Poised for Stanford's Top Post

University of Chicago provost Gerhard Casper talks about his new position, US universities

AFTER accepting the presidency of Stanford University, German-born Gerhard Casper joked that he was hired for his ability to pronounce the university's informal motto: Die Luft der Freiheit weht (the wind of freedom is blowing).

Yet Mr. Casper, who is known for his good-natured humor and engaging charm, is well aware that the job will require more than proper pronunciation.

Last summer, following disclosures that Stanford overcharged the goverment for the indirect costs of federal research, Donald Kennedy announced his resignation as president of the Palo Alto, Calif., campus. The controversy has left the university in turmoil for more than a year. Casper, who has been provost at the University of Chicago since 1989, is a respected administrator and legal scholar. On Sept. 1, he takes over as the ninth president of 101-year-old Stanford.

In an interview at the University of Chicago, Casper spoke about his new position and the state of American universities in general.

Why are you willing to take on the presidency of Stanford, despite the difficulty of the times?

I came to the conclusion that the fundamentals at Stanford are very good indeed....

The last two years have been very tough on Stanford, in the sense that Washington has focused on Stanford, the press has focused on Stanford. But, of course, the focus has all been more or less on what went wrong in terms of accounting controls.... Very little was ever said about Stanford's contributions to what you might call the national welfare....

As the provost at Chicago, I still was thinking of Stanford as a very major competitor. There have been no dramatic changes.

But there has been an erosion of trust. How do you expect to regain public confidence in the university?

First ... by completing whatever will remain to be completed ... to make sure that Stanford has appropriate controls in place.

Second, by pointing out that Stanford is an institution of higher education that has very few equals. That it would be very easy to destroy. But that it is infinitely more important to keep going.... It takes decades or sometimes centuries to build up institutions of this quality. It takes almost no time to destroy them, and the costs of that to the country would be tremendous.

Now, how would I as president of Stanford get that message across? Well, in part, my accent helps. I am in the United States because I was captivated by the best in the United States. I was a student at Yale, I was a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley, I have spent more than a quarter of a century at the University of Chicago. I am in the United States because I think the best American universities have no equals in the world.

Are you concerned that American universities are losing their luster?

I am concerned that they are losing their luster, and I'm concerned because if we get into the habit of university bashing we will make everybody lose confidence.

University bashing is not the same as criticizing universities. Universities make mistakes, and the mistakes should be criticized. But it's quite a different thing to bash, and I think we have seen a fair amount of bashing in the last year or so.

We have come to expect an awful lot of universities.... The demands are increasing all the time, and one of the dangers I see is that we are ... going to divert universities from what they are primarily about, which is to teach the next generation and to do research. And those two things go together. I have never seen a conflict between teaching and research. I think they are just two sides of the same coin.

But there is a great deal of tension between teaching and research. How do you plan to alleviate that at Stanford?

Yes, the tension is there.... When I became provost here I thought we should monitor the quality of our teaching performance more than we had, and I established a standing committee of the faculty called the Council on Teaching that is to help in all of this. And indeed, I think the Council on Teaching has been a very useful institution. Monitoring of the teaching performance at Stanford will be one of the things that I will look toward....

We have to renew efforts to do this regularly. That's not different from any other aspect of a university's activity. Universities really have to reinvent themselves everyday, I think, because they are the agents of change, because they are always confronted with change.

With such world shifts as the end of the cold war, isn't the role of the research university changing?

I have been deeply puzzled by that because when you think about the indirect cost controversy, for example, it is quite clear that this whole concept of indirect costs ... is something that comes out of World War II and the postwar period....

In a world where our main competitor was the Soviets, it seemed to be justifiable to spend money on mathematics because they were so terribly good in mathematics and so on. That rationale is no longer easily available....

What will you do to position Stanford for these changes?

We will have a harder job to explain to the public why what we are doing is important and why it needs to be supported....

The educational task for a university president at Stanford - or elsewhere - will be to make it clear to everybody that universities are involved in a very risky business. Basic research is still the primary mission. A lot of basic research leads nowhere and yet has to be supported because we don't know ahead of time what will yield results....

What are the priority issues at Stanford that you plan to address right away?

... Apart from the teaching issues we have talked about, the other matter I think we clearly have to worry about at Stanford is the administrative structure, which seems to be very complex. And I'm wondering whether there are ways to simplify it. That will be a very burdensome task even though they have groups working on these issues at this moment.

However, my main priority will be to go out there and talk to as many people as I can ... and ask them the same question all over. That is not 'What do they like about Stanford?' But, 'What do they think needs to be changed at Stanford?' I will also tire them by asking all the time: 'Why are you doing it this way? Why are you not doing it some other way?' That's the advantage of coming in as an outsider. You come with somewhat of a comparative perspective.

Do you see some advantages in the new economic realities facing universities?

... I do think that universities have been competing against one another perhaps too much in what you might call the services area. Universities are places that do a lot just to attract students - a lot of support services, fancy athletic facilities, all of that is being provided.

The fact that we all have become so much more cost conscious will probably have a salutary effect in reminding us all that while many support services we render are wonderful ... universities are first of all about teaching and research. And maybe instead of trying to provide the equivalent of business class in airline flying, we should see whether economy class is not sufficient.

What do you consider to be the job description of a university president?

... Universities work from the bottom up, not from top down. All the real expertise, the real decisionmaking power is at the level of departments, and the level of division schools, and so on.... Almost all you do [as president] is done, not by orders, but by means of discussion - listening, hearing, being sensitive to what people worry about.

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