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What He Did

He overhauled the curriculum, built up the campus and helped raise more than $2 billion. Still, Gerhard Casper's tenure has been dubbed a 'reign of calm.' As the president prepares to step down, Stanford reviews his legacy.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

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By Bob Cohn and Mark Robinson

The day after he announced plans to resign as Stanford president, Gerhard Casper was back at his desk in Building 10. He did a phone interview with the New York Times, joined a conference call hosted by the Association of American Universities, presided over a fund-raising lunch and attended a 21/2-hour meeting on the troubled medical center merger. By 7 that night, his voice raw from laryngitis, Casper was relaxing in the kitchen at Hoover House when the doorbell rang. "We're students, and we'd like to see President Casper," the two visitors told his wife, Regina.

Valerie Sinckler and Loren Sacks, both juniors, had been thinking about this visit for 24 hours, ever since they saw the TV crews at Tresidder Union and sneaked into Casper's news conference to hear him say he'd step down next August after eight years as president. "I need a season of refreshment and renewal," Casper had said. Devastated, Sinckler turned to Sacks: "We have to talk him out of this."

So here they were at Hoover House. Casper came out in bare feet and a striped blue bathrobe and gave them each a big hug. Sitting on the terrace overlooking the garden, Sinckler and Sacks pressed their case: students respect and love him; he's a campus icon, a symbol of Stanford. They pleaded with him not to leave. Touched, he told them he wants to step down feeling good about Stanford, not resentful or bitter or burned out. Sinckler began to cry. "I was definitely worked up," she says. "He's such a positive power for Stanford." They left with Casper's gratitude and a gift -- Gravenstein apples grown on Hoover House trees. Though they failed to change his mind, Sinckler declares the mission a success: "I just didn't want him to think it was a thankless job."

The truth is that leading a university can seem like a thankless job. Presidents have all the responsibility of corporate CEOs but little of the authority. At Stanford, there are seven separate schools -- fiefdoms, really -- and 1,650 independent-minded members of the faculty. Add to that the 15,570 students, 12,000 employees and $1.5 billion budget, and it's no wonder Casper has compared his mission to "trying to herd cats."

Casper, 61, speaks openly about the dawn-to-midnight burdens of the post. (He once suggested holding a Faculty Senate committee meeting at 6:30 a.m.) Still, the timing of his resignation came as a surprise, even to many senior officials on campus. There was stunned silence when he revealed his plans to department chairs at a September 14 meeting. Later that afternoon, at the news conference announcing his decision, Casper brandished the well-thumbed copy of the U.S. Constitution he carries in his breast pocket. "If eight years is good enough for a U.S. president," he quipped, "it's good enough for me."

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Casper came to the United States for graduate work at Yale Law School in 1961 and then took teaching positions at Berkeley and the University of Chicago, where he also served as dean of the law school and provost. Courtly, at times formal, he is an intellectual by inclination, an erudite scholar prone to quoting Goethe, Montaigne and Henry Adams. And he has a dry sense of humor, often suggesting he got the job because he was the only candidate who could properly pronounce the University's motto, Die Luft der Freiheit weht (the wind of freedom blows).

Casper has presided over Stanford at a remarkable time in the University's history. During his seven years, freshman applications hit an all-time high, as did Stanford's yield rate (the percentage of admitted freshmen who choose to enroll); scholars won seven Nobel Prizes; and the athletic department earned recognition as a national juggernaut. At the same time, the burgeoning information economy came to rely on Stanford brainpower for ideas and research. While the boom in Silicon Valley created some migraines for the University -- recruiting problems due to steep housing prices, town-gown conflict over traffic and land development -- it also burnished Stanford's image as a cradle of innovation. Through it all, Casper perceived that the University's central challenge in the '90s was to stay atop the technological revolution without neglecting the humanities -- and without letting research overshadow teaching.

Casper's ambitious agenda touched every corner of the University. He revamped undergraduate education, giving all freshmen and sophomores the chance to take seminars with senior faculty. He embarked on a massive program of construction and renovation, launched an aggressive campaign to support graduate research and proved a keenly accomplished fund-raiser for a string of far-reaching initiatives. "Stanford has been transformed by his leadership," says Robert Bass, MBA '74, chair of the Board of Trustees. "We are better off physically, better off financially, better off administratively, and we are better off spiritually."

Spiritually? Indeed, Casper may be remembered best for restoring a sense of stability and boosting morale after troubled times in the early '90s. When he arrived, Stanford was reeling from three separate seismic events: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a national recession and allegations that the University overcharged the federal government for research costs. Casper took the job because he "didn't for one minute believe that Stanford was substantially weakened by those events." (In fact, he made the move even though he was likely to get the president's post at Chicago.) "He brought us back to core values and a sense of calm," says John Ford, '71, vice president for development since 1988. "He stopped the bleeding."

But not without some difficult moments. An outsider, he faced "a tremendous amount of distrust" in his early days. "Some students were very emotional," he said in an interview with STANFORD nine days after he announced his plans to step down. "They didn't bother to understand why the University was moving in this direction or that direction." Recalling fliers in the Main Quad that mentioned "Casper's Third Reich" and a Stanford Review reference to him as Der Führer, Casper says he believes that descriptions of him as "autocratic" may have been the result of "ethnic stereotyping." "Anybody who has been in meetings with me will readily say that they are as uninhibited and robust as humanly possible," says Casper, adding, "I cannot consult with everybody -- that is humanly impossible."

It wasn't long before he earned respect on and off campus. Casper focused single-mindedly on Stanford's academic mission and demonstrated he was here to get things done. Today he is proud of the strong relationships he has forged with alumni, faculty and staff, but perhaps proudest of his bonds with students. He's sat with the Sixth Man Club at basketball games, read "bedtime stories" in the dorms, invited students for tea and cookies and danced the Macarena at Gaieties. Loren Sacks notes that Casper once came by Toyon Hall to chat with 20 students -- "just chillin' with the president," Sacks recalls. At Commencement last June, he was greeted with basketball-style cheers, "Ger-hard Cas-per!" Bemused, he responded: "Thank you for reminding me of my name."

Other presidents served longer terms (Wally Sterling did 19 years; Ray Lyman Wilbur, 27), but few, if any, matched Casper's record of accomplishment:


Even before he arrived on campus in the fall of 1992, Casper knew he wanted to adddress the public perception -- and growing reality -- that big research institutions like Stanford were shortchanging undergraduates. Too often students ended up in huge lecture courses or in classes taught by relatively inexperienced grad students. Within a year, Casper named a commission to scrutinize undergraduate studies for the first time in 25 years.

The commission's recommendations didn't just sit on a shelf. By 1995, Casper, working closely with Provost Condoleezza Rice, had launched Stanford Introductory Studies. The idea was to put undergraduates -- especially freshmen and sophomores -- in small classes taught by senior professors. Today, the revamped curriculum includes 244 Freshman and Sophomore Seminars; a two-week jumpstart on the academic year called Sophomore College; an intensive series of courses for non-science students dubbed the Science, Math and Engineering Core; and Freshman/Sophomore College, an experimental live-and-learn dorm. Says Casper of the reforms: "The combination makes us unbeatable."

Other universities took notice. "Stanford has shown that research is not something that students get around to at the end of their college careers," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "They should start independent work as freshmen and sophomores." The emphasis on Stanford's youngest students also left its mark on Casper himself. Teaching in Sophomore College was, he says, one of his most rewarding experiences as president. In fact, after a year's sabbatical, Casper plans to return to teaching -- mostly undergraduates.


An outsider to Stanford, Casper brought fresh energy to campus and established what the Los Angeles Times called a "reign of calm." That was no small feat considering the challenges he faced -- the earthquake aftermath, the lingering recession and the indirect-cost scandal. "He put this whole place back together and made us think about what we're about," says Albert Hastorf, former provost and professor emeritus of psychology.

By the time Casper delivered his first State of the University address in 1994, he could declare that "Stanford has returned to the sense of normalcy that was urgently required." One milestone came when he settled the research billing dispute with the federal government, which at one point had alleged that Stanford owed $200 million for overcharges. Casper hammered out a $1.2 million settlement -- and secured a statement by federal authorities that Stanford had committed no "fraud, misrepresentation or other wrongdoing." Still, the last chapter of a suit filed by a former Office of Naval Research official dragged on until April 1999, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.


The 1990s were a punishing time to oversee an academic medical center. University hospitals across the country found themselves squeezed by lower federal reimbursements and battered by competition and consolidation in the health care industry. Stanford was not immune. Five months after he arrived, Casper moved to streamline Stanford's patient-care services by decoupling the hospitals and clinics from the Medical School. The new relationship helped insulate the University from an increasingly volatile industry.

But in the era of managed care, more drastic treatment was necessary. In September 1996, Stanford struck a deal with uc-San Francisco, merging the two schools' clinical services. The idea was to create economies of scale -- and a new entity that would use the considerable prestige and resources of the two schools to compete in what Casper calls a health-care "jungle."

Things started well. After the first year, UCSF Stanford Health Care made a profit of $20 million. But in its second year -- fiscal 1999 -- costs spiraled out of control and revenues fell short. The private-public partnership lost about $60 million. In the wake of the difficulties, Casper and UC president Richard Atkinson called for a reassessment of the merger. The options on the table this fall: restructure or dissolve the partnership.

Casper still believes that the merger was a creative attempt to deal with a complex mess. But he acknowledges mistakes. The new corporation hired too many new people too fast, he says, and managers centralized too many tasks that should have been left with individual hospitals and clinics. "I think I clearly underestimated the difficulties," he says.


The jackhammers and bulldozers were loudest in the summers, when students and many professors had left campus. But throughout Casper's tenure, construction has continued almost nonstop. During the 1990s, Stanford spent nearly $1 billion on new and restored buildings and facilities -- the most intense period of construction in the history of the University, including its founding. Among the landmarks that popped up: a renewed and expanded museum, a restored wing of Green Library, a new Science and Engineering Quad (see story). Crews also renovated and seismically reinforced Encina Hall and the Main Quad's Language and Geology corners, some of the oldest buildings on campus. And construction is still going strong. In the next few years, builders will complete 930 new campus housing units and a $300 million expansion and upgrade of the medical center.

A student of architecture, Casper instituted design competitions and chaired the judging committees. Top architects -- Antoine Predock, Jim Polshek, James Ingo Freed, Ricardo Legoreta, Sir Norman Foster -- won commissions to build at Stanford. The aesthetic goal, Casper has written, is to "strive for beauty (and the dignity that our founders hoped for) in a contemporary vocabulary."


Casper arrived at Stanford just after the University closed the books on its Centennial Campaign, the nation's first $1 billion university fundraising effort. It was a tough act to follow -- but the need for donations did not let up. Casper's solution: build fund raising around specific initiatives, from earthquake recovery to new science and engineering facilities to graduate research support. At the same time, he was intent on increasing the proportion of alumni making annual gifts, which was hovering at an anemic 24.8 percent.

The president proved a willing and especially able fund-raiser. In the last seven years, the University has brought in $2.2 billion in cash and pledges. The 1999 fiscal-year cash total of $319.6 million set a one-year record. By defining his academic agenda, officials in the development office say, Casper made it easier to seek donations. "He's been able to articulate a very clear role for Stanford," says John Ford, adding that, when it comes to major gifts, "he is amazingly effective at working a room." To focus on annual giving by alumni, the University created The Stanford Fund for Undergraduate Education. The participation rate by alums climbed to 39.1 percent in fiscal '99 -- still lower than Stanford's Ivy League rivals, but much improved over 1992. Casper takes particular pride in the fact that 76 percent of last year's senior class made a contribution, up from 8 percent in 1993. He's even been known to brandish a megaphone in White Plaza, haranguing students as they ride by on their bikes.


Casper has used the Stanford presidency to speak out on national issues -- but not as much as some would have liked. He resisted calls to wade into national politics on everything from grape boycotts to military actions. "The University is foremost a place for teaching and learning and research," he said in 1997. "Its fundamental purpose is not the resolution of political issues, no matter how pressing or how important."

But he did make waves on subjects that affected Stanford and higher education. When the national debate over affirmative action in college admissions was heating up in 1995, he spoke up for racial and ethnic preferences, saying that Stanford has a responsibility "to find and educate those who can become the leaders of the future in a multiethnic and multiracial society." He also raised his voice to complain about the influential college rankings issued yearly by U.S. News & World Report, critiquing its methodology and going so far as to set up a website where prospective students could get detailed statistics about Stanford. "Higher education was very glad to have that message coming from a school at the top of the rankings," says Schneider, the Association of American Colleges and Universities president.

There is one subject, however, that Casper wishes he'd taken on more aggressively. In 1990 Stanford adopted a policy prohibiting face-to-face racial epithets and other "hate speech." In 1995 a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled the policy unconstitutional. Although Casper was ambivalent about the rules themselves ("I . . . would have preferred the harsh wind of freedom"), he rejected the idea that government could tell a private institution of higher education how to regulate student speech. But fearful of being branded an opponent of free speech and reluctant to waste time and money fighting the case in court, Casper decided not to appeal the decisions. "In retrospect," he says now, "I wonder whether that was cowardly on my part."


Founded in 1892 by students in the first graduating class, the Stanford Alumni Association (SAA) operated for more than a century as an independent organization. Early in his tenure, Casper began questioning the wisdom of that arrangement. He worried that the structural separation of the alumni association from the University created distance. He also believed, as he wrote in 1997, that the University "sometimes neglected its own duty" to alumni "because it had a strong surrogate doing the job." Prodded by Casper, officials from the association and the University began talks that led to a May 1998 vote by the SAA board of directors to integrate the association into the University. Members of the association ratified the move, and SAA became a division of the University on September 1, 1998.

Since then, Casper has paid closer attention to relations with graduates. "Alumni now have a seat at the table," says Bill Stone, '67, MBA '69, president of the alumni association. (Stone means that literally; he now attends the Tuesday morning Hoover House meetings with Casper and top staff.) There are more University resources -- dollars, professors, classrooms -- available for alumni services ranging from reunions to regional clubs to web pages to this magazine. Most tangible of all is a grand alumni facility under construction on the site of the old Band Shak, adjacent to Frost Amphitheater. When it opens next fall, the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center will have meeting space, a great hall, a café and a history room -- where alums can read about Casper's mission to bring SAA and the University closer together.


Drive down El Camino Real this fall and you'll see something Stanford presidents have dreamed of since the days of Wally Sterling. There, between the Stanford Shopping Center and San Francisquito Creek, crews are building a thoroughfare to link El Camino with Sand Hill Road. The result: Sand Hill, the world's most prestigious address for venture capital firms, will no longer abruptly dead-end in the shopping center parking lot.

Seems logical -- but it took 30 years to make this happen. Stanford sought the extension to improve access to the medical center and reduce congestion around the shopping center, which is an important source of University revenue. Over the years, legal and regulatory roadblocks in Palo Alto and Menlo Park slowed the project. The green light finally came in September 1998 for a package that includes widening and extending the road, building 628 rental apartments and 501 units of senior housing, and adding 80,000 square feet of retail space to the shopping center. The written agreement with Palo Alto was, Casper noted, "the size of a small telephone book."

Local politicians say Casper has special credibility on town-gown issues because people see him as the University's chief academician -- not simply as another land developer. "The fact that he concentrates so heavily on the University's central mission of teaching and research makes him a very effective spokesman and negotiator," says Palo Alto mayor Gary Fazzino, '74.

Casper is putting that credibility to work as he negotiates with Santa Clara County officials for a new 10-year campus development plan. Stanford wants approval to add up to 2 million square feet of academic, athletic and support facilities by 2010. The draft request proposes significant new campus housing and vows to set aside more than 99 percent of the Foothills as open space for at least the next decade. In his resignation announcement, Casper singled out approval of the 10-year plan as a priority for his last months in office.


More than half the students at Stanford are enrolled in graduate programs. Under Casper, in fact, Stanford became the nation's leading producer of PhDs among private universities. But the federal dollars on which many of these students depend have been drying up. To insulate the University from this trend, Casper introduced Stanford Graduate Fellowships in 1997. The program, which has nearly reached its $200 million endowment target, eventually will provide tuition grants and stipends to some 300 students each year. At the same time, Casper is seeking to raise $50 million to endow one of his pet projects, the Asia/Pacific Scholars Program. Modeled on the Rhodes scholarships and designed to take advantage of Stanford's Pacific Rim perch, it brings future Asian leaders to Stanford for graduate study. Casper has said that the failure to fully fund this program is one of his biggest disappointments as president.


By the end of his first year, Casper had reshuffled Stanford's top management layer, saving $1 million (the money was funneled into the libraries). He cut the number of vice presidents and consolidated once-freestanding operations such as the ombudsperson and sexual harassment officer into an office of campus relations. He also directed a major restructuring of the University's legal services, which are now provided mostly by outside law firms.

But Casper's most influential personnel moves have come at the top of the academic pyramid. He appointed a young provost, Condi Rice, who tamed the University's budget beast and grappled with housing and tenure issues during her five years as the University's second-in-command. (She's now an adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.) Last spring, Casper appointed Professor John Hennessy, dean of the Engineering School, to succeed her. By the time Casper leaves office next August, he also will have named six of the deans presiding over Stanford's seven schools. This new generation of leaders -- along with the 36,000 students who will have graduated during his presidency -- is the living legacy Gerhard Casper leaves behind.

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