This is the text of President Gerhard Casper's welcome
to the Class of 2001 and their parents
on Sept. 19, 1997

“Minds Moving”

     Freshman members of the Stanford college class of 2001 - the first class to graduate in the third millennium - and those among you who had the splendid good sense to transfer to Stanford: On behalf of the university's faculty and staff, and your fellow students, both undergraduate and graduate, I warmly welcome you.

     Equally warmly I welcome parents, other relatives, and friends who have come along to lessen the apprehensions that our freshmen might have. I cordially welcome you, Mr. President, and you, Mrs. Clinton.

     Your presence reminds me of a letter I received a couple of months ago from a long-time friend in Chicago, Edward Rothschild, who is an alumnus of Harvard University. It began with the salutation: "Dear Mr. President" followed by an asterisk. In the explanatory note at the bottom of the page, my friend invoked an anecdote about Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933. According to the story, the Taft Administration summoned Lowell to the White House on business. In his absence, a Harvard visitor asked Lowell's secretary about the president. The secretary replied: "The president is in Washington visiting Mr. Taft." My friend, in his footnote, quoted this Harvard lore and then added: "At Stanford, from now on, the local lore will be: 'The president? The president is having a parent conference with Mr. Clinton.'"

     While this convocation is primarily for our new students, in a way it may also serve as the first "parent conference" with all the parents in the audience.

     For many of you parents, lessening the apprehensions of your freshmen is not the easiest of tasks, since you yourselves are full of apprehension about this rite of passage and great adventure, and about what lies ahead for your daughters and sons. I understand this from my own experience as a parent. As an acquaintance of mine once said in what has become my favorite mixed metaphor: "The future is an uncharted sea full of potholes."

     A few years ago, on one of those posted maps on campus that helpfully indicate "You are here," a student had added "Yes, but why?" I should like to use my time this afternoon to consider the "But why?"

     First, let us establish why Stanford is here. Just like your being here, Stanford's being here has a lot do with perseverance and determination.

* When Senator Stanford and his wife, Jane, lost their 15-year-old only child, Leland Jr., in 1884, they decided to use their wealth to do something for "other people's" children. That "something" resulted in the opening of our university on the first of October, 1891.
* When, only two years later, Senator Stanford died, the financial situation of the university became highly uncertain. Jane Stanford rejected the recommendation of her legal and financial advisors to close the university. The university was to go on, no matter what happened to anything else.
* That determination surfaced again, in 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake caused much damage. President David Starr Jordan said: "[T]he doors of this institution shall never close." It was Jordan who had been largely responsible for the successful establishment of the university of "high degree" that the founders had called for.
* When, in the post World War II period, Wallace Sterling and Fred Terman, then president and provost, saw new opportunities for university research, they seized them with imagination and determination, pushing Stanford to a new plane and contributing greatly to the creation and growth of Silicon Valley in addition.
* That determination and commitment continue today in Stanford's faculty, students, trustees, alumni, and friends. Stanford is flourishing because many of your predecessors, now alumni, have felt and presently feel a moral obligation to give something back to Stanford. Their support thereby helps you and future generations to obtain the benefits that come from the pursuit of knowledge. While it will seem implausible to many of you, tuition has never in the past covered, nor will it ever cover, the full cost of a college education. One day, Stanford will therefore call on you, too, to display the same sense of moral obligation that our alumni now show on your behalf.

     Why is Stanford here, I mean here on the Peninsula? Because here Senator Stanford bred and raised championship horses on the thousands of acres that he deeded over to the new university. Of that past, two things remain: a building known as the Red Barn and the fact that many people refer to Stanford as "the Farm."

     Next, let us ask, "Why are you in college?"

     In the United States, college and a bachelor's degree are the prerequisite for most better-paying jobs and for admission to other courses of study in the sciences, humanities, law, medicine, business, public policy, education, divinity, what have you. Let us therefore be realistic: One reason you are in college is that you have little choice if you want to advance further. And while this is a fact neither you nor I should ignore or can do much about, I urge you to think of college not just as preparatory, as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.

     In the United States, college also is a rite of passage - a fairly low-key and civilized one, but still a rite of passage from home to one's future. College will challenge the familiar, will challenge prejudices, and even values, will create uncertainties, will lead to new ways of relating to one another. Its mostly residential character, its diversity, its emphasis on socialization and peer interaction, in the eyes of many, make the college environment, as distinguished from the college curriculum, a formative and formidable experience that is valued in its own right, independent of any academic purposes. The danger is obviously that college becomes prized mostly as "the undergraduate experience." One reason you are here, anthropologically speaking, is that experience. However, it is only one reason and it is not the reason anybody invokes to justify tuition. I urge you to remember that the rite of passage is not the purpose of your going away from home.

     The main purpose in attending a college is to develop to the utmost and for a lifetime the ability to use reason to see the clearer. For the next four years, you will hone that ability by, among other things, making your own choices about your own education. The university is a welcome to adulthood, to ambiguity and ambivalence - to the difficulty of making choices responsibly.

     At the university, you frequently will be called upon to choose. For one thing, nobody in authority will tell you to "get out of bed." Your parents will worry even more about the fact that nobody in authority, short of a doctor, will order you to get more sleep.

     There will be a few matters, though, in which you have no choice, in the sense that university citizenship entails certain obligations that we consider basic. For instance, we expect you to abide by the principles of the Fundamental Standard that has governed student conduct at Stanford for the last one hundred years. And, when it comes to examinations or other academic work, you have no choice but strictly to observe the Honor Code.

     Generally, the university does not presume to tell you who you should become, or with what groups to associate or not to associate. University citizenship, however, also entails the obligation to speak your own mind and to accept all other members of the community as contributors to the search to know. In a university, nobody has the right to deny another person's right to speak plainly, without concealment, and to the point. In a university discussion, your response to an argument must never be "Does she or he belong to the right group?" Instead, the only criterion is whether the argument is valid. An argument must not be rejected because the speaker is male or female, black or white, American or foreign. You were admitted to Stanford as individuals, not in groups. This is a critically important aspect of university life, of the university's own culture, its own civilization.

     At the end of the millennium, American universities are sometimes criticized for paying insufficient attention to Western civilization. Given globalization, we are, of course, also taken to task for neglecting non-Western civilizations. Occasionally, the same people make both criticisms: one week the one, the next week the other. The fact of the matter is that unless you are satisfied to surf over the complexities of civilizations and the mix of good and bad they present, it has been the case for much longer than a century that we cannot "cover" Western civilization, let alone all other civilizations and all aspects of the human condition, in a freshman year or, for that matter, in a lifetime. Depth is more helpful than breadth. Stating this as a fact, being realistic about it, is not the same as saying that such teaching should not be tried. Indeed, I myself just this week finished attempting something like it in the daily Sophomore College seminar I taught on constitutionalism from a historical and comparative perspective.

     However, the critique that says we do not sufficiently stress Western civilization misses the most important aspect of a university. Another university president, my friend Edward Levi, once said, universities "are the custodians not only of the many cultures of man, but of the rational process itself." This is the Western university's major contribution to civilization. The commitment to, and practice of, reasoning clearly and thinking critically is what we must uphold. In that we have no choice. The commitment is a demanding one. I have a physicist friend who once said to me: "The love of truth implies that one must search not just for evidence, but for the counter-evidence as well. We have to discover our own mistakes."

     To foster this spirit, Stanford has embarked on a program of what we call Stanford Introductory Seminars, where we offer over 175 small-group courses for freshmen and sophomores with tenure-track members of the faculty. The program will ensure that every first-year student has the opportunity to participate in the rigorous search for truth with a faculty member and fellow students in a small group setting.

     I return to the matter of making choices. I am afraid that at least some of my speeches are subject to the critique offered by the wife of Felix Frankfurter, one of the most distinguished justices in the history of the United States Supreme Court. Mrs. Frankfurter said there were two things wrong with Justice Frankfurter's speeches: first, he always got off the subject; and second, he always got back on the subject.

     One evening, a few years ago, I had a group of about 15 undergraduates at the house for milk and cookies. We got into a discussion of all the things there are to do at Stanford: choosing courses, taking courses, writing research papers, meeting requirements, learning a foreign language, electing a major, perhaps choosing a minor (or should it be a dual major?), attending an overseas campus, engaging in public service, hiking in the foothills, or deciding how best to train for the Olympics, what a cappella group to join, how to combine the demands of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra with the desire to co-term in Electrical Engineering and on, and on, and on. Finally, a student turned to me in utter exasperation: "You know, we have no time whatsoever to go out on dates. You really need to do something about that!"

     Ah, yes, that is what a university president is for! Alas, I repeat what I said earlier: "Welcome to adulthood!" You do have to make choices, and trade-offs are unavoidable. I use the term "trade-off" here in the sense of a sacrifice made in one area to obtain a benefit in another. The choices are yours. In the end, neither I nor anybody else at the university can tell you what to choose, although we impose some requirements and obviously attempt to provide guidance and advice. For instance, Stanford maintains campuses in Oxford, Paris, Berlin, Florence, Moscow, Puebla, Santiago, and Kyoto because we believe strongly that you should be exposed in depth, not merely as a tourist, to other cultures. Or, as Robert Musil, the great writer, put it: "If I want a world view then I must view the world."

     Now that you are here, I cannot tell you what to choose, only that choosing is unavoidable. However, I should like to make a few suggestions about how to think about making choices.

     First, not choosing is in itself a choice. In some circumstances, like not voting, that often means abdicating the choice to others. At a university, abdication is seldom possible because in many circumstances we leave you no choice but to make a choice. Not making choices at college more often means delaying a choice or scattering attention across too many activities and thus depriving yourself of the pleasure that comes from pursuing some activity with intensity and in depth. Less is often more.

     Having said that, I should like to demonstrate the ambiguity that is involved in the task of making choices and urge you not to choose too early, especially a major. I recently have been reading essays on the subject of making choices by some of your predecessors. I should like to quote from two of them.

     The first is from Marcella, a student who thought upon arrival she knew exactly what to do at the university.

Although I entered Stanford an undeclared major, I had relatively clear goals in mind. First Stanford, majoring in something practical like economics; then [Law School]; then practicing law until I was old enough for the White House. . . . This rigid mindset did not prepare me for college. I had already planned my classes for the next four years, without any concept of whether or not the subject material even appealed to me. This had a great deal to do with the fact that my family and I had no idea what one does at a major university.

     Toward the end of her freshman year, Marcella wrote: "My stereotypical notions of success, brought on by my own ignorance, [have] faded." At that time, she was contemplating Comparative Literature.

     My second quote is from Greg, whose original position was the opposite of Marcella's. Greg came without any idea what he wanted to do.

When I arrived at Stanford, my academic plans were nebulous and wide-ranging. When my dorm-mates asked me that all-encompassing question - "So, are you a fuzzie or a techie?" - I could only respond, "Yes." In high school, I loved learning more than I loved any one subject, and I knew that would make matters difficult once I arrived at a place with so many possibilities and so little time. . . . Now I'm considering a double major in International Relations and Computer Science, but I'm almost certain that I'll change again several times in the course of my undergraduate career. In the most important sense, though, my goals have remained constant. I'm still committed whole-heartedly to wresting from my Stanford years every drop of experience and learning they offer me.

     Unless Greg becomes that legendary figure - a Methuselah living for hundreds of years - he will not actually succeed in his endeavor, since Stanford offers too many experiences and too much learning to capture in a few years. However, if Greg were to remember the auxiliary verb "can," his plan is doable: He should be committed to wrest from Stanford every drop that it offers and that he can wrest. The bounds set by "can" are another reminder of the need to make some choices.

     The very concept of choice suggests deliberateness, a real choice. For that you do need a foundation in learning and experience. In order to acquire that foundation, you must make one other choice: You must seize the initiative, and seek out the range of opportunities that Stanford has to offer across the entire spectrum of a full-blown university. And you must participate. Let me quote from a third Stanford student, reflecting on her freshman experience. Amy writes:

The word that comes to my mind after my first week of discussion sections at Stanford is intimidation. I felt that everyone was more intelligent than I. I thought that any input I could offer would pale in comparison to the profound statements of my classmates. I spent the first few weeks of autumn quarter trying to gather up courage to participate in discussions. Soon I realized that my insecurities were unfounded and that my lack of participation in section prevented me from forming my own ideas. I gradually became more involved in discussions and found that the more I contributed to a section the more valuable it became.

     Indeed! The quality of your experience and your choices depends on your active participation in the unceasing process of inquiry.

     The main conundrum you face is this: In order to make the right choices, you have to search widely, while keeping in mind that - measured by the quality and intensity of your experiences and the sense of balance in your lives - less may be more.

     Finally, it behooves all of us to maintain a sense of modesty about the deliberateness of our choices. Do not worry yourselves to death about getting everything just right! There is much you can do, but, in the end, you can only do so much. The French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne in his essay "On the Art of Discussion" expressed this sense of modesty forcefully. I quote: "[Even] our wisdom and deliberation for the most part follow the lead of chance. My will and my reasoning are stirred this way and that. And there are many of these movements that are directed without me. My reason is daily subject to incitements and agitations which are due to chance." This is putting it too forcefully for my taste. Chance favors the prepared mind. However, there can be no doubt that serendipity will play a role in your choices, as it certainly has in mine throughout my life.

     One of the most important choices you have made in your life so far is, of course, the choice of Stanford. So, why are you at Stanford?

* First, because Stanford is one of the best universities in the world and, therefore, those who seek out the wide range of opportunities that Stanford offers will be rewarded in ways that are not easily matched anywhere;
* Second, there continues at Stanford what one might call a "Western" spirit of pioneering, entrepreneurship, and energy;
* Third, because of the diversity Stanford contains, as measured by academic achievements, artistic and athletic accomplishments, or geographic, ethnic, social or economic backgrounds;
* Fourth, because of the opportunities Stanford affords for service to the public;
* Fifth, because Stanford believes in the Roman adage, "a sound mind in a sound body," and the pursuit of excellences at Stanford includes athletics;
* Sixth, because Stanford, literally located on the Pacific Rim, has a global reach and international focus, as expressed by its faculty and students (even its president speaks with an accent);
* Seventh, because of Stanford's unsurpassed setting: the gentle climate, the foothills, the bay, the yellow sandstone arches and cloisters that connect us to the California missions of the 18th century, to Mexico and Spain, and through Spain to the classical architecture of Rome and Greece;
* And finally, you should be in college at Stanford because of the singular, almost magical combination of these seven attributes and the effects it produces.

     Thus, Stanford cannot and should not be reduced to a single defining characteristic. However, when all is told, the academic challenges offered and the quality of faculty and students are the reason for our institutional existence and for your being here.

     Stanford's motto, Die Luft der Freiheit weht ("The wind of freedom blows") was chosen by David Starr Jordan, our first president, after he encountered the phrase in a biography of Ulrich von Hutten, a humanist who had lived from 1488 until 1523. In his own student days, at the height of the Renaissance, Hutten made an enthusiastic statement about the search to know. He wrote in a letter to a fellow humanist: "It is a pleasure to live. . . . Studies blossom and the minds move." I wish that you may fully experience the pleasures that come from studies blossoming and minds moving. That is why you are here.

     Welcome to the Farm, class of 2001!