Freshmen Convocation
September 18, 1998

The University as Public Service

Freshman members of the Stanford college class of 2002 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 new students might have. For many of you parents, this 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. President Harding once said, in what has become one of my favorite mixed metaphors, “One must not drop anchor until one is out of the woods.” Alas, as parents you are not yet “out of the woods.”

In 1884, while in Italy, Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, lost their only child, Leland Jr., to typhoid fever. They had been on a European tour before Leland Jr. was to do what you are doing today: enter college. Legend has it that the night following his son's death, the father, in a dream, was lamenting that he now had nothing to live for. Again according to legend, he was rebuked by his son's voice: “Papa, do not say that. You have a great deal to live for; live for humanity.”

Even before returning to the United States, the bereaved parents drew up a will providing for an educational institution in Palo Alto. They had decided to use their wealth to do something for “other people's” children. On November 11, 1885, Leland and Jane Stanford, “desiring to promote the public welfare,” conveyed their Palo Alto farm for the purposes of a “University of high degree” for both sexes. It was this act that led to the opening of our university on the 1st of October, 1891.

In her last major address to the Board of Trustees, in 1902, Jane Stanford reiterated: “[I]t was the paramount purpose of the Founders ... to promote the public welfare by founding, endowing, and having maintained a University with the colleges, schools, seminaries of learning, mechanical institutes, museums, galleries of art, and all other things necessary and appropriate to a University of high degree.”

The end is the promotion of the public welfare. The means is “a University of high degree,” and the education it offers so that the students, I again quote Jane Stanford, “will become thereby of greater service to the public.” What I should like to address this afternoon is how a university of high degree promotes the public welfare and how you all fit into the picture.

During one of my visits to the residence halls, a student, in a discussion of the university's finances, asked me, “Hasn't the university become just a business?” At first, I was a bit taken aback. For one, being a business is certainly not a bad thing, as Adam Smith taught us when he stressed that the individual's pursuit of his own interest frequently promotes that of the society. Second, an institution that turns away paying customers, that charges less than its product costs – even full tuition pays for only 60% of an undergraduate education – and that balances its books only with the help of gifts from alumni, parents, and friends hardly meets the most rudimentary business expectations concerning profit maximization.

I cannot stress enough how frequently people ignore the fact that but for those gifts, we would have to reduce the quality of the enterprise, double tuition, or incur deficits until the Stanfords' dream went up in smoke. Alas, those who say that universities have become “a special interest group more interested in dollars than truth and beauty,” as somebody wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, ignore the elementary fact that even truth does not fall like manna from heaven. Knowledge must be pursued, and that pursuit has a price—especially when you want the high quality, the “high degree,” that makes the best American universities world leaders and that immeasurably contributes to our country's position in the world. Much of the cost of your education is covered by your predecessors, who have felt and presently feel a moral obligation to help you and future generations obtain the benefits that come from the pursuit of knowledge. Stanford is flourishing because of this continuing commitment of alumni, friends, faculty, students, trustees, and parents. Therefore, one day the university will call on you to display the same sense of commitment.

But I return to my interlocutor at the residence hall. I should not have been surprised by her question. Students and the general public are aware—in fact, have demanded—that universities become more “businesslike.” Stanford (without its medical clinics) has an overall annual budget of about one and a half billion dollars. Government regulation has made accountants perhaps the fastest-growing segment of the university. While there is much cost cutting, you also see a lot of competition with other universities for resources, faculty, and students. Indeed, many among you compete nationally to secure the “right” college, graduate schools, and jobs.

Why, you may be asking yourselves, is President Casper telling us all this – or, rather, since this is informal California, at least the Californians among you are probably asking, “Why is Gerhard telling us all this? What did he have for breakfast this morning to welcome the new students with such a downer?”

I do so to say to you, our new students, that – appearances and superficial media commentary to the contrary – you are about to begin one of the most elevated, noble, honorable forms of public service that I know. That is, you will promote the public welfare through the increase of knowledge: your own knowledge, your fellow students' knowledge, your faculty's knowledge, and society's knowledge.

I shall take these one by one, beginning with you, the new students. I appreciate that it may sound a little strange to suggest that the public welfare will be promoted by your increasing your knowledge. To Jane and Leland Stanford, however, that was obvious. They knew, to quote the university's charter, that “cultivation and enlargement of the mind” were necessary conditions “to qualify students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” They thought of education as a prerequisite of good citizenship.

There are those who would answer the question “Which is worse – ignorance or apathy?” by saying, “I don't know and I don't care.” This university was founded on the premise that both—ignorance and apathy—are anathema. Or, as an alumnus put it recently: Stanford's moral creed holds that it is better to know a thing than not to know it.

This alumnus, Thomas Beresford from Colorado, wrote a letter this summer to two of his son's high school classmates about what was awaiting them at Stanford. The recipients of the letter are, I assume, in the audience today. The letter is extraordinary and I shall show restraint by quoting only one paragraph from it.

Probably one of the things that attracted you to Stanford was its reputation as a university ranked at the very top of those in our nation, if not in the world. As one who has basked in this prestige and used it shamelessly, I am pleased to say that the reputation is correct. But it is only the glinting surface water on a very deep lake. Surfaces can change quickly when the wind shifts, the rain starts or the season turns cold. The essence of a great university lies in its ability to teach its students how to think critically.... If all goes well, the school will help you develop the tools that will allow you to look at life's circumstances and ask “What can I learn from this?” If four years from now you can make independent judgments on the matters that affect your life, and do so in a way that includes doubt as part of the process, the university will have served you well. If you can carry forward the ability to learn and to think critically as you progress beyond Stanford, you will have served it and your education well.

The search to know—the search for truth—has always been characterized by the need to doubt, the need to be critical, including being self-critical: looking not just for the evidence, but for the counterevidence as well. As Thomas Huxley, the great nineteenth century British scientist, formulated it: “Science ... warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for the one to which I was previously hostile. My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations.”

Melissa, one of the recipients of the letter I quoted a few moments ago, responded to Dr. Beresford:

Well-meaning teachers, counselors, and friends advised me to go elsewhere, because my personal set of values will most likely not be the intellectual fashion of the day at Stanford. I did listen to their advice, but then decided that if I follow a certain set of values merely because I am ignorant of other ways of thinking, then my foundation was shaky, and my ideas and opinions worthless. For this reason, I particularly liked what you cited as Stanford's creed: it is better to know a thing than not know it.

I urge, I implore, all of you to be brave and rigorous in your pursuit of knowledge. Your own future contributions to society depend on how well you are prepared. The university's seriousness of purpose must also be yours; the university's commitment to intellectual values must also be yours.

You also will promote the public welfare by increasing your fellow students' knowledge, just as they, in a wholly dialectical process, will make major contributions to increasing your knowledge. This will happen in classrooms, in your dorms, and right here in the Main Quad during chance encounters. Very few among you have graduated from a high school or lived in a community with Stanford's diversity of interests, talents, and backgrounds. Not many will have had much personal experience of interacting with people of different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. As you cross bridges to meet strangers at Stanford, the going will sometimes be rough. That, however, is an inevitable part of the excitement—and the education—that college offers you.

And, in those encounters, you should remember that you were admitted to Stanford as individuals, not in groups. No university can thrive unless each member is accepted as an individual, and can speak and be listened to without regard to labels or stereotypes. While the university will not presume to tell you who you should become, with what group to associate or not to associate, university citizenship entails the obligation to accept every individual member of the community as a contributor to the search to know. That obligation is an indispensable part of the public service you are entering. In a university nobody has the right to deny another person's right to speak his or her mind, to speak plainly, without concealment, and to the point. In a university discussion, your first question in response to an argument must never be, “Does he or she belong to the right group?” Instead, the only criterion is whether the argument is valid. An argument must not be judged by whether the speaker is male or female, black or white, American or foreign.

You have a few wonderful years ahead of you at Stanford when you can discuss extensively with “strangers” and then befriend them. Look around you: Among the people in the audience are many of the friends that you will make in the next few years and that will stay with you for the rest of your lives.

Your role in one another's education will be as important as the faculty's role. As the poet Goethe once wrote: “We derive great benefit from lively and frank association with educated people. A nod, a warning, encouragement, timely opposition are often capable of changing our lives.” Deliberateness and serendipity will continue to be dialectical elements of your lives.

Even if you found it strange for me to suggest that Jane and Leland Stanford thought one way to promote the public welfare would be for you to increase your knowledge, it will not surprise you that I urge you to learn from the faculty, from the great amount of knowledge they have to impart. You may, however, find it outright weird that I take the position that the public service career you are about to embark on includes increasing the knowledge of your faculty.

I trust that one reason you have chosen a university for your undergraduate education is that here you will have an opportunity to work with faculty who themselves work at the frontiers of their fields. Students who seize the initiative and seek out the incredible range of opportunities offered at Stanford and other research-intensive universities are rewarded in ways that cannot be matched in other settings. At a research-intensive university, research and teaching have a dialectical relationship.

A nineteenth-century scholar whose impact on universities the world over has been profound—Wilhelm von Humboldt—expressed this relationship in the following blunt formulation. The university professor does not exist for the sake of the students, he said.

[B]oth teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher's performance depends on the students' presence and interest—without this, science and scholarship could not grow. If the students who are to form [the teacher's] audience did not [gather round] of their own free will, [the teacher] would have to seek them out in [the] quest for knowledge. The goals of science and scholarship are worked toward more effectively through the synthesis of the teacher's and the students' dispositions. The teacher's mind is more mature but it is also somewhat one-sided in its development and more dispassionate; the student's mind is less able and less committed but it is nonetheless open and responsive to every possibility.

Not only do students profit when taught by scholars who are themselves engaged in creative endeavors; rather, scholarship itself is enriched when the younger generation consciously, if naively, questions it. This assumes, of course, discussion and the willingness for discussion in lectures, seminars, and laboratories. That is why this university, through Stanford Introductory Studies, offers all of you, from the very start, small-group interaction with regular faculty in Freshman Seminars, Sophomore Seminars, and Sophomore Tutorials. There will be 220 such offerings in the coming year.

I come to my final point: the public service rendered by increasing society's knowledge. But first let me make an important aside. Stanford will afford you opportunities for public service in the narrower sense of the term. I urge you to get engaged. Members of a university community, whatever their views, must not shy away from the social and political issues of their time, from shaping the social and political values of society, from engaging in service to the public. Stanford's culture is very supportive of these individual and group endeavors, though the university itself, which has no political mandate, must mostly restrict itself to the pursuit of knowledge. Involvement in public service while here provides you, in your role as citizens, with a chance to make yourselves as effective as possible by applying the same critical reasoning and honest pursuit of knowledge to public service that are otherwise prized within the university. One of my predecessors as president, Richard Lyman, once said, “Enthusiasm without competence is at least as useless as—and perhaps more dangerous than—the reverse.”

Let me return to my final point – the public service universities render by increasing society's knowledge. In an address to Stanford's “pioneer class,” the class of 1895, Stanford's first president, David Starr Jordan, highlighted the importance of education fitted to individual needs. His talk stressed education as strengthening individual character, “the growth of the power of choice.” Said Jordan: “The best political economy is the care and culture of men. The best spent money of the present is that which is used for the future.... The university stands for the future.” To put it differently, Jordan believed the university is “the best political economy.”

There is much talk in government and industry of “technology transfer” from universities. However, the most successful method of knowledge transfer lies in educating first-rate students who have been engaged in the search to know—men and women who will then be able to take on leadership roles in industry, in business, in government, and in the universities themselves. From the education of such leaders, a great stream of blessings has flowed and will flow in the future to promote the public welfare, here and abroad. And by no means does this stream consist only of scientific and technological innovations: it includes the capacity to reflect about the human condition in history and diverse cultures, and to develop an understanding—likely not a complete understanding, but a probing one that stresses different ways of looking at the world within the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

This summer, I found myself in front of the University of Salamanca, Spain's leading university during the Renaissance. In the center of the Patio de las Escuelas stands a statue of Luis de León, one of the great figures of Spanish literature. Because of his ideas, the Inquisition imprisoned León for five years. Eventually exonerated and restored to his professorship at Salamanca, he began his first lecture after his return with the words “Dicebamus hesterna die”—Latin for “as we were saying yesterday.” May the same spirit of tenacious pursuit of knowledge mark your participation in the unceasing process of inquiry.

And there will be an immediate reward. Stanford's motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht” (“The wind of freedom blows”), was chosen by Stanford's first president after he encountered the phrase in a biography of Ulrich von Hutten. Hutten, a humanist who had lived from 1488 until 1523, in the course of the nineteenth century captured the public imagination as an early fighter for freedom. 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.

Welcome to the Farm, class of 2002!