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Stanford Report, September 24, 1997

Orientation Speech by President Casper: 9/24/97

This is the text of President Gerhard Casper’s welcome to new students and their parents on Sept. 19, 1997

Freshmen members of the Stanford college class of 2001 ­ the first class to graduate in the third millennium ­ and those among you who had the splendid good sense to transfer to Stanford: On behalf of the university's faculty and staff, and your fellow students, both undergraduate and graduate, I warmly welcome you.

Equally warmly I welcome parents, other relatives, and friends who have come along to lessen the apprehensions that our freshmen might have. I cordially welcome you, Mr. President, and you, Mrs. Clinton.

A couple of months ago, I received a letter from a long-time friend in Chicago, Edward Rothschild, who is an alumnus of Harvard University. It began with the salutation: "Dear Mr. President" followed by an asterisk. In the explanatory note at the bottom of the page, my friend invoked an anecdote about Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933. According to the story, the Taft Administration summoned Lowell to the White House on business. In his absence, a Harvard visitor asked Lowell's secretary about the president. The secretary replied: "The president is in Washington visiting Mr. Taft." My friend, in his footnote, quoted this Harvard lore and then added: "At Stanford, from now on, the local lore will be: 'The president? The president is having a parent conference with Mr. Clinton.' "

While this convocation is primarily for our new students, in a way it may also serve as the first "parent conference" with all the parents in the audience.

For many of you parents, lessening the apprehensions of your freshmen is not the easiest of tasks, since you yourselves are full of apprehension about this rite of passage and great adventure, and about what lies ahead for your daughters and sons. I understand this from my own experience as a parent. As an acquaintance of mine once said in what has become my favorite mixed metaphor: "The future is an uncharted sea full of potholes."

A few years ago, on one of those posted maps on campus that helpfully indicate "You are here," a student had added "Yes, but why?" I should like to use my time this afternoon to consider the "But why?"

First, let us establish why Stanford is here. Just like your being here, Stanford's being here has a lot do with perseverance and determination.

Why is Stanford here, I mean here on the Peninsula? Because here Senator Stanford bred and raised championship horses on the thousands of acres that he deeded over to the new university. Of that past, two things remain: a building known as the Red Barn and the fact that many people refer to Stanford as "the Farm."

Next, let us ask, "Why are you in college?"

In the United States, college and a bachelor's degree are the prerequisite for most better-paying jobs and for admission to other courses of study in the sciences, humanities, law, medicine, business, public policy, education, divinity, what have you. Let us therefore be realistic: One reason you are in college is that you have little choice if you want to advance further. And while this is a fact neither you nor I should ignore or can do much about, I urge you to think of college not just as preparatory, as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.

In the United States, college also is a rite of passage ­ a fairly low-keyed and civilized one, but still a rite of passage from home to one's future. College will challenge the familiar, will challenge prejudices, and even values, will create uncertainties, will lead to new ways of relating to one another. Its mostly residential character, its diversity, its emphasis on socialization and peer interaction, in the eyes of many, make the college environment, as distinguished from the college curriculum, a formative and formidable experience that is valued in its own right, independently of any academic purposes. The danger is obviously that college becomes prized mostly as "the undergraduate experience." One reason you are here, anthropologically speaking, is that experience. However, it is only one reason and it is not the reason anybody invokes to justify tuition. I urge you to remember that the rite of passage is not the purpose of your going away from home.

The main purpose in attending a college is to develop to the utmost and for a lifetime the ability to use reason to see the clearer. For the next four years, you will hone that ability by, among other things, making your own choices about your own education. The university is a welcome to adulthood, to ambiguity and ambivalence ­ to the difficulty of making choices responsibly.

At the university, you frequently will be called upon to choose. For one thing, nobody in authority will tell you "to get out of bed." Your parents will worry even more about the fact that nobody in authority, short of a doctor, will order you to get more sleep.

There will be a few matters, though, in which you have no choice, in the sense that university citizenship entails certain obligations that we consider basic. For instance, we expect you to abide by the principles of the Fundamental Standard that has governed student conduct at Stanford for the last one hundred years. Or, when it comes to examinations or other academic work, you have no choice but strictly to observe the Honor Code.

Generally, the university does not presume to tell you who you should become, or with what groups to associate or not to associate. University citizenship, however, also entails the obligation to speak your own mind and to accept all other members of the community as contributors to the search to know. In a university, nobody has the right to deny another person's right to speak plainly, without concealment, and to the point. In a university discussion, your response to an argument must never be "Does she or he belong to the right group?" Instead, the only criterion is whether the argument is valid. An argument must not be rejected because the speaker is male or female, black or white, American or foreign. You were admitted to Stanford as individuals, not in groups. This is a critically important aspect of university life, of the university's own culture, its own civilization.

At the end of the millennium, American universities are sometimes criticized for paying insufficient attention to Western civilization. Given globalization, we are, of course, also taken to task for neglecting non-Western civilizations. Occasionally, the same people make both criticisms: one week the one, the next week the other. The fact of the matter is that unless you are satisfied to surf over the complexities of civilizations and the mix of good and bad they present, it has been the case for much longer than a century that we cannot "cover" Western civilization, let alone all other civilizations and all aspects of the human condition, in a freshman year or, for that matter, in a lifetime. Depth is more helpful than breadth. Stating this as a fact, being realistic about it, is not the same as saying that such teaching should not be tried. Indeed, I myself just this week finished attempting something like it in the daily Sophomore College seminar I taught on constitutionalism from an historical and comparative perspective.

However, the critique that says we do not sufficiently stress Western civilization misses the most important aspect of a university. Another university president, my friend Edward Levi, once said, universities "are the custodians not only of the many cultures of man, but of the rational process itself." This is the Western university's major contribution to civilization. The commitment to, and practice of, reasoning clearly and thinking critically is what we must uphold. In that we have no choice. The commitment is a demanding one. I have a physicist friend who once said to me: "The love of truth implies that one must search not just for evidence, but for the counter-evidence as well. We have to discover our own mistakes."

To foster this spirit, Stanford has embarked on a program of what we call Stanford Introductory Seminars, where we offer over 175 small-group courses for freshmen and sophomores with tenure-track members of the faculty. The program will ensure that every first-year student has the opportunity to participate in the rigorous, interactive search for truth with a faculty member and fellow students in a small group setting.

I return to the matter of making choices. I am afraid that at least some of my speeches are subject to the critique offered by the wife of Felix Frankfurter, one of the most distinguished justices in the history of the United States Supreme Court. Mrs. Frankfurter said there were two things wrong with Justice Frankfurter's speeches: first, he always got off the subject; and second, he always got back on the subject.

One evening, a few years ago, I had a group of about 15 undergraduates at the house for milk and cookies. We got into a discussion of all the things there are to do at Stanford: choosing courses, taking courses, writing research papers, meeting requirements, learning a foreign language, electing a major, perhaps choosing a minor (or should it be a dual major?), attending an overseas campus, engaging in public service, hiking in the foothills, or deciding how best to train for the Olympics, what a cappella group to join, how to combine the demands of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra with the desire to co-term in Electrical Engineering and on, and on, and on. Finally, a student turned to me in utter exasperation: "You know, we have no time whatsoever to go out on dates. You really need to do something about that!"