The following reflection is the second of six pieces focusing on the importance of university research. This series was initially posted a decade ago. The following, modified modestly here, appeared on November 27, 2012.
Second in a Series on Research
To find excellence in a university, find the intent of the organization. What do the people who work there and the students who study there think the place is about? What do they want it to be? What is important? What is the quality of your intent? An excellent question posed by Thurgood Marshall.
Quality wells up in universities for an array of reasons. The configuration of forces leading to recognition and acclaim are rooted in discovery and new ideas with value. Good leadership, committed faculty and staff and ambitious and demanding students focused on discovery make a university powerful and effective in its research intent.
Competition and national defense brought Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to life in the early 1950s. The University of California intentionally gathered leading physicists to address what was believed to be an issue of national importance—operational thermonuclear weapons in response to the Soviet Union’s development of the H-bomb. No matter your views or feelings about nuclear arms, the concentration of expertise at the University of California led to scientific breakthroughs. Edward Teller, a controversial physicist, was in the middle of it all. He was inarguably one of the best in the world, and his intention towards innovative science attracted other leading physicists.
A trickledown effect occurs when leading practitioners of any craft are drawn together. A talented group can make a better H-bomb, but the gravity of the group will also help create a better literature program. The reverse is also true. It is about the “quality of your intent.” While difficult to explain outside of university circles, there is tension between those who are the best at what they do and those who are merely mediocre, regardless of field or specialization.
The sheer force of will creates excellence too. In the U.S., five presidential libraries are associated with universities. Three are in Texas: LBJ Library at UT Austin and a pair of Bush athenaeums, 41s at Texas A&M and 43s at SMU. Michigan hosts the General Ford Library. The latest addition to make this group of five is at Mississippi State University. Announced on May 18, 2012, The Presidential Library of Ulysses S. Grant notably impacts our understanding of the Civil War in America and the role of radical republicanism in the Reconstruction Era that followed.
If rusty on Civil War history, Grant was the leader of the Union forces, and his decisive victory at Vicksburg cut the confederacy in half, leading, in measure, to the downfall of the confederacy. Mississippi State University diligently pursued the Ulysses S. Grant collection from Southern Illinois University, where the renowned Grant scholar, John Y. Simon, nurtured it for nearly half a century. To put a gallon of irony in a teacup, Grant started his campaign to divide the confederacy in Southern Illinois at Cairo, where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet.
Through this exercise of intent, Mississippi State University meaningfully contributes to the study of American history for students. Additionally, the Grant Center attracts new faculty and endowment support because dollars follow the quality of intent, thought and execution.
National need in response to the devastation of the Dust Bowl spawned an effort to combat soil erosion and simultaneously create water conservation. Much of the work was initiated at the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station in Columbia, Missouri. This university led the response to the great tragedy of rural America in the 20th century. Additionally, the work dovetails with contemporary sustainability concepts in the 21st century.
Economic development caused Louisiana State University to create a Sugar Research Station in 1885. State sugar growers were concerned about increasing yields in production. They implored the university to generate new knowledge and insight that would help the economic development of South Louisiana through more effective and productive sugar cane yields. While a more localized issue than the H-bomb or dust bowl, research evolved at Louisiana State University to impact academic excellence through sugar production.
Universities require leadership and guidance to pursue issues of import in response to a diverse range of needs and aspirations. Intent manifests itself in programmatic growth. Seeds of research and scholarly excellence are driven by a passion for better understanding the world around us, giving power to faculty and students’ academic life and creating distinction for universities. This distinction attracts the best scholars and students. West Texas A&M University’s goal is to become a regional research university, as expressed in WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.