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Stanford president looks at university of the future

STANFORD -- The university of the 21st century is likely to be a "forum without borders," Stanford President Gerhard Casper said Friday, Nov. 12, at a meeting of the advisory council of the Institute for International Studies.

Casper, speaking at a session on education in a global context, said that in the near future the "small world phenomenon combined with information technologies" could well "eclipse the importance of the university as a corporal unit."

Indeed, if the university is not to disappear, Casper said, it must adapt to the technological challenge "by returning to the ancient idea of the university, that is, the Socratic gymnasium or the Platonic academy."

The university as an institution will become more precarious, Casper said, as its faculty, able to communicate easily with colleagues across the country or across the world, will rely much less than they used to on their own universities and departments.

"The sub-specialist in physics will find it much easier to be in touch with another member of his sub-specialty than to get his intellectual nourishment and support from colleagues in the physics department," Casper said.

In addition, he said, "in the very near future, students who are dissatisfied with the lecture course in Economics 1 at the University of Beijing will be able to gain video access to Economics 1 at Stanford." It is likely, he said, that videos of introductory courses, such as economics taught by a Nobel Prize-winning economist, will be marketed worldwide.

These developments, Casper said, will open up learning opportunities and will raise "fundamental questions about the dependence of students on the university."

Easy access to lectures by academic stars also could have negative implications, Casper said.

"It would be difficult for a young assistant professor who has just been charged with a basic course in a discipline, say, Chemistry 101, to compete with established forces out there who are going to satisfy a market that goes well beyond their own institutions."

There will be "no justification for large lecture courses" in the university of the 21st century, Casper said. Instead, he said, the university must become a community "where the search to know is conducted in rigorous seminar and laboratory-type settings."

Turning to the question of what intellectual skills should be required of undergraduates by the university of the 21st century, Casper said, "what will be needed more than anything else is the capacity to make use of information effectively, especially the capacity to distinguish between the spurious and the genuine."

Rather than teaching specific, specialized knowledge, Casper said, the university of the future will have to stress underlying intellectual, scientific and technological principles "so that students will be able to cope with knowledge that comes their way after university."

Universities, Casper said, will have to place greater emphasis on "what one must refer to as epistemology - the ways we determine knowledge and its limits. When I speak of epistemology, I emphasize its modern expression, such as probability theory in statistics."

Casper said he finds it hard to believe "that anyone could graduate from Stanford in this age without a grasp of probability theory because, in all our professions, we have statistics thrown at us every day and we have to understand their basic thrust."

Universities of the future must place more stress on scientific evaluation of evidence, and on mathematical and computational sciences, he said. Of course, he added, "logic as the foundation for the construction of arguments will retain the preeminent position it has occupied ever since Socrates."

In addition to those foundations, and to the fundamentals of various disciplines, university students will need a "cultural geography," Casper said. By that, he said, he means "an understanding of the world, all of it, in humanistic and social science terms."

That concept, he said, is much more ambitious than the study of foreign civilizations "that has been around universities for a long time."

Universities must understand, Casper said, that "more than ever, their work is universal by aspiration." The internationalization of the university in terms of faculty and students is the most effective way of achieving that universality, he said, although not the only one.

However, he said, "it is more easily said than done, since in terms of finances, almost all, if not all, universities - including the best private institutions in the world such as Stanford - are national institutions. These universities are in many ways international public utilities, but they are financed overwhelmingly locally."

A complicated "free rider problem" could endanger the future of the best universities, Casper said, "if internationalization leads to a weakening of local ties and loyalties."

"I think it will be one of the most delicate challenges to universities and their administrations," he said, "to make them international without cutting them off from their financial base."



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