In this season of thanksgiving and refreshment, of looking ahead and looking back, little is more central to our university than new ideas and new knowledge that build on the past and shape the future.
Looking back and looking ahead.
This is the basis of science, the foundation for research, and a primary cause for action at our university. I know most of us are focused on practical and immediately applicable knowledge, techniques and approaches to problems that have immediate utility so that our offspring and graduates may get the benefit of employment upon graduation.
This is as it should be.
However, if the purpose of our University stops there, it stops short. Any useful technique or knowledge that can be applied to a problem of the day started as a form of research and discovery somewhere in the past.
The history of invention suggests many good ideas that we take for granted did not get life in university laboratories but in garages and workshops of big thinkers, idea people, who had a passion to discover something of value. The vulcanization process that allowed rubber to be durable for tires for cars and trucks was developed by Charles Goodyear on a kitchen stove according to some accounts. Thomas Edison extended theoretical physics in a dark wooden shack to illuminate the world; Henry Ford needs no elaboration here as he developed process that forever impacted every thing that people make. Even in recent history Steven Jobs and his partner worked technological miracles in a two car garage, I sit as the child of their active minds and deliberate passion, connected to the world not imaginable only two decades ago.
What happened in the workshops, garages, and kitchens of the 19th and 20th centuries must define the best universities of the 21st.
While the nature of discovery has not changed…driven people finding better ways to do things… the processes have become more complex, and in many cases require the infrastructure a university provides. And no matter how good the athletics program and other extra curricula activities, or how important student clubs and organizations are, of how valuable civic outreach and community service is, the seed corn of the research university is research.
It makes learning come alive.
Research and discovery are the backbone of reputation. Other avenues may have value, but pale in comparison.
In this reflective time, I was looking back at our recent history of contributions to various bodies of knowledge. They are considerable.
Mechanical engineer Om Agrawal is reinventing calculus, Pinckney Benedict received the 2008 Pushcart Prize, Max Yen, continues to develop intelligent transportation systems, Larry Hickman was honored as the national 2007 Phi Kappa Phi Scholar, an award given only once every three years. These are a few examples among many.
The distinction, recognition and reputation faculty members bring to our university has value beyond measure in defining who we are. Our own Buckminster Fuller recognized the ultimate impact of discovery and summed it up for us: Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it.
We will have achieved great success in the future if our university can add but a few lines of instruction for the operation of the planet.
And so we do.