'I Have At Least Nine Jobs' What's it like to be president of the university at the heart of Silicon Valley? Stanford's Gerhard Casper reflects on money, power, football, and online learning.
By Henry Muller; Gerhard Casper

(FORTUNE Magazine) – College presidents seem increasingly beleaguered by their jobs these days, and no wonder. Unlike a corporate CEO, a university president has little formal power. He can't fire faculty, boss around students, rethink the business model, or tell parents and alumni they're fools if they don't like what he's doing. Nor can he hire lobbyists or start a PAC to get government off his back. And while the prestige remains high, the pay is closer to that of a middle manager than a FORTUNE 500 CEO.

Gerhard Casper, 61, who stepped down on Aug. 31 after eight years as Stanford's president, was one of the most successful university leaders of the past decade. The German-born Casper (now back to teaching constitutional law) came to the West Coast after 25 years at the University of Chicago. His initial task was to restore Stanford's reputation following accusations that it had overcharged the federal government for research and overhead. He succeeded: Washington exonerated Stanford and closed the books on $300 million of disputed bills after a $1.2 million payment by Stanford. Casper then focused on his true passion: raising the university's academic profile. He introduced major changes in the undergraduate curriculum (freshman and sophomore seminars taught by senior faculty), raised record amounts of money (an average of $1 million a day for eight years), and oversaw $1 billion in campus construction--all the while nurturing Stanford's symbiotic relationship with Silicon Valley.

Shortly before leaving the pueblo-revival residence that is home to Stanford presidents, Casper spent three hours with Time Inc. editor-at-large Henry Muller discussing the challenges of running a modern research university. Full disclosure: It was a friendly chat because Muller has been a Stanford trustee for nine years. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Why is it hard to be president even at a place that seems as blessed as Stanford?

I have at least nine jobs, and none of them is the job everybody says I have: college president. I don't walk around a small campus in a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, chatting with faculty and students and admiring the fall colors. Instead, I am a university president with responsibility for teaching and research, academic clinical care, and a dizzying number of product lines. Yet as far as the public is concerned, the focus is mostly on the "college": the undergraduate side with its hot-button issues, such as admissions, curriculum, and tuition levels.

Not to mention athletics.

Yes, this involves such high-visibility issues as who will be the football coach and on what terms. The pinnacle of my career so far has been the chairmanship of the PAC-10 athletic conference. Needless to say, I came to it by seniority rather than merit.

To most people, both outside and inside, a university president is an abstraction: The responsibilities of the office are ill understood; the person occupying the office seems distant. And if the president is a recruit from elsewhere, as I was, there will be a fair amount of distrust as to his grasp of the "true" nature of the particular institution that has become his charge.

The list of constituencies I've dealt with extends to state and federal governments, to businesses and unions, to foreign countries, and even to religious organizations. When the Stanford band misbehaved at a football game against Notre Dame, I heard from the trustees of Notre Dame, the San Jose diocese, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the United Irish Organizations of Nebraska--even newspapers in the Irish Republic.

More to the point, the constituencies are themselves subdivided into myriad interest groups. I would end up wholly schizophrenic if I attempted to reconcile all the advice I receive from alumni about curriculum, campus architecture, university investments, or what the university's priorities should be. A Wall Street Journal writer once said the claims of these often self-appointed constituencies are demanding and compelling. They are certainly demanding.

You are in effect the CEO of a $2 billion-plus enterprise. Do you feel like a CEO?

No, never. A CEO in any for-profit enterprise has policymaking and executive powers. An American university president has little of either because universities are governed from the bottom up. All the important decisions in a university--admission of students, appointment of faculty, and curriculum--all of these are controlled at the bottom, not the top. I can in theory veto a faculty appointment, but I have no power of initiative. In the modern university the president is an authority with little authority who, however, is held accountable for virtually all activities in and of the institution. I call this "structured anarchy."

What powers do you have?

Two things: control over the university's annual budget and the ability to raise funds. But of course the university's annual budget is like any budget in government or nongovernment institutions: Most of it is fixed from year to year. Unless you're willing to close down entire departments or dismiss thousands of employees, you have very little leeway. So the one financial area where the president does have leverage is with the money he raises. If I raise money for purposes desired by the faculty, I have a little more say in how that money is spent.

Where I do feel like a CEO, though it is only symbolic, is as a public figure who can at times persuade people to listen. This "power of the pulpit" provides opportunities that not many executives have.

It must be easier here in Silicon Valley, with all the wealth and intellectual power.

The fact that we're in Silicon Valley is secondary to our institutional existence. Stanford's growth is very much connected to the Valley, and it has had a deep influence on the Valley. But the symbiotic relationship has to a very large extent been one-directional, from Stanford into the Valley. We have benefited from the Valley in terms of financial support, but the intellectual agendas of the university are the agendas of universities elsewhere in the country--or, for that matter, in the world.

Surely you have some major advantages in fundraising.

We clearly have an advantage by being here. But institutions elsewhere in the country that are older and supported by a very loyal alumni group are not at a disadvantage in comparison with us. Let's not forget that a lot of the wealth that has been created in the Valley has literally been created in the past ten years. Many of the people who have done so well here have had no time to think of philanthropy. That will come later, and it will no doubt benefit Stanford. The most important connection is that many of our students have gone into Valley companies or founded Valley companies, and they have stayed in touch with the university. That benefits them because they keep learning from us where the frontiers in their field are moving, and it benefits us because we learn where Silicon Valley is moving. That never sets our agenda, but it informs it.

There is one other point, and it may be the most interesting. I could see three visitors a week from Singapore or Oslo or Geneva or Brazil, and they would all ask me, "What is the secret of Silicon Valley? How can we duplicate it? What did Stanford do?" I can respond by telling them that Stanford in the '50s created a research park, the first of its kind, which clearly encouraged a critical mass of high-tech industries to be based here. However, building a research park won't do people much good if their culture does not change. The culture of the West Coast is very open. People talk freely, they are very uninhibited, there is little hierarchy. People are not as obsessed with trade secrets as they are in other parts of the world. It is this openness that characterizes California in general, the Valley in particular, and the interaction between the university and the Valley. The openness of the Valley in return has put pressure on us to never become rigid or ossified.

Given your own background, did you have trouble dealing with this West Coast culture when you got here?

Yes, but you have to remember there is this blot in my curriculum vitae called the University of California at Berkeley, where I spent two years in the mid-'60s. I will say, though, that in my daily life, in the daily interchanges, I was quite surprised. I certainly brought a questioning spirit to the university, but I wasn't prepared for that same questioning spirit to be addressed back to me all the time. I was often asked to justify things that I thought were exceedingly plausible and ordinary, though they didn't seem that way to others.

One problem with running universities is that students and faculty act mostly as autonomous agents. That tends to have a spillover effect on staff, who often behave as if they should have academic freedom too. I remember one incident early on where the provost and I made a new appointment that signaled a change in course. There was a meeting, and one of the senior staff members said emphatically, "I hope she--the new director--understands that she is not working for the president and provost." That says something about the freewheeling spirit in which it is very hard to develop or to execute any agendas.

Are there other disadvantages to being on the West Coast?

Yes, we live in an environment that is characterized by a boom. That makes it very hard for a not-for-profit organization to make do. We are in a labor market that is even more competitive than that of the rest of the country. Universities not only need staff--secretaries and the like--they need highly skilled technical staff, all of whom may find stock options in the Valley that we simply cannot offer. Not to mention the housing costs that make it extremely difficult to recruit faculty from other parts of the country.

There is another disadvantage of a more intellectual nature, and it's the emphasis in the Valley on, to quote the title of Michael Lewis' recent book, The New New Thing. While a university by definition is committed to change and innovation, universities are also concerned with preserving the past. When your environment always celebrates the new new thing, the university can be at a disadvantage. One reason I have worried so much about humanities at Stanford is that I thought we needed to develop a counterforce to this secular trend around us.

We needed to make sure students remain open to the many excellences that are ancient, that they are exposed to them in a way that is probing, not superficial. We now provide every freshman and every sophomore with a seminar that is taught by regular faculty members, not by teaching assistants, limited in the case of freshmen to 16 students and in the case of sophomores to 12 students. Most of the seminars are in the humanities.

One of the interesting changes we made was in a course called Introduction to the Humanities. Previously the reading list had included 20 or 25 books per quarter, but I thought we should reduce it to four or five titles and then make sure that students read every book twice instead of just the Cliffs Notes. My hour of triumph came when the Wall Street Journal published an article about our changes and found a student who said, "It's kind of funny that they expect us to read it twice; of course, we don't do that. I read the book only once." Well, I had accomplished exactly what I wanted. He read it once--the whole book and not just the Cliffs Notes!

Do you worry that with all the hype surrounding Silicon Valley, people will stop coming to Stanford for a liberal education?

I worry about that being the future for all universities. This is not Stanford-specific. There are trends that have been going on for a long time that have reduced the significance of the humanities in our high schools. Given the booming economy, there is so much emphasis nowadays on catching the top talent at universities and bringing it very quickly into career patterns that are not exactly characterized by a deep and evolving interest in the humanities. When I taught constitutional law and walked into a first-year class and said "James Madison" or "Federalist No. 10," I could assume that everyone in the class knew the reference. Well, that's no longer true. Partly this reflects changes in what high schools teach, partly the profound influence of television and the sound bite. We are moving away from a reading culture. These trends are nationwide; they have nothing to do with the Valley or California.

Will Internet learning make these challenges even greater?

Yes, but it will also offer new opportunities. How it will all shake out I really do not know. But I am utterly convinced that over the next ten years we will see shifts from in-residence learning to online learning. It will go beyond picking up some skills; it will actually involve education and knowledge, not just information. The problem is that at present we are not even remotely there; developing multimedia software that can intelligently teach subjects that pertain to the humanities, for instance, is very expensive if one wants anything more than talking heads. That's not where I see the future. I see it in making imaginative use of the opportunities that the new learning technologies are providing. You can now produce layers and layers of course material that a professor walking into the classroom could never produce. As important, you have tremendous opportunities for creating linkages.

Is there a danger that private companies will skim off the most financially attractive aspects of online learning, leaving universities with only the expensive tasks?

I have sleepless nights over that. What makes the great American universities unique is that research and teaching go together. This is a dialectical relationship: Not only do the students benefit from exposure to people who are at the frontier of their field, but the faculty also benefit greatly from intelligent students who ask probing or even naive questions. That puts a premium on facilities, on low student-teacher ratios, on having the appropriate labs, and so on. It is so expensive that even the high tuition charged by universities such as Stanford and its peers is not enough to cover the real cost per student. My concern is that with online learning we could for the first time since the 19th century see a real shift back to a rather narrow view of education. There was a prescribed curriculum, and the student was expected to master it. If we travel down that road we may lose what has been the greatest advantage of America in the post-World War II era, namely its universities.

Will tuition keep rising pretty much as it has over the past two or three decades?

My hunch is it is more likely to rise than to be stable, though on the whole the increases have moderated. But don't forget that at a place like Stanford, 60% of the students do not pay full tuition. They get scholarships and financial aid, so the universities are heavily subsidizing the students. Even for the 40% who pay full tuition, these fees cover only 60% of the expenses per student. So the financial pressures are very strong now and will continue to be so.

What could reduce the financial pressures?

The financial pressures will not go away unless private philanthropy steps in in a major way. There is tremendous wealth nowadays, and universities need to benefit from it. I like to tell the story of John D. Rockefeller, who over a period of 20 years gave $30 million to the University of Chicago. That, in present dollars, is the equivalent of $500 million. And after he decided he had done enough for the University of Chicago, other Rockefeller family members gave another $30 million. So by the time the Rockefeller family stopped counting, they had given the modern equivalent of $1 billion to a single institution. And John D. Rockefeller said it was the best investment he ever made!

Does that kind of social commitment exist today?

I think it will come. People say a lot about all these mansions built by the present generation of the rich. Earlier this week I was in New York and had two hours to myself, and I went to see the Frick Collection. Well, that was conspicuous consumption by anybody's standards! We shouldn't be overly fascinated by the conspicuous consumption because in the end people will begin to think seriously about what to do with their excess wealth.

Some university priorities are attractive to donors, like a nice new building they can put their names on. How do you raise funds for unglamorous causes?

That's a frequent problem. You would assume, for example, that it's easy to raise money for financial aid, but it isn't. Another difficult area is libraries. The only way a university can cope with the imbalance between its needs and what donors like to invest in is to raise as much unrestricted money as possible. But unrestricted endowment is another category that tends to be very difficult to raise. So you have to do a lot of educating and hope that you'll be capable of convincing people that the university's priorities should be taken seriously. I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but on the whole I have found that not to be forbiddingly difficult.

Is the lack of authority one reason so many university presidents burn out?

No, I don't think so. To the extent that we come out of an academic culture, we can deal with the elusive nature of our authority. The average tenure of university presidents seems to be getting shorter because of the relentless demands made on the person.

For me the most intense frustration, and perhaps the one that has most driven me to end this form of service, is the amount of government regulation we are now subjected to and the related litigation. My daughter, who is a lawyer, when asked what her father does, says, "Oh, my father, he is a defendant."

What are some examples of regulatory excess?

First of all, we have all the regulatory burdens of businesses. And contrary to what the politicians like to say, they continue to increase rather than decrease. Take environmental regulations dealing with chemical substances. These government regulations--and I'm talking primarily about the state level now--were developed with the Du Ponts in mind. But they are applied to universities as if we were Du Pont. A glass container in a lab that is filled with water is treated as if it were 100 barrels of a highly poisonous chemical substance. If a graduate student has forgotten to label it "H2O," with a date on it, an enforcement agency can punish you with thousands of dollars in fines. Those are all burdens well known to industry, and we have them all. We also have all the burdens imposed by legislation dealing with a variety of social causes.

Like what?

I will give you one random example. A crime occurred on some campus somewhere, I think it was Pennsylvania, and the parents got very upset. So Congress imposed on all American institutions of higher learning a duty to file every year a detailed report on the incidence of crime. Congress did not leave it to the parents to do due diligence and figure out whether they were thinking about sending their kids to a place where there were risks. No, Congress instead forced on the universities still another reporting requirement--a requirement, mind you, full of ambiguity, because how do you define a campus? In the case of Stanford that's easy--we know where our boundaries are--but in the case of campuses that are wholly interwoven with a city you get into real difficulties trying to define those things.

Or consider learning disabilities. At Boston University there were students who alleged that they had a learning disability and could not fulfill the foreign-language requirement. They challenged the foreign-language requirement in federal district court! Eventually BU won this conflict and maintained its requirement, but only after it had spent surely hundreds of thousands of dollars on this litigation.

Then there are audits. Audits about Medicare expenditures. Audits about affirmative action. These audits impose hundreds of thousands of dollars of costs on us. I'm not saying that we should be exempt. Universities should be as law abiding as anyone else, but the application of these rules often does not display any discretion on the part of those who impose the laws and regulations.

Would it have been easier to be president 30 years ago, when campuses were under siege from students who sometimes resorted to violence?

No. That was the most difficult period ever. Few faculty were willing to stand up for institutional interests; many were wholly wrapped up in the politics of the day. Being president is always lonely, but I think it was never as lonely as it was then.

Would you do it all over again?

Yes. First of all, there is no job in corporate America that is more challenging. You are learning daily. You are never prepared for the problems thrown at you, for the questions you have to respond to, for the puzzles you have to solve. I have been a dean, I have been a provost, but it makes a huge difference if the buck stops in your office. Second--and this may be surprising in view of what I said about the authority of a university president--you can make a difference. Third and most important, in the past couple of years I have welcomed freshmen with a speech I call "The University as Public Service." I say to them, "The service you are going to render is increasing knowledge: your own knowledge, your fellow students' knowledge, and your faculty's knowledge." Increasing knowledge is about as noble a form of public service as I know. And what I say at the end of that speech is: "What is true for the freshmen is true for the university president."

FEEDBACK: henry_muller@timeinc.com