshest complaint concerned a section of the plan that lists ³an independent, skeptical faculty culture² as a challenge for university communications. This phrasing indicates that faculty independence and skepticism should ³be controlled and maneuvered,² he said.

Casper vehemently denied this accusation.

³If you [believe] that Condi [Provost Condoleezza Rice] and I think of the faculty as something that is an object of manipulation, you are poorly mistaken,² Casper said, noting that he and the provost are members of the faculty. ³The fact is,² he said, ³communicating with the faculty and the various groups in [the] faculty is indeed a task. It is a task that the president and the provost and others have daily.² The page referring to faculty communications, Casper acknowledged, ³could have been better worded, absolutely.²

McCall also criticized the lack of faculty participation in developing the plan. ³These are the words that are for us and about us and that we are supposed to use. There has been no faculty, let alone an academic senate element, to this process as far as I can tell,² he said.

Casper responded by saying that ³it would have been very misguided to occupy faculty time with an effort of this kind.²

McCall, in a followup interview, credited Casper for withdrawing the document ³right then and there.² But he remains ³absolutely appalled that a document of this particular personality, of this particular character ever could get as far as it did.²

University Director of Communications Terry Shepard, who wrote the plan at the request of a committee of the Board of Trustees, declined to comment on its fate.

The internal document was widely distributed among administrative staff on campus in October. The stated goal of the document was to communicate a cohesive set of attributes that define and differentiate Stanford to different ³publics² - a list of groups that includes everyone from trustees, faculty, students and staff to the general public.

Anonymous delivery of the document to local reporters in November defeated the plan¹s goals, Casper said, because the document was boiled down to a set of superlatives that was chided in the press.

The Stanford Daily, in a Dec. 1 editorial, mocked the plan as ³a vision pioneering enough to help us take the first big leap from Stanford to Stepford.²

³This misfired,² Casper said. ³Obviously, any kind of plan of this kind that is discussed in this way has defeated itself, so there is simply no point to it.²

The president said at the Senate meeting that his love for public relations is ³nonexistent.² While he had some ³misgivings² about developing a communications plan when the Board of Trustees committee requested it, he said the plan didn¹t deserve the bad rap that it got.

Some of the problems with the plan, Casper said, stemmed from the fact that Shepard allowed ³some exuberant language into an otherwise mundane document, many aspects of which were probably not thought through very well.

But Casper defended both the purpose of the exercise - undertaken at many other uniersities - and Shepard, whom the president called ³one of the least public relations-minded and most decent persons I have had the privilege to get to know since coming to Stanford."



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