Letter from the President

THE “VISION THING”

By Gerhard Casper


In my first year as president of Stanford, reporters, students and alumni frequently asked me what my “vision” was, my “plan,” my “agenda” for the university. The question always made me very uncomfortable. It was certainly a fair one to put to a newcomer, but it was also impossible to answer.

President Gerhard Casper In some sense I had tried to answer the question concerning my vision in my inaugural address ­ a speech that I had prepared with much attention to its every word. Of course, I did not put forward a plan (how could I have done so coming to Stanford from the outside?) but I spelled out my commitments, the principles that would guide me. I did so in the form of reflections on the meaning of Stanford’s motto, realizing that these reflections were unfit to serve as programmatic sound bites.

Why is it next to impossible to talk about a “vision” for the university? A true university’s vision is made up of the multiple pursuits of its many faculty and students as they interact with one another in teaching, learning and research. The true university works from the bottom up, not from the top down. The main responsibility of a university’s leaders is to create and maintain the conditions that make university work possible. These conditions do not include tightly formulated five-year plans.

On March 18, 1992, at the press conference at which my appointment was announced, I observed: “Even as excellent an institution as Stanford can develop weaknesses, can be mediocre in some areas. We have to work

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