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Casper withdraws Strategic Communications Plan
STANFORD -- President Gerhard Casper withdrew the university's fledgling Strategic Communications Plan at the Faculty Senate meeting Nov. 30, largely because of the media's lampooning of six key words.
“The newspapers took out of context a half dozen words from one page of a 30-page document,” Casper said. “The adjectives were meant as labels summarizing descriptions. . . . This was not meant as a 'spin' but as a simple way to say what is special about Stanford.”
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.
“Indeed, 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,” he said.
The six “essential Stanford attributes” presented in the document are incomparable, challenging, pioneering/western, vibrant, boundless and stunning.
Casper's remarks came in response to barbed criticism from classics Professor Marsh McCall, who characterized the adjectives with words of his own: “reductive, anti-intellectual, vapid, self-defeating, embarrassing, insulting and crying out to be jettisoned.”
“If we took [the document's] 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,” McCall said at the senate meeting. “There 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.”
The terms, perhaps with the exception of “western,” fail to separate Stanford from other universities, he added. “Do 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.”
McCall's harshest complaint concerned a section of the plan that lists “an independent, skeptical faculty culture” as a challenge for university communications. This phrasing indicates that faculty independence and skepticism should “be controlled and maneuvered,” he said.
Casper vehemently denied this accusation.
“If 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,” Casper said, noting that he and the provost are members of the faculty. “The fact is,” he said, “communicating 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.” The page referring to faculty communications, Casper acknowledged, “could have been better worded, absolutely.”
McCall also criticized the lack of faculty participation in developing the plan. “These 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,” he said.
Casper responded by saying that “it would have been very misguided to occupy faculty time with an effort of this kind.”
McCall, in a followup interview, credited Casper for withdrawing the document “right then and there.” But he remains “absolutely appalled that a document of this particular personality, of this particular character ever could get as far as it did.”
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 “publics” - 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 plan's 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 “a vision pioneering enough to help us take the first big leap from Stanford to Stepford.”
“This misfired,” Casper said. “Obviously, any kind of plan of this kind that is discussed in this way has defeated itself, so there is simply no point to it.”
The president said at the Senate meeting that his love for public relations is “nonexistent.” While he had some “misgivings” about developing a communications plan when the Board of Trustees committee requested it, he said the plan didn't deserve the bad rap that it got.
Some of the problems with the plan, Casper said, stemmed from the fact that Shepard allowed “some 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 “one 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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