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Stanford Report, June 14, 2000

'I hope that you will accept me as a fellow graduate'

This is the prepared text of the address given by President Gerhard Casper at the Senior Class Day luncheon on June 10, 2000.

My fellow graduates, when I welcomed you, ages and ages ago, on the 20th of September 1996, as the Stanford Class of 2000, I had a choice to make: whether to designate you as the first class to graduate in the new millennium or as the last class of the second millennium. Disappointing some of you, I did the latter and thus followed the argument that the first year of the first millennium was year 1, and therefore it stands to reason that, in a world of calendar fictions, 2001 will be the first year of the third millennium. I realize that my view is a minority view (last New Year's Eve I felt like a minority of one), but I hope you won't send for the doctor or have me locked up. Indeed, you should not overlook the advantage of accepting my position on the matter: Come this New Year's, you may celebrate the new millennium all over again.

I stress the designation, because thinking of you as the last class of the second millennium makes it possible to celebrate you as its high point. Having followed you for four years; having taught you in Sophomore College; having read you "bedtime stories"; having talked to many of you in the Main Quad, at the Rose Bowl or at Senior Pub Night; having rooted with you as a "Sixth Man"; having watched you in Winter One Act plays; having listened to you sing; having played "Marco Polo" with some in the Hoover House swimming pool and danced the Macarena with others at Gaieties, I hope that, as I leave the Stanford presidency, you will indeed accept me as a fellow graduate. Since the red 1985 Chevy, in which you so often spotted me, is actually owned by the university, I must buy a new car. Thus, with my usual foresight, I have secured a Class of 2000 license plate holder to reflect the fact that we will graduate together. I shall display it proudly and with feeling. I have even made a senior class gift.

Dear parents, when I welcomed you on September 20, 1996, I admonished you by quoting President Harding's mixed metaphor: "One must not drop anchor until one is out of the woods." You must admit that that was and is sound advice. It has been a great pleasure getting to know some of you personally over these four years. One of you, Roy Detwiler, has even told me that his daughter, Anissa, caused him to read my 1997 book on the separation of powers. Mr. Detwiler and I are agreed that he is the first and probably the only pharmacist to have read this obscure legal history volume. I am most grateful and appreciative. I urge the rest of you, whatever your profession, to take him as a role model: Alas, the book is still in print!

My fellow graduates, I now apply the advice about not dropping anchor until out of the woods to you. Indeed, I remind you with another mixed metaphor that "the future is an uncharted sea full of potholes," or, with a triple punch: "Who knows what potholes may lie in the uncharted seas as you scale new peaks?"

My welcome to all of you was titled "On Making Choices." Since making choices for you has obviously just begun, I hope you will permit me to make three simple points today. They are very much "Gerhard" type of points, by which I mean they will not surprise you.

Here is the first. Do not let the future make you narrow in intellect, spirit, pursuits, values. I return to an author I quoted to you four years ago. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist, in 1932 wrote to his younger brother who seemed to be settling on a particular course: "[L]et me urge you with every earnestness to keep an open mind: to cultivate a disinterested and catholic interest in every intellectual discipline, and in the non-academic excellences of the world, so that you may not lose that freshness of mind from which alone the life of the mind derives, and that your choice, whatever it be, of work to do, may be a real choice, and one reasonably free."

As "the new new thing" dominates our environment, we need to remind ourselves that newness as such is not the equivalent of excellence. The excellences of the world include much that is old and they are so many that it will take the rest of your lives to discover just a few of them. The great news is: The pleasures that come from minds moving and studies blossoming do not disappear once the life of the mind has become a habit.

And -- my second point -- as you attempt to lead truthful and moral lives, remember what an unidentified French theologian once said: The most corrupting lies are problems poorly stated. It is hard to get things right but, with a sense of intellectual probing and moral humility, it can be done. It will take the rest of your lives to clarify your own, and society's, values, as you must.

Third, resist the temptation to make your future relationship with Stanford too narrow or to hold the university hostage over one issue or another. There is always the danger that one particular niche becomes one's only Stanford cause -- what I have called in the past a "culture of niches." In such a culture, some particular aspect of Stanford is elevated above the university as a whole and its core tasks of teaching, learning and research. Woodrow Wilson, when he was president of Princeton University, used a metaphor to put this problem in relief. Were the sideshows at the university, Wilson asked, threatening to overcome the attractions of the main tent?

My point here is that Stanford cannot be all things to all people. And as you find things to criticize about your alma mater, the question will not be whether Stanford is perfect in all respects -- how could it be? -- but whether, on balance, it constitutes one of the most rewarding opportunities in higher education the world over. Whether, on balance, it has served students, faculty and society well. Whether, on balance, we can say "good show" to the university as a whole.

Stanford's work in education and research has gone on ever since Leland and Jane Stanford decided to establish a trust for "other people's" children and to found a "university of high degree." The person who takes on a university presidency must be modest enough to realize beforehand that, in the end, he or she will have presided over just another transition period in the institution's history. When I announced that I would step down after eight years as Stanford's president, John Ross, a professor of chemistry at Stanford and among this year's winners of the National Medal of Science, wrote me, quoting Goethe: "In reality this kind of work is never finished. One has to declare it finished when, in accord with time and circumstance, one has done the utmost."

Tomorrow, it shall be the same for you. You will have to declare the first portion of your education finished, because, in accord with time and circumstance, you have done the utmost. You will then go down "the four wide ways in the great world, each to do [your] part in a brave and reasonable fashion."

And wherever you will be, dream of Stanford. David Starr Jordan, the university's first president, wrote a poem that he titled with the ancient phrase "A Castle in Spain." His poem is about a "castle in Spain" that is real, and not just imagined; it is about Stanford. Hardly a great poem, the "little" poem tries to express something of Stanford's grace and, therefore, let me conclude by passing it on to you.

 

There stands a castle in the heart of Spain,

Builded of stone, as if to stand for aye,

With tile-roof red against the azure sky;

And skies are bluest in the heart of Spain.

 

Castle so stately men build not again;

'Neath its broad arches, in its patio fair,

And through its cloisters, open everywhere,

I wander as I will, in sun or rain.

Its inmost secret unto me is known,

For mine the castle is. Nor mine alone--

 

The "castle" is yours, as it is Leland and Jane Stanford's, David Starr Jordan's, the faculty's, the alumni's, even mine. And, most mysteriously, as you now metamorphose into alumni, the castle must be and will be there for future generations of students and faculty.

My fellow graduates, I wish you all the very best! SR