Casper: Time for a 'fresh perspective'

Publication Date: Friday Sep 17, 1999

STANFORD: Casper: Time for a 'fresh perspective'

President's decision to resign catches university by surprise

by Don Kazak

Symbolically, it seemed fitting. When Gerhard Casper stepped to the microphone Tuesday afternoon to announce his resignation as Stanford's president, his voice was almost gone.

He apologized to reporters at the press conference in a raspy voice.

Come next August, when Casper leaves Building 10, he will have served eight years as the university's president--although at times, he said, it's felt more like 10.

Casper's decision to resign surprised everyone, including the board of trustees. "It was something we didn't anticipate," said Robert Bass, chairman of the Stanford trustees.

But, Bass indicated, Casper will leave Stanford a much stronger university than when he arrived.

Back in 1992, Stanford was reeling from the federal indirect-cost scandal that attracted national headlines and a congressional inquiry, and picking up the pieces from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused some $150 million in damage on campus.

Since then, the difficulties with the federal government have become a thing of the past, Stanford's national reputation has been restored to its previous luster, and a number of Casper initiatives to revitalize undergraduate education have been launched.

Fittingly, the last bit of repairs from the Loma Prieta damage is also complete, as the west wing of Green Library has been rebuilt and is scheduled for a grand opening in October.

"At a university, no time is appropriate to declare that tasks have been completed," Casper said, reflecting his view of a university as a living, constantly changing institution.

But, he added, "It is time to bring a fresh perspective to bear on the office of the president."

The first half of 1999 hasn't been an especially easy time for Casper or the university, given the huge financial difficulties at UCSF Stanford Health Care. He has said in the past that merging the two Stanford and two University of California at San Francisco hospitals was the hardest thing he did as Stanford president. But Casper said Tuesday the financial losses at the merged hospitals had no bearing on his decision to step down.

Casper's administration also faced an incipient campus homeowner revolt earlier this year over its plans to build in-fill faculty housing among existing homes. About one-third of Stanford's faculty homeowners signed an initiative opposing that proposal.

But Casper is also credited with revitalizing undergraduate education through curriculum changes and initiating freshman and sophomore seminars. His acumen as a fund-raiser has also been substantial.

"Gerhard provided leadership for Stanford through some very difficult, challenging times," said former Provost Condoleezza Rice. "I think what made him such an exceptional leader is that he was able to transform a strong sense of intellectual and moral values into a working vision for Stanford at the end of the century."

The very thing that surprised him most--and was the most challenging when he first came to Stanford--also proved to be the highlight of his job, Casper said.

As university president, he said, "I wasn't prepared for the intensity of the voices" from students, faculty, alumni and other, often disparate, sources with strong views about one thing or another. At the same time, he said, "There's no more interesting job available in the United States."

Casper, 61, is a native of Hamburg, Germany. He received his law degree from the University of Hamburg and a master of laws from Yale University.

Casper, a constitutional law scholar, came to Stanford after 26 years at the University of Chicago, where he taught law and served as the dean of the law school and provost of the university. He was the ninth Stanford president and his hiring was a shock--not to Stanford, but to the University of Chicago, where he was expected to succeed then-President Hanna Gray.

At Stanford, Casper has taught four classes in his seven years and still identifies himself strongly as a member of the faculty. He will return to teaching when he completes a sabbatical after his resignation next Aug. 31.

During his sabbatical, Casper said he plans to hike in the foothills, read and probably travel.

In 1997, he was asked by the Weekly if he had given any thought to how long he would serve as president, given the demands of the job. He replied, "I have been running at a very fast pace, and I don't think that pace can be maintained. ... As I said to a group of staff recently, we are all staff here supporting the faculty and students, and basically, I know no better form of public service than that. One's term is not predetermined."

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