G-Day: Soviet President Gorbachev Visits Stanford Business School

Content originally appeared in Stanford Business magazine in September 1990.

It takes an event of considerable magnitude to close Stanford GSB. In the 1989-90 academic year there were two. One, the earthquake of October 17, 1989, measured 7.1 on the Richter Scale. The other, the visit on June 4 of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, has yet to be calibrated, but here’s how it looked at the epicenter.

Wouldn’t you know that the first word of Stanford’s biggest media event of 1990 would come from the press? On May 15, Stanford GSB News Director Cathy Castillo returned a call from CBS television, which wanted confirmation that Soviet President Gorbachev would visit the university after his summit meeting with President Bush. Would there indeed be a Stanford visit? they asked. What did former Secretary of State and current Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Economics George P. Shultz have to do with arranging the trip? And for that matter, where was George? Shultz was in South Korea.

When he returned a few days later, he seemed to be everywhere at once — escorting a Russia advance team around campus; meeting South Korean President Roh Tae Woo at San Francisco International Airport when Roh arrived for his historic meeting with the Soviet President; joining his wife O’bie and Stanford President and Mrs. Kennedy to greet the Gorbachevs at the main entrance to the Stanford Quad; presiding over a private gathering in the Littlefield Center that included Gorbachev and five Nobel laureates from Stanford; and putting his final, graceful seal of approval on the Soviet leader’s speech at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium. Shultz left no doubt that, as the San Jose Mercury News put it, “his prints are all over the summit.”

But there were other prints as well. Take Barbara Taddeo’s, for example. Stanford GSB building manager spent the week before Gorbachev’s visit spring cleaning. She saw to it that the School’s dumpster was removed and the area beneath it steam-cleaned. Trees were pruned, weeds uprooted, hedges trimmed, grass mowed, and, according to one wag, “even the squirrels were brushed!” The weekend before the Soviet president’s Monday visit, bicycle racks (bicycles and all) were removed for the duration, along with trash cans, recycling bins, and newspaper racks.

If I were an alum pointing out my school on national TV, I wouldn’t want to see a bunch of trash cans on the screen,” explained Taddeo.

But school pride wasn’t the only reason for the extra effort. Trash cans and bicycles have been turned into bombs before, and combined American and Soviet security forces did not intend to see that happen at Stanford. Security had the final word on all preparations.

At midnight Sunday, June 3, the main Stanford GSB building, the Littlefield Center, and the three adjoining modular units were closed for a thorough security sweep. They remained off-limits until Gorbachev left the area the next afternoon.

To students, this meant that the computer facility would shut down tight the week before finals; that classes on Monday, the second last day of the school year, would be rescheduled to Wednesday morning (Wednesday classes!); and that the second-year students’ final beach party at San Gregorio would therefore get off to a late start Wednesday afternoon. It seemed a small price to pay for a chance to witness history.

Tickets to history, 7,000 for the entire Stanford community, were assigned in a computerized lottery. Students received the largest allotment (4,050), and faculty and staff were given the rest. Not until the winners picked up their tickets at Stanford Stadium did they discover if they would join the throngs in the Inner Quad, line the walk past Stanford GSB to the Littlefield Center, or sit in one of the 1,100 coveted seats reserved for faculty, staff, and students at Gorbachev’s half-hour address in Memorial Auditorium.

The week before the visit the 7,000 names were published in the Daily — among those selected, George P. Shultz. An enterprising student, who was not among those chosen, noticed Shultz’s name on the list and surmised that, of all the people, the former secretary of state would not need a ticket to the big event. She called Shultz’s office for first dibs, only to discover that he had already given his ticket to a staffer.

First-year MBA student Daniel C. P. Grossman didn’t need a ticket. Fluent in Russian, Danny Grossman served under Shultz as a U.S. diplomat in Leningrad and human rights officer on the Soviet desk at the State Department. Grossman helped set up Gorbachev’s Washington summit meeting in 1987 and was called on again this year to work on Stanford’s pre-visit logistics. On G-Day, he would serve as interpreter for University Provost James Rosse. Grossman was also charged with ensuring that two private, unpublicized meetings between Soviet and Stanford scholars take place without a hitch during Gorbachev’s very public stroll around campus. This would prove easier said than done.

Monday, June 4, dawned sunny and cloudless. The temperature was in the 60s and climbing fast when the first security checkpoint opened at 7:30 a.m. Uniformed Secret Service officers with yellow stripes down their black pant legs, high gloss polish on their boots, and arsenals of weapons draped from their belts guarded the perimeter. Plainclothes Secret Service agents and their bomb sniffing German shepherds strolled the deserted walkways. For the second time in eight months, the main Stanford GSB building was blocked by police sawhorses and circled by yellow tape admonishing: Do Not Cross.

About 10 a.m., three business school economists — Dean-elect Michael Spence, who had flown in from Boston the night before, Associate Dean John Roberts, and Professor David Baron — passed through the security cordon and walked toward History Corner where, in room 205, they and a few other prominent Stanford economists were scheduled to meet one of Gorbachev’s top advisers: Stanislav Sergeevich Shatalin, head of the economic section of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Half an hour later, another group of scholars marched into the Wattis Room in Littlefield Center. Castillo was the only journalist to accompany them. The blinds were drawn for security reasons, and the notables settled back to await Gorbachev’s arrival while they sipped coffee and watched events outside unfold on television.

The news was not good. The Gorbachevs were running late in San Francisco, and it looked as if their planned two hour, 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. visit to Stanford would be cut short. Channel 4 reported the Littlefield meeting would be scrapped.

With airtime to fill, KCBS radio turned to Business School faculty secretary Milada Belaya. Belaya, a native of Latvia who has lived in this country for two years and does not share the general American enthusiasm for the Soviet president, gave lessons in Russian (“Over here, Mr. Gorbachev!”) and translated signs (“Free the Baltic States!”). Belaya’s fluency in the language was much in demand during the visit. “Russian is the flavor of the year,” she explained.

The first motorcade rolled up Palm Drive about 11:00. The Gorbachevs were not aboard, but Danny Grossman’s two experts — economist Shatalin and physicist Yuri Andreevich Osypian — were. Once the formalities were over, Shatalin was anxious to get to History Corner to meet his American counterparts, but Osypian delayed. He was concerned that, with Gorbachev’s schedule subject to revision, he might miss the hookup with his president on the stage of Memorial Auditorium. And he was fascinated by the goings-on in the Quad, where restless students had begun “the wave.” The physicist insisted they await Gorbachev’s arrival.

President Gorbachev arrived at 11:52 a.m., nearly an hour late. The Gorbachevs exchanged pleasantries with the Kennedys and Shultzes, then reached the second tier of greeters, where Danny Grossman was handling the Russian-English translation. Flanked by secret service agents of both countries (“The Russians are the ones in white socks,” offered one American agent) as well as plainclothes KGB officers (“Round, white pin with a red star,” he noted), the Gorbachevs entered the Quad and worked the crowd, waving and shaking hands with all they could reach.

Grossman tried to persuade Osypian to leave now to meet the American physicists. Nyet. Provost Rosse broke off from the group and shepherded Shatalin to the meeting with Spence, Roberts, Baron, and the other economists. The economists’ scheduled hour was reduced to less than half. There wasn’t time now, Shatalin told them, but in the next few months he would send them the framework for an exchange. Meanwhile, thanks to Grossman’s perseverance, the physicists finally got five minutes with Osypian.

The carefully scripted event was adopting a distinctly ad lib flavor. The Russians confirmed the media rumor; they did not have time to stop at Stanford GSB. Former Stanford Business magazine editor Rich Kurovsky, now acting director of university relations, pulled aside an English speaking Russian diplomat. There were five Nobel laureates waiting in the Wattis Room, Kurovsky reminded him. The Soviet president would be embarrassed if he stood them up. The presidential party proceeded to the Business School.

The irony of the world’s best-known communist high-fiving his way down the barricades lining what one TV commentator called America’s “citadel of capitalism” was not lost on the spectators. What the broadcaster did not know was that among the gifts Gorbachev would carry back to the Soviet Union that night was a letter from Dean Jaedicke inviting the president to select a Soviet executive from industry or government to attend the Stanford Executive Program next summer.

After a 30-minute exchange in the Wattis Room, Gorbachev and his retinue cut across the Bechtel Courtyard, walked a few steps down Memorial Way past the main GSB building, and slipped through a back door of Memorial Auditorium.

“The Cold War is now behind us,” the Soviet leader declared to a cheering audience. “Let us not wrangle over who won it.

“Each of our two countries bears its share of responsibility for the fact that the postwar period took on the character of an exhausting and dangerous confrontation. It is now our common responsibility to make sure that the mechanisms of East-West military confrontation are dismantled as soon as possible.

“For a new type of progress to become reality, everyone must change. Tolerance is the alpha and omega of the new world order. Without tolerance and respect for one’s partner, without understanding each other’s concerns and problems, we are bound to fail.”

And there, once again, was George Shultz with the final word. “Mr. President, you light up the landscape with your ideas,” he said. “A new world order is forming. We are at a moment in history when there is a chance to design the shape of what’s ahead of us. And you, Mr. President, as a man of action, but also obviously a man of ideas, have a key part in this new drama. We need you.”

Intellectual Glasnost in the Wattis Room

Eager to exchange ideas during his brief June 4 stop at Stanford GSB’s Littlefield Management Center, Mikhail Gorbachev joked that 30 minutes wasn’t enough time to solve the world’s problems — even with five Nobel laureates in the room.

In the fast-moving discussion with the nearly 40 faculty members and students gathered in the Wattis Room, the Soviet president admitted to some past scientific and technical shortcomings in his nation, but pointed to progress and pioneering efforts and threw the door wide open to further academic cooperation with the United States.

“The reason we’re here at Stanford is that we want to learn by our work and by conversation with one another,” said George Shultz, Jack Steele Parker Professor, who led the discussion. “We’re honored and thrilled to have you with us as part of our conversation.

“Every person in this room is interested in collaborative and cooperative scientific work with people in your country,” Shultz told Gorbachev. The Soviet leader repeatedly expressed interest in greater cooperation, particularly in medical research.

Genetic Research

Paul Berg, director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Biology, opened the discussion by calling for cooperation in genetic research.

“Genes, formerly only a conceptualization to explain heredity, are now known chemicals, subject to analysis and modification,” said Berg. “Scientists in our country and yours are engaged in massive projects to decipher the entire group of human genes. This achievement, and the information that we’ll gain from it, promises to transform our science and have extraordinary consequences for medicine, for industry, and for agriculture.”

Gorbachev replied that a dozen years ago, the Soviet Union regarded genetic research as a pseudoscience. “Today,” he said, speaking through an interpreter, we are stimulating research through government programs to find solutions to the problems you mentioned.”

Laser Link

Physics professor Arthur Schawlow discussing laser research, described laser surgery performed recently at Stanford on a five-year-old Soviet girl with an otherwise inoperable blood tumor.

“One very useful thing in this country is that whenever someone invents a new instrument, someone starts a company to manufacture it so that it can become available very quickly,” said Schawlow. “Is it possible that that sort of thing can happen in the Soviet Union?”

Gorbachev replied that he hopes the changing Soviet economy will lead to more product development and to more cooperative efforts with products invented abroad. The Soviet Union, he said, faces a gap “between discoveries, invention, and design, and putting them into practice. This is where we are losing out.”

“We need a mechanism for exchanges, meetings, discussions, and even the exchange of results. We welcome this with a center such as Stanford. It is this knowledge that brought me here to meet you,” he said.

Turning the discussion to economic questions, Milton Friedman, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said economic standards are determined primarily by the institutions under which a population lives. Friedman cited letters written by U.S. missionaries in Japan in the 1860s that described Japan as a country of lazy people who wouldn’t work and who, therefore, would not prosper.

“The institutions later changed and the reactions of the people changed,” said Friedman. “This is a very hopeful comment on the possible future of the world.”

“I understand your hint,” Gorbachev replied. “We understand that we are fundamentally reforming the economic system and essentially producing a new model for the economy. The potential of our people is great.”

Quake Preparation

As officials looked nervously at their watches, Shultz called for one last comment from Haresh Shah, professor of civil engineering and director of the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center. He said that, owing to modern earthquake engineering, not one person in the Bay Area’s October Loma Prieta earthquake died because of the collapse of an engineered building.

It isn’t enough just to engineer buildings to withstand quakes, said Gorbachev, whose country has suffered many deaths in past quakes in Armenia and elsewhere. Even well-engineered buildings can fail, he said, if they are not constructed properly. “Unfortunately, we have encountered this. I would very much welcome cooperation on this type of research,” he added.