Interview with Prof. Gerhard Casper

Freitag, 31. Januar 2014 | 

Schlagwörter »  |  Thema: englisch

Professor Gerhard Casper, president of Stanford University, USA, from 1992 to 2000, gave the lecture “What Are Good Universities For?” at the University of Freiburg in November. Alumni’aktuell asked the alumnus, who earned a doctoral degree from the University of Freiburg in 1964 with a dissertation entitled Legal Realism and Political Theory in American Legal Thought, about his time studying in Freiburg and differences between the American and German university systems.

Prof. Dr. Gerhard Casper
Prof. Dr. Gerhard Casper

alumni’aktuell: Your studies in Freiburg undoubtedly had a formative influence on the further course of your career in academia. What do you remember about your time studying at the University of Freiburg?

Professor Casper: My studies in Freiburg indeed had a formative influence on me. I came here in my third study semester and asked the great constitutional law expert Konrad Hesse for permission to attend his seminar on public law. But Hesse told me: “I’m sorry, Mr. Casper, but that’s a seminar for more experienced students and doctoral candidates. You are too young for it.” I tried to convince him, and in the end he allowed me to take the course. I even wrote a term paper.

This is where I realized for the first time that even an inexperienced young student can make a contribution. Even Wilhelm von Humboldt himself was already a staunch proponent of the idea that professors also need to confront their youngest students. This experience of mine in Freiburg with Hesse served as a model for me later on when I had to implement large-scale academic reforms as president of Stanford. One of the reforms we introduced back then involved allowing every first or second year student to take a seminar taught by a professor.

alumni’aktuell: Where did you like to study, dance, and eat in Freiburg?

Professor Casper: I didn’t have much money back then, of course – I never ate at “Oberkirch” in those years. It was very important for me that I met my wife here. We were both receiving funding from the German National Scholarship Foundation, and the foundation invited us to a meeting each semester. My wife entered the room, and I found her interesting right away. Her liaison professor was the Romance studies scholar Fritz Pringsheim. It suddenly occurred to me that someone in Yale had told me to say hi to Professor Pringsheim. And that’s how I met my wife.

We both still have a deep emotional connection to Freiburg today. When I was in Hanover on a trip to Germany many years ago, I found out that the preservation society of the Freiburg Cathedral was selling stones from the cathedral that they had to replace. I jumped in the next train, traveled to the preservation society, and said I’d like to buy a piece of the cathedral. My mission was successful, and that stone from the cathedral still adorns our garden in California to this day.

alumni’aktuell: How would you complete the sentence: “Typical things for students in my time were …”

Professor Casper: … to take advantage of the great freedom we had. That is to say: I might have been a law student, but I also sat in many other lectures and spent a lot of time with students from other fields of study.

alumni’aktuell: You also had the opportunity to study at a university like Yale back then. What are the differences between student life in the United States and Germany?

Professor Casper: There are many differences. For one thing, most American students of course live in dormitories. You don’t live in the city there, you live at the university. In Freiburg I lived in a big, cold apartment on the third floor of a house on Zasiusstraße, above the landlady. In my times, when I was a student, it was still difficult to invite ladies to your room; it was frowned upon by many landlords.

alumni’aktuell: The University of Freiburg initiated a joint teaching project with Harvard last year. In your opinion, what can American universities learn from the University of Freiburg – and vice versa?

Professor Casper: German students have the great freedom to simply attend a lecture course or a seminar in another field of study. This is of course also possible for our undergraduates, since they study liberal arts, but for more advanced students, particularly in fields like law or medicine, it becomes much more difficult to do. Here students who make intelligent use of their freedom have opportunities that students in America don’t have.

alumni’aktuell: And the other way around? What can the University of Freiburg learn from American universities?

Professor Casper: Above all that the American university thinks less in terms of hierarchies. Their great advantage is that institutional affiliations or departments are not a factor. And open doors are important. To cite an example from my own experience: I was dean for nine years, and my successor sent a note around: “Professors who want to smoke must close the door to their office from now on.” I smoked a pipe and quit from one day to the next, because I didn’t want my door to be closed.

alumni’aktuell: Let’s talk about alumni networks. You know the various networks from the USA. What should German alumni networks adopt from American networks?

Professor Casper: The most important thing is for the university to be seen by all of its members as a unified entity. The alumni shouldn’t say “I studied with Professor X” after completing their studies but rather “I studied at the University of Freiburg and am grateful to my university.” But in order for this to happen, the university needs to present itself as a unified institution to its students and the public.

alumni’aktuell: Much has already changed here in Freiburg since the 550th anniversary celebration. The university has established itself as a brand. We see this in our daily alumni work as well, especially among our international alumni. Where do you see further potential for a strong Freiburg alumni network?

Professor Casper: I think that one sometimes underestimates the impact of tradition. Freiburg has a great pull even just by virtue of its history. The Harvards and Yales of this world also always stress that they’ve been around for a couple of hundred years. This is also something their alumni are proud of. In addition, Freiburg has this privileged location near France and Switzerland. That opens up additional opportunities for the students.

alumni’aktuell: Why do you find it a shame that you are no longer a student?

Professor Casper: Oh, but I am. I never stopped being a student. Also important is the fact that I have constant contact with students. The students often address me by my first name. Even when I was president, I was Gerhard.

alumni’aktuell: Do you have any advice to give to current students?

Professor Casper: Make the most use you can of the University of Freiburg. The possibilities this university has to offer will be available to you for three or four years of your life. My advice: You should take advantage of that – to the last drop.

alumni’aktuell: Professor Casper, thank you for the interview.

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