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Casper examines 'puzzles' of higher education

SAN FRANCISCO -- President Gerhard Casper, in a major address to Bay Area business leaders, renewed his call for a re- examination of the way American universities do business, including the traditional four-year undergraduate degree program.

In the Feb. 11 address, "The Puzzles of Higher Education," before the Bay Area Council at its "Outlook Conference 1993," Casper also cautioned that he was not prepared to offer any specific proposals on the matter just yet.

Casper's suggestion that perhaps some students would benefit from a three-year undergraduate degree program drew national attention after it came up during an interview with the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle. The president, who took office last Sept. 1, did not expect the subject, one of many on which he "thought aloud" during the interview, to form the cornerstone of a major article, which was then picked up by other media.

" 'Thinking aloud' is the way scholars tend to work," Casper told the audience of about 1,000. "We learn best by testing our ideas out on colleagues and students, using their suggestions and criticisms to refine our work before it is published.

"What I have learned as the president of Stanford is that my 'thinking aloud' now gets published almost instantaneously, not by scholarly journals but by the other media," he said. "So, as some of you may know, I have been musing on the quality of undergraduate education in the United States and on its length, saying that nothing should be taken for granted and reminding people that the four-year course of studies has not been laid down by natural law."

The issue having been brought to the forefront, Casper said he has accepted the role he is now expected to play in the dialogue.

"My primary concern was and is the coherence and quality of undergraduate education," Casper said. Since the national media exposure, he added, "A great many people have offered to correct or improve upon my ideas. Today, I would like to continue thinking aloud on these issues."

After his speech, Casper also answered audience questions on the issues of research funding and minority representation on the faculty. He particularly cautioned against any changes in the federal policies regarding funding basic research at universities. (See adjacent story.)

Market will become 'testing ground'

Casper noted that economist Milton Friedman once said universities were inefficient because they were not dependent on a "market test." But, the president said, "as even the best endowed universities rely increasingly on tuition income, the market will become a testing ground for all of us, the most distinguished institutions not excluded.

"I think it is naive to assume that major universities can just go on as they have done in the past without re-examination of their ways," Casper said. "If we do not see the need for change, we may experience the same rude awakening that in the world of business has been the experience of so many of our country's blue-chip companies," a message that was not lost on the business audience.

Casper also injected some of his trademark humor early in the speech, when he pronounced: "Changes will come, and we can hope that they will serve to strengthen what in many respects is the best system of higher education in the world . . . and I say that with all the authority conferred upon me because of my accent."

Casper asked the business leaders to consider, "What kind of education do we want, and for what purpose?"

He reminded them that the American middle class is increasingly asking whether it can afford paying in the neighborhood of $70,000 to educate one young adult at the most exclusive private institutions.

The four-year liberal arts degree, Casper said, was originally developed to "polish" young men and women, usually the wealthy, but in recent years has become a "necessity for entry into a whole range of skilled occupations and professions."

Colleges and universities, he said, have evolved into part of what Jacques Barzun of Columbia University called the "mandarin system," and what Richard Atkinson, chancellor of the University of California-San Diego, calls the "view of education as preparatory": Nursery school prepares for kindergarten, which prepares for grade school, which prepares for high school, which prepares for college, which prepares for graduate school. "And if you get into the right nursery school and into the right prep school and into the right college and into the right law school, you are on the 'high-status' track," Casper said.

"As this development occurred, we rarely ever paused to ask what the objectives of college in contemporary American society should be, and which units of the highly diversified and stratified world of American colleges and universities can best make what contributions," he said.

Two ideals in conflict

Currently, Casper said he found that the American higher education system has two ideal types of college education that are in conflict with one another, "though in the real world they are frequently mixed."

The first is the classic liberal arts model, four years of "relative tranquility in which students are free to roam through the great thoughts and great works of human history with endless options and not much of a rationale."

The second is more pragmatic; it holds that a college degree should lead to a good job or admission to a good graduate or professional school.

While, Casper said, "most undergraduate programs in the best places continue to be organized around the first ideal," he finds that "most undergraduate students take the more pragmatic view of college education and are worried from their first day in college about preparing for a career."

He cited the fact that the percentage of bachelor's degrees conferred in the arts and sciences, "the traditional areas of liberal arts," dropped from 47 percent of all degrees awarded in 1968 to about 26 percent in 1986.

While he stressed that he is very much in favor of a liberal arts education that spans four years, Casper said, "if we could offer the benefits of a college education in three years instead of four, the cost to the student would be reduced considerably.

"If we could couple this with a streamlining of our course offerings and a greater focus on a coherent curriculum, universities could also reduce their costs," Casper said. "In short, it seems to me that we need to face the issue of productivity."

One possible first step, he said, would be to offer a "clearly designed three-year alternative that would rely on a mix of advanced placement credits and a reduction in requirements." A four-year course could remain available, he said, and he pointed out that at Stanford, 12 percent of undergraduates have opted for co-terminal bachelor's and master's degrees, which generally take five years to earn.

Developing the three-year option would not be easy, he said. It would require a thorough and possibly controversial re-examination of distribution requirements, for example.

"At its best, such requirements expose the students to truly different ways of looking at the world; at its worst, the result will be a reflection not of a student's intellectual progress but, as Robert Maynard Hutchins noted more than 40 years ago, 'of his ingenuity in picking the easiest courses given at the most convenient times and places,' " Casper said.

To put it another way, "a Swedish observer, Torsten Husen, warns against the danger of 'multidisciplinary illiteracy,' " Casper added.

No place for remedial training

Casper summed up his address by noting that the success of any changes in American higher education will depend on improving the quality of education at lower levels.

"It frequently has been observed that colleges must increasingly make up for the deficiencies of high schools," Casper said. "A fair number of students, though by no means all, come to college ill prepared for higher work, and time must be spent at the beginning giving them basic training in writing, reading and quantitative skills."

This was, he said, Atkinson's preparatory principle in reverse: "College makes up for high school, which makes up for grade school, etc.

"To this I can only say that college is a terribly costly place to provide remedial training," Casper said. "Colleges and universities have a role to play in improving K-12 education, by training teachers and by pursuing high-quality research in the field of education. But we cannot do the work of the primary and secondary schools.

"By attempting to do so, colleges only become more inefficient and less productive, and may even contribute to the neglect of primary and secondary education," he said.

Accepts potential for controversy

Casper recognized that even daring to raise the issue makes him a target for opposition from within and without the world of academia.

"The usual letters of disagreement will come," he said.

"Have you noticed that hardly anybody these days sends you a letter quietly pointing out where you may have erred," Casper said. "Instead, the authors are 'appalled,' 'dismayed,' 'scandalized' or, the kinder ones, 'deeply saddened,'" he said to laughter.

"At that level of emotions, it is hard to engage in rational debate," Casper said. "Thus, to protect myself, I hasten to say that I do believe in liberal education. I do believe in the search to know, in the disinterested, joyously obsessive pursuit of truth. I do believe in reading, in reading carefully, in re-reading, in reading in dialogue.

"I do believe in learning how to think," he said. "And while I do believe it would be desirable if students also knew something with which to think, I know that opens me up to the most damning of all criticisms: that I favor 'specific' knowledge which, as everybody knows, quickly becomes obsolete."

The "Outlook Conference 1993" also featured addresses by California Gov. Pete Wilson; Richard M. Rosenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of BankAmerica Corp.; sports attorney Leigh Steinberg; Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institution; James C. Morgan, chairman and chief executive officer of Applied Materials Inc.; Dale M. Hanson, chief executive officer of CalPERS (the state's Public Employees' Retirement System); Richard A. Clarke, chairman and chief executive officer of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.; and David Broder, national correspondent for the Washington Post.



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