A Presidency Revisited

Photo: Steve Gladfelter

Former Stanford president Gerhard Casper is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and a professor of law and, by courtesy, political science. His book The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, to be published by Yale University Press in February, comprises selected speeches he made about contentious issues during his presidency (1992 to 2000) accompanied by his current thoughts on their context. Stanford recently interviewed Casper (an abridged transcript is in the print magazine); an excerpt from the book follows.

Increasingly, there’s a push for universities to be ranked and judged by “outcomes” such as graduates’ employment and salaries. Doesn’t this conflict with traditional ideals about higher education? How should universities address these changing expectations?

We don’t really know how to measure outcomes. It’s even hard to measure outcomes in medical applications. But it is even harder when you ask yourself, what is the outcome of a liberal arts education? How are you going to quantify that?

So you have to be very skeptical that your outcome measures are actually quantifiable. Of course some are, such as employment, or salaries, a very popular measure these days. I’m famous, or more properly infamous, for having opposed rankings of all sorts. I think they tend to be very frivolous. If they are one-dimensional—that is, if they have only one element—then it may make some sense and you can determine the significance of these elements.

But most rankings have various factors. And then they do something that is completely arbitrary: The rankers can change from one year to another and assign a particular weight to a factor. So they look at a particular university and ask what percentage of graduates are employed within what period of time. And in their overall ranking of that university, they will say that is worth 20 percent. But why 20 percent, not 10, not 50, not 90? All of that is so arbitrary.

The second element of arbitrariness is that they numerically rank universities in spite of the fact that the difference between number one and number two is only a very small number of points that don’t amount to anything real, that do not capture the quality of the institution.

But the rankings are there to stay and they are now universal. I have just returned from a trip to Europe where I discussed the rankings with university presidents, who are incredibly worried. . . . Because public policy makers, in particular in systems where universities are financed by the state, make [much] of these rankings.

The good news is there are now so many different rankings that I think a consumer cannot make heads or tails anymore. That is a very good development: The more rankings, the less important they become in some way.

Is this less of an issue, perhaps, for Stanford, given how well it fares in these rankings?

Yes, at present, it is clearly not much of an issue. I fought it, though, as an educational matter, because it denigrates the effort to provide a genuine education and to do many, many different things for students. Capturing just one or two or three dimensions attempts to be too narrowing. And that is why I worried about it even for Stanford.

There’s been a great deal of discussion at Stanford about making the humanities relevant to nonacademic careers, even for doctoral candidates. What’s your reaction?

I am overall quite dismayed by how the humanities are faring in higher education. It’s not a Stanford phenomenon; it is a phenomenon all around the United States, but it is happening abroad as well. There was a time when we simply assumed a humanities education was something that was very good for everybody to have, and that indeed it was also good for somebody’s career.

When I first became president of Stanford and I had occasion to meet with many CEOs, we talked about what they were looking for in employment. They almost universally said, ‘Oh, we need people who have a broad liberal arts education, so that they can deal with new phenomena, adapt to new circumstances, to unusual assignments’ and the like. In reality, when their recruiters came, they often did not look for these types. And they did not look for liberal arts education. I think that is still the case.

I have become very skeptical of justifying liberal arts in terms of their utility for employment, kind of instrumentalizing them. First of all, I think that isn’t getting us anywhere, or so it seems. And it will get worse in the era of the MOOCs, when you just have one or two qualifications certified and there may be employers who will be very happy to accept that.

I think the real argument for the liberal arts is the education they provide. [Students] are very young; [they] will never have another opportunity to get this broad an education like the kind Stanford offers. And you never know what will happen in your life. You should have as much knowledge as you possibly can and then be able later in life to make the most of what you learned in your four years of college.

There is one additional element that is to me very important, and I don’t think we at Stanford are doing particularly well in this area. With globalization has come the daily challenge to confront cultures that you have never even heard of. Not only are there vast amounts of migration and travel and mobility, but there are also great challenges in conducting foreign policy or business abroad. If I were influential, I would very much argue that what once we had in Civ, or what we tried to do in IHUM, be rethought and that we have somehow in the first year, for all students, a requirement that I would call cultural geography, in which students would be exposed to what is generally the material of humanities, but in many cultures. We cannot do everything, but we can be selective and do a fairly good job, I think, in broadening perspective.

For instance, when I stepped down as president, for four years I taught IHUM the first quarter. The course was called Citizenship—but that was just a label, and it was instead a great books course in some way. The first book the students had to read was not what they would have been used to from school or from other settings—John Locke or the traditional treatises in government—but rather Mencius, the great Confucian philosopher. And one year I had the great experience of a teaching fellow coming to me and saying, ‘Do you realize that you have a direct descendant of Mencius in your class?’

I of course did not, and so I asked to meet the young man, who was from Detroit. His parents, both of them, worked in the automobile industry; they were both Chinese. I asked him, ‘How do you know that you are a direct descendant of Mengzi [Pinyin for Mencius]’? And he said, ‘Well, you know, [China is] known for its research on ancestry. But we have one ancestor, about a thousand years ago, who was clearly by everybody’s recognition, a descendant of Mengzi. And we are descendants of his, and therefore. . . . ’

Of course, when he opened the book, the first assignment in IHUM, he didn’t know what he was opening. And he had never heard the name Mencius. . . .  It’s a wonderful story.    

You write, ‘Professors, students, and the university itself are constantly being distracted, letting themselves be distracted, and even seeking distraction.’ Would you elaborate?

The point that I’m criticizing here and that worries me goes back to my emphasis on [Wilhelm von] Humboldt, who was kind of the godfather of modern universities back in 1810. And he said there were two essential criteria or qualifications people in universities should have: a solitude and freedom.

Solitude is not a concept that we relate to in any setting anymore, unless you were a monk. The famous American sociologist Edward Shils, who was a friend of mine, in his writings about universities changed the concept of solitude to freedom from distraction. I like to use it, because what really happens these days is that with the tremendous outside expectations of universities, and people within universities, there is always something to do rather than teach the course or finish your research project.

Just think of professors, who are asked for their expertise in testifying before government agencies or before the Congress. It has nothing to do with what they are presently working on, but with issues of public policy. The same is true in asking them to contribute their expertise to some business endeavors. And while that was a kind of professorial activity—we have rules of commitment at the University and we limit such outside activities—in the meantime, this has extended to students, who are involved in an endless range of activities: outside organizations, NGOs and what have you.

The difficulty in even talking about this is that many of these activities are praiseworthy or high-value activities. But it is still true that they distract from this tremendous opportunity to learn something while you are in the very short period of time where you could actually focus on learning altogether.

When you’re traveling, when you’re discussing world events and issues with diverse groups of people, does it strike you that there are particular problems or challenges that universities are especially well suited to tackle? What can a university do best these days?

In a way, what a university can do best these days is what many universities have always been very good at, and that is to be completely open to new challenges and to new knowledge.

Universities worldwide—provided they are good—are very good at asking basic questions and seeing how they are interrelated, and asking them in a global context. They do that better than anybody else.

And they know, while knowledge is important, that knowledge is not something—that truth is not something—that is like a crystal that you can put in your pocket. Instead, it is a stream that goes on and on and always changes its composition, and the waves look different. And that openness, to teach that openness, is I think more important than anything else—that openness to understanding that what you know at this particular moment may not be true tomorrow.

Basically, universities have that in common the world over. Somebody a few years ago did a study of curricula at universities globally, and it turns out that they are becoming more alike. So there is actually something like a worldwide republic of learning, because the subject matters we deal with, even in the social sciences, tend to be the same. Sometimes only superficially the same, but basically the same.

And knowledge in this century is evolving rapidly.

Yes. So there’s a lot of emphasis always on the new . . . and that is fine. But we also have to remember that there are whole areas of learning where the half-time [of knowledge] is by no means a year or two, but is still a thousand years. That is knowledge we also need to convey.

EXCERPT: On Campus Diversity

From a welcome to the Class of 1997

Let me begin by making the obvious point that students, like all other human beings, are individuals pursuing their individual aspirations, but they are also social beings. When they congregate with others on campus it does not necessarily mean that they are segregating themselves. Almost all of us have a tendency to hang out with people who are familiar, who share our background, who are "our own kind." We also have a tendency to form or join groups in order to accomplish some goals of ours. Any individual may associate with a range of different groups. The groups we belong to tend to maintain a group spirit. This is, incidentally, especially true as to the "group spirit" of American universities, Stanford included.

The "Stanford spirit" was indeed one of the factors that enticed me to join the faculty last year. I trust you will embrace it quickly, because, whatever your differences may be, you have one thing in common—the choice of associating with Stanford.

Individual development often takes place through groups. Our Constitution recognizes this fact and need by protecting the freedom of association as part of our First Amendment rights. Those who critically characterize various campus groups as students "segregating" rather than as students "associating" choose to construe the phenomenon, to quote Stanford alumnus Woodrow Myers, '74, MBA '82, as alienation, rather than as a means for exploring cultural identity—though the latter interpretation is frequently the most plausible one.

To be sure, the line between "congregation" and "segregation" is a fragile one. As you know, Stanford has a number of student residences that are designated as "theme houses," and some of these are ethnic theme houses. Stanford encourages interaction and guards against separatism by requiring that, in the case of the ethnic theme houses, no more than 50 percent of the residents may belong to the ethnic group that provides the "theme." This summer I talked with a student who during her freshman year had been assigned to one of these theme houses. She did indeed feel left out and ended up associating mostly with students from the "other" half. She liked neither the sense of exclusion nor the fact that, in this instance, "cross-cultural interaction" did not work. Cases like this are bound to occur because universities are not immune to social developments and tensions. I do, however, view it as the institutions' responsibility, and indeed as the responsibility of Stanford students, Stanford parents, Stanford alumni to do their utmost to minimize the chances for exclusion, even as we provide opportunities for identifying one's social heritage.


The early 1990s was probably the decade during which multiculturalism and identity politics were most prominent in the United States in general and on American campuses in particular. When I came to Stanford in 1992, I was ill equipped to deal with some of these issues. While, to be sure, demographic diversity of students and faculty had been big issues at the University of Chicago, "multiculturalism" was not a predominant concept. I obviously had followed the general discussions in the country, but I did not participate in them. I was unprepared in another sense. Since I did so deeply believe in the university as an integrated center of teaching, learning, and research, the multicultural positioning of ethnic groups in the competition for influence and resources at universities, and its disaggregating aspects, made me very uncomfortable.

Since a 1989 Final Report of the University Committee on Minority Issues (subtitled "Building a Multiracial, Multicultural University Community"), Stanford had mobilized along a multicultural agenda with "vision statements," standards, self-studies, and annual review panels. By the turn of the decade (and when I came to Stanford), "multiculturalism" had become a highly charged preoccupation for some faculty, staff, and students at Stanford.

The university's vision statement on multicultural diversity read: "The University has a vision of Institutionalizing [sic!] the achievement of multiculturalism. The ultimate objective is to attain numerical diversity and evolve to the more difficult accomplishment of interactive pluralism."

At one level, this was probably mostly about pressing for more affirmative action and a multiracial, multiethnic campus community that was inclusive. The operative noun, however, was "multiculturalism"—an exceedingly vague term that changed its meaning with the context in which it was used. While "diversity" suggests a university whose members come from many different backgrounds—racial, ethnic, social, intellectual, geographic, economic—the problem with the noun "multiculturalism" is that it suggests a comprehensive ideology. The referent is to "many cultures," with some connotation of separateness. Indeed, the 1989 Final Report's recommendations had emphasized "ethnic group or community identity in student life," ethnic programs, and ethnic studies. In 1990, Stanford had established an Office for Multicultural Development in the Office of the President that took the place of a university office that had focused on affirmative action. . . .

The public debate suffered greatly from the fact that terms with significantly different denotations and connotations, such as "diversity," "identity," and "multiculturalism," often were used in almost interchangeable ways and, furthermore, were linked to affirmative action that now was meant to apply not only to employment and admissions but, through the politics of recognition and respect, to the use of resources for enhancing the cultural content of identities, especially on campus.

The ideal of authentic identity came to combine two different quests: On the one hand, it reflected the Enlightenment emphasis on the individual; on the other hand, it turned the search for authenticity into a search for authentic social identity.

[Canadian philosopher] Charles Taylor saw the eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder as the major articulator of this combination:

Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human: each person has his or her own "measure." This idea has burrowed very deep into modern consciousness. It is a new idea. Before the late eighteenth century, no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else's life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me. . . .Herder applied his conception of originality at two levels, not only to the individual person among other persons, but also to the culture-bearing people among other peoples.

In my remarks to the [1993] freshman class and their parents, I clearly embraced individualism without pausing to consider the question what the limits of individualism might be, especially, whether a polity can survive, when the human pursuit is primarily about "my" way. The question I did raise was that of social identity in cultural terms, warning students against a simplistic view of social heritage and taking a critical view of "social engineering" by the university. I was worried that multicultural university policies might contribute to fragmentation. I was also worried that multiculturalism was increasing peer pressure on students to define themselves in terms of race and ethnicity. For me, it had always been an article of faith that the university could never do its job unless all members actively interacted, "crossed bridges."

However, as my talk makes clear, I also felt a need to push back against often-vociferous criticism that Stanford, with its ethnic theme houses, had allowed segregation. Three theme houses for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Chicanos/Latinos were created in the late 1960s and the early 1970s by the then new Office of Residential Education. One for Native Americans followed in 1988. The theme houses (with a total of about three hundred beds, or roughly 4 percent of undergraduate housing) were not exclusive to the ethnicity providing the theme and were developed "as places where minority and White students can participate together in a residential education program focusing on minority culture; and as places where minority students can choose to live with many others of their ethnic group." The theme houses were supported by large majorities among minority students (though less so by Asian-Americans) and remained a subject of considerable controversy among students of primarily European or, as they say in California, "Anglo" descent. They were anathema to many, though by no means all, alumni.

Had I been at Stanford when the theme houses were contemplated, I would probably have opposed them. I did not undertake to have them reconsidered. As is so frequently the case when precedents have been established, efforts to overturn these precedents are likely to result in opposition that would be even stronger than the original demand for the precedent. I thus decided not to reopen the issue.

From The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, by Gerhard Casper, published by Yale University Press in February 2014. Reproduced by permission.