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Robert Walker, founder of overseas studies, dies at 84
Robert A. Walker, who presided over undergraduate education at Stanford in the late '50s and '60s and co-founded the university's very popular overseas studies program, died Feb. 3 at Stanford Hospital of a heart attack. He was 84.
A professor of political science whose specialty was public administration and urban planning, Walker was also tapped by former President Wallace Sterling and Provost Frederick Terman to help draft land use plans for Stanford-owned open space surrounding the campus. As a member of the university's committee on land and buildings from 1952 to 1969, he helped write plans for Stanford Industrial Park and as chair of the committee on faculty-staff housing, he oversaw the development of three faculty housing subdivisions: Pine Hill I and II and Frenchman's Hill. He also prided himself as being among those who fought a winning battle for maintaining the campus architectural tradition of sloped red tile roofs at a time when architects proposed less expensive flat tops.
A generation of students knew him best, however, for the "green sheet," an extensive list of required courses outside their majors, which he ushered in as director of general studies in 1956, and as the man who made possible their first experiences abroad.
Aided by the strength of the American dollar, Walker leased whole airplanes to take Stanford undergraduates to overseas campuses that he and Professor Friedrich Strothmann started in 1958, first in Germany, and then in France, Italy, Austria, Great Britain and Spain. At a time when other universities were sending a few exceptional students to study in foreign universities, Walker wanted to expose as many as possible to other cultures, believing that an international perspective was an essential part of a liberal education. Three of every five Stanford undergraduates, 8,000 in all, went abroad for two quarters during his tenure as director of overseas campus programs, which ended in 1973. With so many students away, the university also was able to increase its total enrollment.
"I grew up on a farm near Phoenix. When I got to Austria, I was so excited about seeing the place that I could scarcely think about doing work," recalls Lowell Price, A.B. '66, currently secretary to the Stanford Board of Trustees. "I think that's why we got a reputation for being on a travel lark," said Price, who, like many other students, met his future spouse, a fellow Stanford student, abroad.
"For his time, Bob Walker was a tremendous innovator," Price said, conceding he would not be so pleased today if his own children spent as much time away from the books as he did in Europe. (The overseas program, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, has since been given a more rigorous academic focus and expanded to Asia and Latin America.) Walker also used the European campuses to try out co-educational housing at a time when university officials carefully kept male and female students housed across campus, said Price, who later worked for Walker. He also developed small group learning experiences, by recruiting faculty to travel abroad, teaching and living with the students in the host countries long before the university began encouraging faculty mentors to live in student residence halls.
Not all went smoothly, however, according to one of Walker's sons, who also took advantage of the overseas experience. "Some students sat around and moaned about having to eat sauerkraut and wurst in Germany," said his son Jerome, A.B. '65 and Ph.D. '72, now associate provost at the University of Southern California. "My father's philosophy was that we weren't about to take American food to Europe."
In a 1971 publication for students, the senior Walker warned that "some students are so provincial that they live in nearly private cocoons which quite successfully insulate them from new experiences abroad."
Walker's ideas about a liberal education included reading the "Great Books" and were derived from educational philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was president of the University of Chicago when Walker and his wife, Louise, were students there. They became lifelong converts to the classics and belonged to a Stanford faculty group that regularly met to read parts in plays in the late '40s. Walker introduced a liberal curriculum at Kansas State, where he headed the "Institute of Citizenship." At Stanford, he chaired a 1955-56 committee on undergraduate education, which developed the first plan for undergraduate studies at Stanford in 40 years. The curricular reforms lasted until the late '60s when the university undertook another major study and revision.
Born Jan. 11, 1914, in Spokane, Wash., Walker earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Chicago. In 1937 he and his wife drove across country gathering interviews with city mayors and planners for his doctoral thesis on urban land use planning, Jerome Walker said. "They had to choose between buying a radio or a heater for the car. They chose a radio and my mother always regretted it."
In 1939, Walker joined the National Resources Planning Board, where he got into trouble with a supervisor over his yet-to-be-published thesis, which eventually became a textbook on urban planning. Walker had argued that city planning boards had become overly dominated by real estate and construction industry interests, and his supervisor wanted him to modify his conclusions, Walker later told his son. "Dad wouldn't change it, so he had to leave, but his professors at Chicago found him a research fellowship," Jerome said.
Walker then worked in administrative positions for the Departments of Agriculture and State before becoming a professor at Kansas State. He came to Stanford in 1949, when the regional university was setting its sights on developing a national reputation.
"He took over as chair of the political science department [in 1958] at a time when it had less than 10 faculty members, and it wasn't number one in quality of political science either," recalls Kurt Steiner, a professor emeritus of political science who earned his doctorate at Stanford in 1955. "He brought in people such as Heinz Eulau and other luminaries that finally brought the department onto the national map."
Walker wrote or co-authored several books, including one about California governance in 1953, and taught courses on public administration until his retirement in 1976. "He was a New Deal Roosevelt Democrat who believed in the enlightened civil servant who would run government for you," said his son Richard, A.B. '69, now chair of the geography department at the University of California-Berkeley.
Working closely with Sterling and Terman, Steiner said, Walker was known more among Stanford political scientists as an administrator with hands-on experience than as a researcher or theoretician. "In a field like politics, a little practical experience connected with a sound academic background is a useful thing," Steiner said, "but I remember when he retired I gave a talk in which I said he wasn't very popular in our department because he tried to put administrative principles to work. There was a certain resentment that, as chair, he tried to really administer at a time when most chairs didn't do too much."
Within overseas studies, however, his administrative skills were more appreciated, said Giuseppe Mammarella, an Italian political scientist who was the first director of Stanford's Florence campus. "Bob found the [foreign campus] sites, negotiated the contracts, designed the programs in close contact with the departments at home," Mammarella said, and was known for his enthusiasm and endurance " After several hours of discussion, there was only one person around the conference table who was as fresh as a rose, smiling and bursting with optimism: Bob Walker," Mammarella said.
History Professor Mark Mancall, who took over as director of overseas studies from Walker in 1973, said that he "played a major role in developing the concept of general studies at Stanford and in integrating international education through overseas studies" into the curriculum. "He also was extraordinarily helpful and cooperative in various transitions" in the programs, he said.
Walker is survived by his wife, Louise, of Stanford; brother Tom of Pittsburgh; sons Jerome of Los Angeles, Robert of Stanford and Richard of Berkeley; and four grandchildren.
Family services will be held Monday morning, Feb. 9, at Alta Mesa Cemetery. A memorial service is planned for Stanford's Memorial Church at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, March 16.
By Kathleen O'Toole