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State of the School Address

STANFORD -- Higher education must make a stronger case for its survival in the age of globalized information technology, warned President Gerhard Casper in his annual State of the University speech presented to the Academic Council on May 4.

"Universities are nearing the completion of their first millennium, and the coming decades may bring more changes to universities than in all of their previous centuries. Some of these changes," he cautioned, "will be wrenching."

Since it is now possible to conceive of a world in which cyberspace replaces college campuses and CD-ROMs supplant "talking head" professional lectures, Casper asked the audience of about 125 to consider what society would lose if there were no universities. Already, he said, there are such products as a "video dissector," promoted as superior "because unlike the actual cadaver, the program can be rewound."

In an hour-long speech at Kresge Auditorium, Casper explored the many roles universities have come to play in modern society and the far-reaching consequences if they were to disappear.

Casper stressed that this exercise in critical thought should be practiced by all members of the Stanford community. He urged faculty, staff and students to take a more active role in "spreading the word" about the value of traditional universities as bastions of learning, research and social values.

"We have to make the case for what we are about together, repeatedly and incessantly," he said. "We will not get a reprieve, any time at all. We will have to do it day after day and year after year."

In a question and answer session following his speech, Casper said that universities have to go on the offensive partly because the media are "always looking for something negative that can be viewed critically." He traced the critical coverage to the 1960s, when campuses became the focal point for political activities.

"When you look at the coverage of Stanford in the press you still find a lot of focus on anything having to do with that," Casper pointed out. "That is why I bend over backward and say, over and over again, if we get into the business of politics, we will be viewed just like any other political actor and we will be torn to pieces.

"And I note that lots of people on campus, in particular students, do not agree with me and do not appreciate that. They think I'm austere, they think I'm aloof, they think I have no sympathy. Yes, I have as much compassion as any other person, but I do think we have to maintain something that is incredibly fragile and that cannot be the vehicle for particular political causes."

Casper set the scene for a discussion of universities in cyberspace by turning to Stanford's past. In recent years, the indirect-cost controversy and other crises galvanized the media's attention on Stanford and lowered campus morale. With most of these issues settled, Casper urged faculty, staff and students to approach the future with verve.

"Today, as we survey our work lives, we are spending much less of our time and energy in dealing with problems of the past or reacting to crises of the present, and much more in productively seizing the day," Casper said.

As examples, he cited recent steps the university has taken to strengthen the undergraduate curriculum, including the approval of measures to increase the rigor of Stanford's writing and foreign-language requirements.

Other accomplishments over the past year, Casper said, include numerous faculty honors: the naming of six new members of the National Academy of Engineering, bringing the total to 74; one new member of the National Academy of Sciences, for a total of 105; eight new fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for a total of 190; and six new Guggenheim Fellows. Three faculty members won National Science Foundation Young Investigator Awards, and more than two dozen faculty members head major national associations in their disciplines.

The current freshman class, Casper noted, is the most academically talented in the university's history -- and they will be outdone by next fall's freshman class. While the admissions office continues to make changes designed to make Stanford more competitive to incoming freshman, sophomores aren't being overlooked, Casper said.

For three weeks before the start of the fall quarter, 50 sophomores will participate in intensive faculty-led academic projects and exchanges designed to prevent "sophomore slump" and encourage second-year students to become enthusiastic about selecting a major, Casper reported.

Among innovative proposals currently on the table, Casper mentioned two -- the creation of new majors in Asian American and Chicano studies as part of a program in comparative studies of race and ethnicity, and an interdisciplinary science course for nonscience majors -- as examples of the university's forward-looking approach.

But universities can't rest on impressive goals and accomplishments to be a force in the next millennium, Casper said. Universities must persuade the public and policymakers that they are more than simply physical centers of learning.

"Institutions such as Stanford are built over generations, stone by stone," he said. "They can also be destroyed by removing stone after stone, until the edifice crumbles at an accelerating pace. Destruction does not take many generations."

The threat of federal budget cuts is a pressing concern, Casper said. "As the budgets of these agencies get reduced, the cumulative impact on research-intensive universities could be devastating without anybody intending such a result," he said.

Casper quoted Edward Shils, the late sociologist of knowledge, who said that societies cling to universities "because, in the last analysis, they are their last best hope for a transfigured existence." He delineated the roles that have made universities among the modern world's most durable institutions. Among these roles are the obvious -- such as education and professional training, or the creation and transfer of knowledge -- as well as the less obvious, such as social integration, networking and providing a rite of passage.

Casper made the case that while scientific discoveries might well be made by government or commercial research laboratories if universities vanished, those venues are not equipped to produce the most important product of university research -- its students.

"Graduates of research universities have a much larger impact on the economy than specific inventions created or discovered by those universities," Casper argued. "The extensive use of graduate students in the conduct of university research as part of their training has helped make the United States' basic research enterprise so outstanding."

While knowledge would continue to be transformed via computers and other media if universities disappeared, much would be lost in the transfer, Casper said.

Replacing universities with on-line "virtual campuses" would inevitably eliminate student interaction with professors and peers. This would close down the two-way street of education, in which professors serve as mentors and guides for students who continually question faculty members and force them to rethink their own positions or theories.

Universities' almost unique role in social integration would be eliminated as well. Other than the conscription army, Casper said, universities are almost the only place where widely varied segments of society regularly interact, where young people meet "utter strangers" with vastly different interests and social and ethnic backgrounds.

"I think we do not make enough of the fact that, relatively speaking, American universities may be the most diverse and integrated institutions in the world," Casper said.

"Distance learning, as television before it, is likely to increase social isolation, though the electronic pen pals from the Internet may offer some, if only 'virtual,' protection against such isolation."

Casper also said that the competitive nature of the university experience fosters extraordinary levels of creativity and excellence that cannot easily be matched.

"The system is far from perfect," he said, "but the likelihood that it will actually bring excellence to the fore is greater than in a less competitive, less differentiated system."

Casper predicted that the traditional university would thrive in cyberspace as long as society continued to value its unique niche.

"All of us, faculty, students and staff . . . are in this together," Casper stressed. "We are going to get nowhere if we rely on university presidents and provosts alone to spread the word."



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