I recently had the opportunity to attend a reception in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. It was an alumni event to celebrate the life and work of R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller was a remarkable man by any university measure. A free thinker: a futurist with a challenging mind, a non conformist, an ideologue but only for his own ideas, a leader, not a follower.
Just the kind of person you want at a university.
There are a series of photographs on the wall behind our reception area in the School of Architecture related to Fuller’s ideas and projects: a dome over Manhattan, the Dymaxion car, and a Dymaxion house that looks like a tea kettle, innovative certainly, but a place to call home for nobody but the Tetleys.
One of the images on the wall is of Delyte Morris and Fuller striding across the campus, Fuller with his face to the breeze and Morris with a package of stuff under his arm. They were on a mission.
Both wanted to change the world. Fuller wanted to treat it like a great big machine with an operating manual. Morris wanted to provide educational opportunity to the people of our region, state, nation, and world. Both, men of substance with big ideas.
They needed each other. Fuller needed a big thinking president who did not sweat the small stuff and saw the university as a market place for ideas. Morris needed big thinking faculty members who were not afraid to ruffle a few feathers and stand up for something that was not the status quo. Clark Kerr, the greatest university system leader of the twentieth century, said that the only thing that would get a majority vote from the faculty on a university campus was the status quo. He understood how these places worked.
I don’t think Fuller felt the need to please everyone he met when he came to visit. The idiosyncratic thinker and the university leader knew the power of the hire.
They understood that to make a place like our university really work, good hires had to be made. Good hires are risky. Good hires don’t always satisfy a committee. Good hires often look best in hindsight.
It is difficult to find someone associated with our university that would ever suggest that Fuller was a bad hire. I have met people who remember the era well… that hire and a number of others were controversial.
All places of commerce, and the university must be a place of the commerce of ideas, need to make good hires. It is unfortunate that, too frequently, good hires are risky. They stretch the organization and challenge it to its core.
Our alumni in Chicago are proud of our university for many reasons and act as if hiring Fuller was the most natural thing in the world. They may feel he would have easily been hired at any number of universities.
But he wasn’t.
He was hired because our university leader had the presence of mind, the confidence of experience, to take a risk and hire someone who might challenge the way we think. Morris and Fuller wanted to change the world.
No greater testimony exists in confirming the power of the hire. Bill Gates demonstrated his knowledge of it.
“The key for us, number one, has always been hiring very smart people.”