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Stanford Report, March 8, 2000

Casper reflects on presidency, outlines challenges for university


President Gerhard Casper used his final "State of the University" address Thursday to underscore some of the serious challenges Stanford faces in the future, particularly the high cost of housing and the risks and rewards brought by the Internet revolution.

The hourlong speech, given to a group of about 200 faculty and staff gathered in Kresge Auditorium, touched on the accomplishments and disappointments of his almost eight-year tenure as president. Far more than a farewell speech, the address served as a memorandum to the university, and its next president, on the diverse and complex issues -- be they academic, financial, political or technological -- that Stanford faces in the near and long term.

He also made some news, announcing that endowment funds would be used to create fifth-year dissertation fellowships in the humanities, with 20 such fellowships available by 2002-03.

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Casper saw a link between the risks and challenges posed by Internet-based "distance learning" and efforts to develop and modernize the physical campus.

"I . . . believe it crucial that we further increase our attractiveness as a space for people to interact personally and face-to-face in learning and research. This task has a special urgency as information technology challenges us to rethink the necessity and function of the university. The university will remain attractive as a physical space to the extent that the quality of what we do exceeds what technology will make possible," he said.

Some of his strongest remarks addressed the opposition the university has faced from the general public and campus leaseholders to building more housing for faculty and students.

"What the people of California once welcomed as furthering a specific public interest is now endangered by real estate markets and those who want to appropriate the benefaction of the university's founders for other purposes or even themselves," he said. "Never mind that Stanford has been a more responsible steward of its lands than virtually anybody else on the Peninsula and that Stanford has grown at a considerably slower pace than the rest of the counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo has."

Faculty comment:

"He's a good speaker, and that came through loud and clear, and I liked very much his reference to his wife at the end. I was, though, disappointed with what he said about the women faculty issue. . . . There's no question that much of the [gender] inequity is very subconscious and is still there, which he did not admit."
Fran Conley,
Professor of Neurosurgery

Casper said that in 1992, when he arrived, he could not have predicted that he would spend so much time fighting to build faculty and graduate-student housing and an ambulatory cancer center, "to preserve the academic reserve as such, in short, to keep the Founders' 'paramount purpose' alive."

"Nor could I have imagined that I would fail to communicate the enormity and urgency of the housing shortage to some of our own faculty. I have been saddened by the deep hostility on the part of some current campus homeowners to the notion of accommodating even a modest number of present and future colleagues on university lands in existing campus neighborhoods. I hope my successor will gain more sympathy for the needs of our colleagues."

He said the stakes are high in issue of campus development "because the vitality of the university and, for that matter, the state, depends on the quality of faculty and students that we recruit. They need to be housed, but they also need the research and teaching facilities that will keep the university at the frontier. Standing still is falling back."

At the same time, Casper said the university's growth should not be unlimited. Hinting at the cost-cutting that was necessary early in his administration, Casper said, "The lesson of the last decade is that resource constraints are real and they are here to assert and reassert themselves."

As he did in a recent Faculty Senate meeting, Casper urged professors not to be complacent in the face of emerging technologies. But he discussed the impact of information technology in the broader context of the many different roles a university plays.

Faculty comment:

"Gerhard has always been a fierce fighter for the independence of the university, which he correctly sees as the key to its whole being. I'm also glad he said that we're not a junior Silicon Valley and that we don't exist for the moment. It's very easy to forget that."
Brad Efron,
Professor of Statistics

"One can distinguish at least nine tasks that universities perform: (1) knowledge assessment and creation; (2) assessing and reviewing those who have the capacity to become and be scholars; (3) education and professional training; (4) knowledge transfer; (5) credentialing; (6) social integration; (7) the collegiate rite of passage to adulthood; (8) providing a place for 'networking'; and (9) fostering a worldwide community of scholars."

Looking at the university in this way, Casper said, "it is hard to believe that all of these functions can and will migrate to cyberspace. Some, however, or portions of some, have already done so or will do so in the future. There will also be some substitution of distance learning for in-residence education.

"We should not only be prepared for this, but we should assume that Stanford itself will be a player in cyberspace."

Casper said Stanford is engaged in discussions with Princeton and Yale about the growing interest in distance learning and web-based educational programs in the arts and sciences, initially focused on continuing education for alumni.

"We will, of course, consult widely with faculty members before undertaking such collaborative projects," he added.

The university must seize new opportunities, because, he warned, "It is possible that commercial providers of online educational services will skim off what for them is profitable and will leave the universities with everything that is expensive in education and research."

Of course, the Internet and its challenges are partly the result of technological innovations born at Stanford. Casper spoke about Stanford's role in developing Silicon Valley but also about what sets Stanford apart from what the Valley has come to symbolize.

Casper quoted from Michael Lewis' recent book, The New New Thing, which says that "the business of creating and foisting new technology upon others that goes on in Silicon Valley is near the core of the American experience. . . . The United States obviously occupies a strange place in the world. It is the capital of innovation, of material prosperity, of a certain kind of energy, of certain kinds of freedom, and of transience. Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world."

From that, Casper said that it would be easy to conclude that "if Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world, then Stanford is to Silicon Valley what Silicon Valley is to the United States."

"To say so would be a facile elaboration but wrong. While Silicon Valley may be Stanford's offspring, and therefore it stands to reason that the two share some characteristics, the university is not a 'capital of transience.' Quite to the contrary, it is our responsibility to be concerned with fundamentals, including traditions and basic aspects of the human condition. It is our responsibility to take the long view of everything. Yes, we are a source of innovation; yes, we ourselves are open to change. Our commitment, however, is to the search to know, to the pursuit of truth."

Casper's wide-ranging speech also addressed key issues of his presidency and some disappointments.

Finally, Casper thanked many people for all the help they had given him during his presidency, including "provosts, faculty, deans, chairs, students, trustees, senior officers, the staff, alumni, parents, and local, national and worldwide friends. . . . Together we have done much to bring the cause of the university forward." He reserved special thanks for his wife, Regina, saying, as his voice choked with emotion, "I could not have survived, especially the early years, without her steady support." SR