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Casper welcomes new students, parents to Stanford

STANFORD -- The university's "golden age" lies not in its past, but in its present and future, President Gerhard Casper assured Stanford's new freshmen, transfer students and their parents on the Inner Quad Friday, Sept. 22.

The notion of a golden age that once existed in a distant past is common to many civilizations, Casper said in his welcoming address.. The Greek poet Hesiod cited his people's Golden Age as a time when mortals lived “as if they were gods, their hearts free from all sorrow . . . and without hard work or pain, no miserable old age came their way.” From there, Hesiod believed, Greek civilization had declined to a Silver Age, to a Bronze Age, to an intermittent age of Homeric heroes and, eventually, to the poet's own period, the Age of Iron.

“Of course, individual universities, too, have golden ages,” Casper added. “Whether you talk to alumni of Stanford, Chicago, Princeton, Yale, Michigan Berkeley, Harvard - you name it - they will almost invariably assure you that their alma mater never had a better faculty, more challenging curriculum or more exciting opportunities in general than when they were students. This phenomenon is, of course, dialectically linked to the fact that every alumnus was a member of the best class the institution ever had - just as the Stanford Class of 1999 will fulfill its promise to be the best class we have ever seen.

“If that is the case - and it may well be - you and I have arrived at the insight that the golden age is not behind, but ahead of us. To quote the French social visionary Saint-Simon, 'The golden age which a blind tradition has hitherto placed in the past is before us.' As far as you are concerned, there can be no question that the coming years will be the golden age of education because you will make it so and because your choice of Stanford will enable you, from the first day, to participate in the work of a great teaching and research university.”

Casper included in his remarks some personal reflections about the many roles that Stanford's newest students will be playing in the years ahead.

“It is often said,” he noted, “that among the preconditions of a successful education is the availability of role models” - particularly those who share with their students some distinct characteristic, such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, national background, regional background, language or religion.

During his own childhood in postwar Germany, Casper said, it was not easy to find such role models in his parents' generation. One person who did positively influence him was a high school history teacher “whom the Nazis had put in a concentration camp because she provided her students with what, between 1933 and 1945, was a politically 'incorrect' education - that is, she told the truth.” But she was not a willing role model.

“It was very difficult to get her to talk about her personal experiences,” he said, “because she thought the aims of education consisted of the search for truth, positive values, excellences across history and civilizations rather than a student's relationship to a particular teacher with many human frailties. Erna Stahl - her name - exercised great influence on us by refusing the role we had in mind for her.”

Just as actors must find their own ways to play the role of Hamlet, he said, so must Stanford students find their own ways to play their roles, without regard to sex, race or any other factor “irrelevant to participation in the life of the university.” He cited the example of Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice, an African American woman from Birmingham, Ala., who went on to become a nationally recognized expert on the Soviet military establishment.

Casper's address was the centerpiece of the 105th Opening Convocation, which drew thousands of students, parents, faculty and staff to the Inner Quad on the first day of New Student Orientation. Mary McKinney Edmonds, vice provost and dean for students affairs, and senior Rich Stolz, the head student organizer of orientation programs, also spoke.

Edmonds offered students and parents a preview of the next four years. "Never have you been challenged as we intend to challenge you," she said. "You will burn the midnight oil and wish that you had studied all quarter as faithfully. . . . You will develop long-term and lasting relationships and you will meet students who are smarter than you. For some of you that will be a first, and you may feel diminished for a while, but don't feel overly concerned about that. Just do your best. And who knows - you may even meet the person with whom you will spend the rest of your life. Who knows where the Stanford experience will lead you?"

Edmonds also urged the students to familiarize themselves with Stanford's various codes of behavior, to take responsibility for their own health and safety, to study “at least three hours for every one hour in the classroom,” to keep open communication with their parents and advisers, and to participate in public service. “As an anonymous writer once noted, 'We make our living by what we get. We make a life by what we give,' " Edmonds said.

Addressing the parents, Edmonds closed with a paraphrase of an old African saying: "You gave them life. You gave them roots. Today you have given them their wings. Together we shall watch them soar to unfathomable heights."

Earlier in the day, Stanford withstood the annual infusion of confusion that jolts the campus awake from its summer doldrums. As the new students began moving into their dorms, campus streets were filled with lost motorists, eager welcoming committees, parents and their children lugging suitcases and boxes, and rental operations for refrigerators and microwave ovens.

New Larkin resident Erica Straus, from Foster City, seemed unfazed by all the activity as she and her new roommate inspected a row of refrigerators outside the new and improved Stern Hall, while the Stanford cheerleading squad performed on a nearby lawn.

"I'm glad they got all the work done in time," Straus said about Stern, which underwent a major renovation over the summer. "It was pretty bad before, but it looks great now. I was getting nervous about whether I would have someplace to live. I came by several times during the summer, and was bugging the people working here, asking them, 'Are you sure it's going to be open in time?' "

Readily visible in their bright red T-shirts, about 160 students served as orientation volunteers, roaming the campus looking for strays and answering questions. Over the weekend, they offered new students a wide range of activities including presentations on sexuality and on diversity, parties and dorm discussions, in addition to steering students to the correct locations.

Classes begin today.



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