The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University
by Gerhard Casper
Yale University Press, 2014, 248 pp., $35
Many a college president, upon leaving office, turns back to the time when the lectern was his, the microphone was before him, and the audience was focused with rapt attention on the words he had so carefully put before them. Gerhard Casper, a largely successful president from 1992 until 2000 at Stanford, now gives us a book composed of eight of his speeches. They are, he tells us, only a fraction of what he delivered—“one speech every three days for eight years.” But as a subset of his orations they are thematically linked by one basic concern: the university’s unstinting responsibility to champion academic freedom, defined as the freedom to conduct research as that research itself will direct; the freedom to teach as one judges best; and the freedom of the university to work in ways untrammeled by external pressures.
Casper, a constitutional law professor by training, writes with both passion and lucidity. The speeches are his testament to posterity, and each one is excellent. But the resulting book, as Casper early on observes, is rendered “idiosyncratic.” That oddity is owed both to what it leaves out and what it returns to again and again.
The Winds of Freedom does not address many of the matters a university president could talk about, or might well be asked about today. There is nothing about reforms in undergraduate education (Stanford labored hard to produce one over the years, and the experiments included “Western Culture”, “iHum”, and “Thinking Matters”), nothing about online education or MOOCs, and nothing about what he bats away as only “hot button” issues: admissions, curriculum, tuition costs, and athletics. These apparently lesser matters are for other presidents and other writers to mull over, even though they constitute some of the public’s most pressing concerns regarding higher education.
Casper’s mind turns instead to seven issues: academic freedom, academic judgment (what is meritorious, what is not, how excellence is determined), free speech, campus diversity, intrusion on the part of external agencies, affirmative action, and the value of research. These were among his chief concerns as president, and now, 14 years away from office, he is apparently convinced that the speeches devoted to them should not, cannot, be left unattended.
Casper believes, moreover, that the speeches need be placed in proper context to be appreciated for what they once were and, is his view, still are. Thus the reader will learn about “the circumstances amid which the speech was given”, and to this is often added a “subtext” made up of further interpretive asides. Lest the interested reader still not fully grasp the enduring import of an aged speech, a “postscript” or, on some occasions, a “secondary postscript” is attached. Thoughts spawn afterthoughts. This elaborate Talmudic apparatus is itself often greater in size than that which it interprets. For example, “Affirmative Action” is a speech of some 11 pages; what follows is a commentary, divided into several parts, of 18 pages. The 12-page speech on intrusions generates a commentary, itself subdivided, of some 17 pages. No interpretation comes without another in tow. This is what can happen, evidently, when the legal scholar inside a former university president assumes control of the prose.
As an example of Casper’s method, we have his elucidation of a case, Corry v. Stanford University, decided by the Santa Clara County Superior Court in 1995. The case was brought by nine Stanford students who challenged the university’s interpretation of its “Fundamental Standard”, the means by which, since 1896, student conduct was to be regulated. In 1990, the Student Legislative Council interpreted the Standard as prohibiting face-to-face racial epithets. That is what the students challenged, and the Court ruled in their favor. Casper thinks the Court did not truly understand the university’s “strong commitment to civility” by virtue of the Student Legislative Council’s interpretation of the Fundamental Standard. Riven by ambivalence, however, he decided that Stanford should not appeal the decision. That, making up four pages of the book, is followed by 13 pages of “context” and some four more of “postscript.” These interpretations, after-thoughts, and further musings disclose, among other things, that Casper never really thought the controversial interpretation on the part of the Student Legislative Council “was desirable or workable”; that he thought the entire battle, for all parties, was only academic and had been “fought on a highly symbolic plane”; and that the opposition mounted by Casper’s campus colleagues (among them, his close Stanford friend and fellow constitutional lawyer Gerald Gunther) was “vindicated” not only by the Court’s opinion but also, as he is now happy to point out, by his “very reluctant decision not to appeal.”
This rather odd, solipsistic form of Monday-morning quarterbacking, in which the quarterback seems somehow, upon further reflection, to have won most of the plays, prompts a question: Why not more discussion from Casper of harder matters—matters gritty and real, matters today riveted in the American consciousness about higher education? Yet these are precisely what he sets aside. Would they not have proven more engaging and challenging than matters “fought on a highly symbolic plane”?
Indeed, the tone throughout the book is high-minded and impersonal. The eight speeches are all we have of the man, save for an autobiographical sidebar (suggested by colleagues who had read early drafts of the book). We learn little about the young immigrant from Germany who became an assistant law professor at Berkeley at the age of 27, left that university because of the “politicization of the campus” to join the law faculty at the University of Chicago, and then became its chief academic officer before the appointment at Stanford. More is the pity, for this is a career remarkable by any measure.
Insofar as the book engages autobiographical reality it pivots not around Casper’s personality but around the two schools that defined him, the University of Chicago and Stanford. American higher education in its myriad aspects and all its complications is not its topic, but rather higher education at two of the most successful, powerful and elite private schools in the nation. And between those two schools, Chicago is, and was, the lodestar for Casper. A parade of eminent Chicago names gives the book its ideological and educational foundation: Mortimer Adler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Saul Bellow, Edward Shils, Harry Kalven, Philip Kurland, Edward Levi, and Richard Epstein. Casper recognizes no pantheon of equal standing at Stanford. That, in Casper’s eyes, is as it should be, for, as he says, “of all major American universities, the University of Chicago was probably the one most emphatically committed to ‘the life of the mind.’”
Casper’s dedication to that life, forged at Chicago, doubtless led him to take a stand against outside interference, bureaucratic interference in particular, in the workings of a university. In “The University in a Political Context”, the most vigorous speech in the book, he notes with mounting anger the costs—fiscal, psychological, and managerial—to Stanford as it is forced to respond to both state and Federal regulations about, among other things, animal research, human subjects, hazardous waste and contagious diseases. Accommodating itself to such regulations adds to the cost of doing business, but, more importantly, it distracts hundreds of people, including the university president, from focusing on what Casper rightly sees as essential matters: “What kind of institution are we? What should we be? What should we do? How should we do it?”
Casper reports that Stanford’s administration was, and still is, impeded from asking these questions not only by governmental intrusions but also by the need to respond to regulations, excessive and irrelevant, imposed by regional scholastic accrediting agencies that are likewise “Byzantine and distinctly corporatist in character.” Casper bravely (and, at times, singularly) fought these official busybodies, perhaps more than he needed to given the outcomes. Worse, doing so led him away, he confesses, from what he knew he should have been doing, namely, paying attention to the quality of both instruction and management, broadly construed, at Stanford. These plaintive moments lead him more closely than anywhere else in the book to the fundamental issue any university president, given the time and space, would want to consider and about which readers would want to know: the curriculum and policies related to teaching and research. But no sooner does he pose the issue than he turns away from it.
Committing himself to intellectual rigor, which he deems one of the paramount activities of a great university, led him, as another chapter discloses, into one of the most awkward thickets of his administrative career, affirmative action. In his essay on the issue, Casper, a lawyer dedicated to unambiguous excellence, a scholar devoted to the highest exactitudes of mind, says that he has always favored an admissions process that strongly favors the “qualified” over the “unqualified.” During his presidency, as ever more young people applied to Stanford, the meaning of “qualified” necessarily ratcheted up until only the most exceptional applicants could be admitted. This was the meritocracy in high gear. At the same time, however, he fully supported the school’s commitment to “a substantial presence of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans in the undergraduate student body.” As he said in his 1995 speech, “We cannot yet afford to be color-blind.”
Now, only a somewhat mean-spirited critic would have the audacity to point out the contradiction between these two positions. But one immediately came forward in the person of Thomas Sowell, a University of Chicago Ph.D. in economics and then (and still) a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, located on the Stanford campus. Accusing Casper of “inconsistency”, Sowell exposed the obvious contradiction in one of Casper’s central positions, that defending both pure meritocracy and affirmative action. As Casper himself says, “While I supported affirmative action, I also stressed that each student was to be accepted as an individual, without regard to labels.” Acknowledging that Sowell’s criticism was “scathing”, and that he had “truly displayed ambivalence” by being on “both sides of the issue”, Casper nonetheless bravely contends that “I came down squarely on one side.” But this is a circle no one can square; Casper does not square it. Match point to Sowell, match point to Chicago.
Such are the hazards of being a university president. Rigors of mind cannot resolve every issue. Some contradictions must be endured, and Casper knows that. The painful contradictions of affirmative action must be endured. Indeed, the virtue of endurance moves as a leitmotif through The Winds of Freedom. Casper speaks of his job as defined by “extraordinary difficulties” and “extraordinarily demanding” tasks. He describes “a rude awakening”, feeling drained of intellectual capital, and having to answer to all too many constituencies, none of whom had any idea of the limits of his power. Having learned humility on the job, he approvingly quotes Harvard professor of government Harvey Mansfield’s remark about being a university president: “The job is more difficult than important.”
Gerhard Casper, dwelling on the speeches that defined his time in office, invests them with all the importance they deserve. They do not represent all that now matters in American higher education, but they should be read to honor his struggle to defend academic freedom in all its aspects. That struggle, by its very nature, is both difficult and important.