Cardinal Knowledge

A collection of essays, many by Stanford faculty and staff, focuses on the life of a research university.

November/December 1996

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Fourteen may be too early an age to bring a student to Stanford, but is it too early to bring Stanford to the student?

Philosophy professor emeritus Patrick Suppes argues in a new book that many high school and even junior high students around the country are well equipped to tackle university-level coursework. Advances in computers and telecommunications, he writes, will allow some of the brightest teens to complete at least two years of college before they ever arrive on campus.

Citing the case of a child who finished coursework in calculus, mechanics and electricity and magnetism--by the ninth grade--Suppes maintains that students should be allowed to progress at their own pace, using computer access to take Stanford undergraduate courses while remaining in their homes and their high school environments.

Stanford currently recognizes one year's worth of Advanced Placement credits earned in high school, effectively permitting the highest achieving students to enter the University as sophomores. But "it is quite clear," Suppes asserts, "that the top 10 or 15 percent of the students entering Stanford could easily have completed a second year if technology had been used appropriately to offer courses to them."

A seminal figure in educational technology, Suppes has contributed the most intriguing of 30 essays in Education in a Research University (Stanford University Press, 1996; $60), a volume edited by four Stanford professors. The book includes contributions on all aspects of university life, from the art of writing textbooks to the effort to establish "world-class" educational standards to a few too many entries on the arcana of operations research and statistics. The authors include former Stanford presidents Richard Lyman and Donald Kennedy, and the University's former dean of undergraduate admissions, Jean Fetter. Highlights of their essays:

  • Lyman explains how campus protests in the 1960s brought change to Stanford's judicial system, earning students the right to judge each other's conduct. He notes that many students charged with wrongdoing prefer an "escape clause" allowing them to ask the dean of students to hear their cases rather than face the Student Judicial Council.

  • Kennedy traces the history of federal and industry support for research. He laments that government and business have come to believe their money permits them to impose constraints on university freedoms. "Few of us would have thought in the 1960s that our government would be prepared to lay claim to our data books, or attempt to limit by regulation our ability to publish our research results. On such matters continued vigilance will be required, because Congress and the public now view the awarding of public funds as carrying with it a much intensified kind of accountability."

  • Fetter, now an assistant to President Gerhard Casper, argues that the inadequate ethnic diversity on the University faculty will remain a problem until more minorities and women earn doctoral degrees. Stanford's affirmative action efforts give hope that the "pipeline" may soon offer more diversity.

In the technology essay, Suppes argues that computers and telecommunications will have as profound an effect on higher education in the 21st century as the introduction of mass schooling had in the 20th century. Stanford, he says, must be ready to take advantage of new technologies.

The University, according to Suppes, should offer [very] early admission to the brightest high school students and then give them the opportunity to complete a range of Stanford undergraduate courses while remaining in high school. On-campus undergraduates should be able to listen to lectures in their dorm rooms, where they could follow along at their own pace. "The brightest student in physics can look out the window most of the time during lectures, while the slowest one is struggling to follow an introductory course in quantum mechanics," Suppes writes. And graduate school, he says, should be transformed into a "virtual university" of informal online communication and collaborative experiments conducted by scholars logging in from around the world.

As for alums, Suppes says Stanford should offer, by technological means, a broad selection of courses, including continuing education for lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

Suppes' ideas, of course, would dramatically change the nature of education. Unfortunately, he doesn't focus on the social implications. For example, graduation from Stanford in two years would have great financial appeal to families but may fall short in promoting the social development of the student.

In an essay on Stanford's evolving policy on early retirement, two Stanford administrators discuss how the University has attempted to balance the competing interests of safeguarding the financial and intellectual well-being of its senior faculty with the need to create openings for young scholars, particularly women and minorities who might eventually be offered tenured positions.

In the absence of specific incentive programs, senior faculty have little motivation to retire, write the authors, Kathryn M. Gillam, associate provost for faculty affairs, and John B. Shoven, the Charles R. Schwab Professor of Economics currently serving as dean of humanities and sciences.

Faculty members may not have amassed enough savings for retirement, and the University's defined-contribution pension plan offers a strong financial incentive to stay on the job because an individual's benefits become more valuable the longer retirement is delayed. Stanford's response, the authors note, has been to develop a voluntary retirement-incentive program that aims to protect the financial interests of retiring faculty and offers opportunities for emeriti faculty to be recalled to active duty.

Charlie Gofen, '87, wrote about Olympic swimmers Jeff Rouse and Kurt Grote in the July/August issue.

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