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Stanford Report, June 17, 1998

Commencement '98 -- full story: 6/17/98

Skies clear as 4,678 graduates celebrate their day


Enthusiastic students whooped and hollered on a sunny June 14 as Stanford University conferred 4,678 degrees on the Class of 1998. President Gerhard Casper said he would always think of the class as "los niños de El Niño,' the children of El Niño, in reference to the Feb. 3 rainstorm that prompted hundreds of students to race to the university's libraries in the middle of the night to save thousands of flooded books.

"A bookish lot you are in every sense of the word," Casper said.

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While Casper praised the class's academic achievements, commencement speaker Ted Koppel urged students to aspire to decency and to emulate ethical behavior.

Despite being handed lofty moral goals and a bookish reputation, graduation for the Class of '98 mostly meant a chance to celebrate. After the formal ceremony began, Casper asked students performing massive waves and throwing giant beach balls on the field of Stanford Stadium to "calm down a little." Koppel mustered the no-nonsense civility he exhibits on camera as the anchor on ABC's "Nightline" to tell impatient undergraduates that his speech was almost over.

Soon it was, and Provost Condoleezza Rice got on with the business of presenting awards and this year's degree candidates at Stanford's 107th annual commencement. The university granted 1,754 bachelor's, 2,038 master's and 886 doctoral degrees to the Class of 1998. Included were 394 students graduating with departmental honors and 268 with university distinction. Casper said that 152 students satisfied the requirements of more than one major, 65 graduated with a dual bachelor's degree, 288 graduated with both a bachelor's and a master's, and 287 students completed minors.

"More important, all of you, as undergraduate or graduate students, have done your best," Casper said. "You have permitted yourselves to be challenged and you have challenged: inside and outside the curriculum, at Stanford and abroad, in the university and in service to the public, in athletics and in the arts. You, your families, your friends have every right to be proud of your wondrously varied accomplishments. Your alma mater, among whose alumni you will count in a short while, is indeed very proud of you."

Casper said the Class of '98 had set a new record for contributing to the Senior Gift. He said that 1,142 students, 73 percent of the class, had raised $24,591. With matching gifts, Casper said the total gift to the Stanford Fund for Undergraduate Education was more than $187,000.

"Even more important than the amount is your spirit and the principle of making possible for succeeding generations of students what your predecessors helped make possible for you," Casper said. "I believe it safe to say that all the members of the Stanford community -- past, present and future -- thank, congratulate and commend you."

While the ceremony was dominated by joyful students letting off firecrackers, roasting wieners and playing croquet on the grass, Koppel's speech focused on weightier matters.

The questions of right and wrong, Koppel said, require individuals to measure themselves against absolute standards of ethics and responsibility. The speech was crafted in response to a letter sent to him by Casper. Quoting from it, Koppel asked, "Can a society that essentially obliterates all distinction between the public and the private realm be a free and civilized one in the long run?" Using as a reference point the public's reaction to the sex scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton, Koppel said that ethics in this country has been turned into a commodity that is defined by the "standards of the marketplace." He asked if people do not care what their leaders do in private during strong economic times, what happens when the economy collapses. And while no one can ever consistently measure up to absolute ethical standards, Koppel said, these standards cannot be reduced to "a business proposition; one set to applied when things are going well, another when the economy is in trouble."

Concerning the issue of privacy, and whether the U.S. president is entitled to a private life, Koppel answered that it depends: "The standard is whether or not it will have an impact on the rest of the country." And while there is nothing unique about the current scandal, he said, the legal process dominating it is being "used as a device to blunt our attention or distract our focus from what is really important." This happens, Koppel continued, because society tolerates it. Responsibility to change this lies with the individual, not a broader set of controls. For that reason, Koppel told the students to aspire to decency. "Apply a rigid standard of morality to your lives; and if, periodically, you fail -- as you surely will -- adjust your lives, not the standards," he said. "There's no mystery here. You know what to do. Now go out and do it!"

The Class of '98 roared approval of Koppel's message and appeared ready to try just about anything. In Stanford tradition, students outdid one another by storming the field dressed as Chinese dragons, Loch Ness monsters, giant puzzles and gorillas. Milky White, the papier-mâché cow on wheels that has appeared in productions of the Ram's Head Theatrical Society for the last 10 years, was painted gold for her graduation. "She's going to New York to try to make it as an actor," said Quinn McKew, a human biology major. Political science major Rachel Kolman Marshak was accompanied by her pet shih tzu, named Shana, and chemistry major Lincoln Bickford wore a smoking science experiment on his mortarboard. Economics student Fred Rible, AKA the Balloon Man, wore a multi-story tower made from balloons. "It's the best job I've ever had," he said about his balloon-twisting skill that he said helped send him through college. Three students "waded" onto the field with an inflatable pool attached around their waists and members of the wrestling team set up a ring, complete with ropes, for a match between Doug "Albino Rhino" Bardsley and Scott "Jack in the Box" Chapman.

Dozens of students holding giant homemade banners saying, "Thank You, Mom and Dad!" and "We Love You!" in English, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese, paraded in front of their parents sitting in the sundrenched bleachers. Four women graduated together wearing plastic tiaras, slinky black dresses and sashes titled Miss Congeniality, Miss Smokesmodel, Best Attitude and Most Talented. Like many of the seniors, their friendships dated back to freshman year. "We were walking through the Quad on our way here and it's just surreal," said humanities major Valerie Kinsey, wearing the Best Attitude sash. "People are just starting to realize that it's over."

Parents, relatives and friends were just as overwhelmed -- and happy. Fifteen fans attended the graduation of public policy major Aron Weisner. "I'm very proud," said his father, Stan Weisner, who works at the University of California-Berkeley. "But we've had to put up with [Stanford] for four years!"

Graduate Kitty Maguire clasped her hands and smiled during the ceremony. "I'm in shock," she said. The mother of 12-year-old twin daughters, Maguire said she started college at Berkeley but took a 28-year-long break.

"I'm 49, you can write that," she said. "I do everything late." Maguire completed her bachelor's degree in religious studies by attending Stanford half-time for four years. Asked why she returned to school, Maguire answered: "I wanted my children to have a mother with a university degree." SR