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President Emeritus Lyman discusses leadership at first Leah Kaplan Lecture

STANFORD -- Political leaders in the United States would be more accountable to the public if America moved toward a parliamentary system of government, President Emeritus Richard W. Lyman said Sunday, Oct. 31.

Lyman spoke on "Leadership Revisited - Again!" at the first of five annual lectures honoring Ombudsperson Leah Kaplan. He talked about the difficulties of political leadership in the face of declining interest in political parties, the growth of communications technology and special interest groups, and the complexity of modern institutions.

"Prime ministers can - at least in theory, and to a greater extent than presidents in practice - actually do what they promise to do," Lyman told an audience of 200 in Kresge Auditorium. In a parliamentary system the majority gets its chance to rule, then is judged on how well it did, he said.

Staggered elections, with senators serving for six years, the president for four years and representatives for two years, encourage the practice of passing the buck. If all elections were held at once, said the expert on British history, "whoever won would jolly well have to put up or shut up next time an election came around."

It is tempting, he said, to dream of a heroic past, when leaders were larger than life, but Lyman reminded his audience that even "superheroes" such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln had critics in their day.

Perhaps "giants are just no longer being born," he said. But it seems more likely that the increasing complexity of institutions, including universities, would make it impossible for turn-of-the-century educational leaders to be so successful today.

In the three decades since John W. Gardner asked in The Anti-Leadership Vaccine why so many people distrusted leadership, Lyman said society has developed an even greater sense, "that our problems are enormous, enormously complex, and often unprecedented, while our institutions appear for the most part to be decreasingly effective in dealing with them."

"Not surprisingly, the more we are dismayed and fearful for the future, the more intense becomes our yearning for effective leadership," he said.

Such yearning can lead the electorate to place its hopes in a charismatic individual, such as Ross Perot. One of the more ominous features of Perot, Lyman said, is the ideological diversity of his followers, who "agree on little except their willingness to put their faith in him."

"History has shown this to be a dangerous condition, one that often sets the stage for the arbitrary and unprincipled exercise of power," he said.

Political parties 'essential'

Lyman spoke on behalf of strong political parties as an "integrating force" in the national political scene. Political parties have never been very popular, he said. However, they are not only a constructive force, but "absolutely essential if our democratic system is to function effectively."

Political parties are "alliances of interests and forgers of acceptable compromises," he said, and this opens them to charges of "wheeling and dealing" and being captive to "special interests," an imprecise term covering everything from the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association.

The public is caught in a dilemma, yearning for politicians who are "somehow above the battle, guardians of the public trust and immune to the seductions of special interests."

Responding to a question from President Emeritus Donald Kennedy on party leadership and discipline, Lyman cited the success of several senators in blocking President Clinton's plans to raise fees for grazing on federal land. "We don't even call it betrayal anymore" when politicians defy their own party's leader, he said.

"The parties have become substantially weaker, and the capacity of the president . . . to threaten any dire consequences has diminished" because every political leader is successfully raising his or her own funds.

While that is a hardship for the politicians, it also creates a situation in which each politician is a "party of one," Lyman said. "So we have a Congress now of 535 parties.

"The weakness of the parties makes it more difficult for political leaders to address broad national problems without stumbling over parochial obstacles," Lyman said in his speech.

Trust must return

Lyman spoke against the trend to place term limits on political leaders, rather than vote individuals out of office. At the federal level, term limits would exacerbate the problem of elected leaders becoming more dependent on staff members, who are not accountable to the electorate.

"Term limits are a strange way to go about increasing the responsiveness of our democratic process," he said.

This and other proposals, such as a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, are "rooted in mistrust of politicians, and an absence of faith that working through the political parties can help. They thus try to substitute mechanical processes for the exercise of judgment and the give and take of party politics.

"If our democracy is to function as something more than a sounding board for unresolvable conflicts," he said, "an element of trust must return to our politics."

Quoting a British observer of American politics, Lyman said: "A people [that] holds its freely elected governors in contempt has taken the first step toward rejecting free institutions."

If citizens are unwilling to understand what their politicians are doing, "we shall deserve the unpleasant fate that washing our hands of the dirty business of politics will assure for us," he said.

Responding to a question about the role of Stanford faculty, Lyman said he had often thought that Stanford is way ahead of other institutions that do not have faculty senates, let alone a senate where the president is "on the carpet to answer any question they want to raise."

"I don't think Stanford faculty begin to appreciate how unusual that is - how easily they can find the president. And yet, my understanding is that a lot of faculty are uninvolved, disengaged until something critical goes wrong.

"Among faculty as among other people, citizenship takes work, and if you want to be an effective citizen, you have to work at it."

Honoring Leah Kaplan

Lyman opened his speech saying that Leah Kaplan, for whom the lecture series is named, "is a perfect exemplar of the many ways in which leadership is inextricably linked with service."

"Any leadership worth mentioning involves service - to an ideal, to a community, to an institution, to other people. For Leah," he said, "it has been 'all of the above.' "

Funding for the lecture series, sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, came from Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, who earned her master's degree in counseling psychology from Stanford in 1967, and her husband, Morton. Marjorie Shaevitz is director of the Institute for Family and Work Relationships in La Jolla, and chair of the California State Commission on the Status of Women. Morton Shaevitz is in the Division of Internal Medicine at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. He also is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine.

Marjorie Shaevitz told the audience that she met Kaplan as a graduate student, and turned to her often for guidance when, as director of Florence Moore Hall in the late 1960s, Shaevitz dealt with suicide threats, eating disorders and other problems.

Shaevitz praised Kaplan, among other things, for developing at Stanford the first set of sexual harassment guidelines in higher education, and for her early work in rape education.

Kaplan earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota and a master's degree from the Smith School of Social Work.

She joined Stanford in 1964 as a clinical social worker with Counseling and Psychological Services, and was named assistant dean of student affairs in 1979. She also became special assistant to the ombudsperson that year and was named ombudsperson in 1984. Kaplan was instrumental in starting the Stanford Help Center in 1982 and directed it until last year.

In 1980, she was named recipient of a Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel award for distinguished service to undergraduate education. The citation described her as "Stanford's most successful antidote to bureaucracy."

At the close of the lecture, Associate Vice President for Development Carol Dressler surprised Kaplan by announcing that a group of friends had contributed to a new Leah Kaplan Research Fund to support scholarly work of Stanford faculty members affiliated with the institute. Contributions may be sent to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Serra House, Stanford 94305-8640.



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