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Casper announces creation of Commission on Undergraduate Education

STANFORD -- Stanford University will launch an examination of undergraduate education more thorough and radical than any of the last quarter century, President Gerhard Casper said Thursday, April 29.

Casper used his "state of the university" address to announce creation of a Commission on Undergraduate Education at Stanford.

"I do not presume to propose a new undergraduate curriculum," Casper said, "but I do propose that we embark on a new and comprehensive study of undergraduate education." The effort is expected to take a year.

He also used the speech to discuss Stanford's efforts to resolve the indirect-cost dispute (see separate story), to warn that the university must engage in a continuous search for efficiency and effectiveness, and to remind his listeners of the strengths of Stanford.

Casper said he worried that too often in undergraduate education throughout the United States there is no "clear end in view." As a result, "we have too few measures of whether our curriculum is appropriate and effective."

Among other things, he said, the study of undergraduate education should:

  • Consider whether the range of undergraduate degrees and majors is appropriate, given financial constraints.
  • Consider whether accelerated programs might be designed that would allow more students to graduate in less than four years if they wish.
  • Consider special requirements of engineering and science students.
  • Consider the effectiveness of various teaching modalities, such as individual tutorials, research projects, seminars and non-traditional instructional aids.
  • Review the effectiveness of services that support the undergraduate program, including the undergraduate advising system, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the residential education program.

Casper told faculty attending the annual meeting of the Academic Council - and staff and student guests - that the examination would be the most thorough since the 1968 Study of Education at Stanford.

While there have been "periodic and substantial revisions" since then - most notably the Cultures, Ideas and Values program - Casper said, "the essential features of the present undergraduate curriculum were devised in 1968."

The new commission's charge will be to consider "the undergraduate curriculum in light of the changing needs of our students, the emerging opportunities and challenges of the 21st century, and the increasing need to focus more intently on the basic objectives of the institution," Casper said.

The commission is to report back to the community by July 1, 1994. It will be made up of approximately 15 to 20 faculty, students, alumni and academic staff, and will have a full-time director, secretarial staff and research assistants.

The effort is expected to cost "several hundred thousand dollars," Casper told reporters after his speech. "I'm sure I will find that," he said, when asked how he would underwrite the project.

Casper said he had no model in mind that the study would follow, "but I do have in mind fairly radical questioning."

This might be difficult, he said, because "faculty are very conservative" - on the left, at the center and on the right. "They always believe the status quo, as dictated by their beliefs, should not be changed, he said. "To get radical questioning will be an uphill battle."

Casper said he would make commission appointments in consultation with the present and incoming provosts and deans of humanities and sciences. Those two positions are expected to be filled in a couple of weeks, Casper said. The dean of engineering, the other school largely involved in undergraduate education, also will be consulted.

The Faculty Senate Committee on Committees will suggest names of potential faculty commission members, but Casper said he was not yet sure how he would get student nominees. Casper said he already had asked the Alumni Association to nominate several Stanford graduates. Alumni involvement is important, he told reporters.

"They bring to bear their own experience at Stanford," he said, "as they look back on what they think was important for their subsequent lives and their careers. They will also provide us the insight and thought of people who are out there in the real world."

Building intellectual skills

In his speech, Casper suggested that undergraduate requirements be formed "not around the number of disciplines to be sampled, but around particular intellectual skills that we believe are requisite for one to be well-prepared for the future."

He said he agreed with the tradition that "one purpose of college is to teach students 'how to think.' To that end, we may want to develop courses that focus on the very tools of thought and analysis themselves." In an era of increasingly sophisticated information networks, "the mark of the educated person will be the ability to make use of that information effectively," he said.

Reading the 25-year-old Study of Education at Stanford was a reminder, Casper said, of "what it was like in the Bay Area in the late '60s."

"Freedom is the essential virtue in the document; compulsion of either faculty or students is eschewed; prescribed courses are suspect because they reflect someone else's preferences and values," Casper said.

In the intervening quarter century, the number of requirements has remained roughly constant, he said, although a "considerable amount of prescriptivism has crept back into the curriculum."

Students now must complete one course in each of eight specific areas, plus the CIV sequence. However, he questioned whether that present distribution system provides breadth "in a meaningful way, or whether it merely provides the student with a smattering of this and a smattering of that."

It is unclear what students should gain from this "guided tour of our many disciplines," Casper said, quoting Swedish scholar Torsten Husen about the risk of "multidisciplinary illiteracy."

"Do we really need to stuff undergraduates as if they were 'geese in Gascony'?" Casper asked to laughter.

He made clear that he thinks students "should graduate with an appreciation of American civilization: our history, our government, our institutions, our culture, but also our failures."

Elaborating after the speech, he said he spoke "with all the feeling of a constitutional law professor who walks into a first- year law school class" and discovers that students have only the "vaguest notions" about James Madison or the Federalist Papers.

It is important that "we not have a boosterism curriculum," but instead also teach America's failures. Citing examples, he said the issue of slavery must be faced squarely, as well as discrimination against the Chinese in the mid-19th century and the Japanese during World War II.


As for exposing students to other cultures, Casper said in his speech that Stanford had "much to be proud of in developing courses that are balanced with respect to cultural and other biases, and in promoting international experiences at our many campuses abroad."

He said he was worried, however, that "we have not gone far enough in acquainting all of our students thoroughly with at least one other culture."

"We may want to expect all students to devote a much larger portion of their careers to this kind of activity," he said.

To this end, Casper suggested more emphasis on language skills.

"Demonstration of language proficiency by examination is a poor and inadequate substitute for genuine facility with a foreign language," he said.

Casper later told reporters that students not only should have the facility to speak a foreign language fluently, but also to read newspapers, and perhaps serious literature, in a foreign language.

"Talking about multiculturalism - there is no more effective means of encountering a foreign culture than through its language," he said. "It focuses you on a host of anthropological information."

He told an audience of about 300 that these ideas were not intended as suggestions about core curriculum, but only as a starting point for debate.

Malaise in modern universities

On other subjects, Casper said that much of the "malaise in the contemporary university" might be traced to the "hustle factor," which also could be called the "hassle factor." The irony for those who long for a "golden age of simplicity and quietude" is that the present someday will be viewed as the "good old days," he said.

Both in the United States and abroad, many envy Stanford's "intellectual and material resources," Casper said.

"The quality of our students, their commitment to diversity are reasons to celebrate. Maybe it is time we counted our blessings, not just our complaints," he said. The campus community should not "get carried away by gloom and doom as we face an ever more competitive world."

"Stanford remains an exceedingly good institution whose financial health is perhaps no better, but certainly not worse, than that of its major competitors," he said.

Casper expressed concern that only $2 million - about .5 percent of the $473 million operating budget - will be available next year for program improvement and innovation. "For the future vitality of the university, that is too small a sum," he said.

Nevertheless, "I view our overall financial situation as basically and comparatively strong," he said. Economic uncertainties and external demands inevitably will force the university to "engage in a continuous process of improving our effectiveness and efficiency, the need for which is not going to end - not next year, not the year after, and indeed not in the year 2000."

As for the question of whether Stanford has become just a business, as a student put it to him during a dorm visit, Casper told the audience to laughter that "an institution that subsidizes both students and research, and can balance its books only because of gifts from alumni and friends, hardly meets the most rudimentary expectations concerning profit maximization."

Casper said he worries about what Stanford's experience with the federal government on the indirect-cost dispute portends for the future.

"The university-government partnership has largely been responsible for the conduct of America's basic science program and for America's continued scientific and technological leadership in the world," he said.

"The United States must remain committed to the support of original research of the first rank, and the investments in education and training that go with it. This commitment must include a commitment to science."

Too many majors?

During the question-and-answer period that followed his speech, Casper said that he was struck by the vast number of majors when he reviewed a random sample of graduates' transcripts.

"You have the impression that each and every Stanford student has his or her own major and that there are almost no requirements that are easily recognizable, except in engineering and some of the sciences," he told senior Chris Carlsten.

"I'm not sure I know any longer what a major is."

Casper later told reporters that some concentration of majors is likely in the future.

"A system under which, in a slightly exaggerated way, every student has more or less his or her own major, is a very expensive program to run and one that is not necessarily beneficial to everybody," he said.

During his speech, Casper cited statistics that one- quarter of students who graduate in the normal four years have the necessary 180 credits by the end of their third year. Many Stanford students already are following a "three-year program," he said, referring to earlier statements about undergraduate education, which he said have been "condensed into a single headline: 'Stanford President Favors Three-Year Degree!' "

Carlsten told the president that it was important to verify that students who amassed 180 units in three years had also met requirements of their major.

Casper responded that Carlsten's point was an important one. He said that "major requirements differ widely from department to department. Some are fulfilled with ease."

Professor Leonard Herzenberg, genetics, asked whether Casper advocated shortening the length of time for graduate education.

"I think there is a ripening [that must occur]. It's important that we not just try to be efficient," Herzenberg said, citing examples of students who took six and seven years to complete doctorates. "These are some of the best professors in the country now."

Casper said it was more difficult to make generalizations about graduate than undergraduate education. So much depends on the field, he said. Most important is knowing at all times "where our students stand" in progress to their degrees and helping them when they need it.

Professor Steve Krasner, political science, expressed concern about disparity in the amount of work students do for various courses.

"My guess is that we systematically discourage people from majoring in the sciences and engineering, since it's much harder in terms of the number of hours an undergraduate would have to spend," Krasner said. Would the commission address such disparities? he asked.

Yes, Casper responded, assuring the audience that during dorm visits he also has heard student complaints.

"We really need to make sure," Casper said, "that every student going through Stanford as an undergraduate is seriously challenged to do his or her best work."

He also said it is important for students to experience working in labs and in small groups and with individual faculty members.

"Most students remember those experiences as the most important experiences because those are also the most challenging," he said.



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