Adapted from a talk the author delivered April 2005, upon receiving the Washington State University Eminent Faculty Award.
I am honored, pleased, and humbled by the recognition that has been bestowed upon me. I’d like to take this time to share some thoughts with you.
First I want to tell you about the nature of science. Newton said it best: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What is true for Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest physicists of all times, is certainly true for a physicist with significantly fewer accomplishments. The shock wave research effort at WSU, with an impressive record of sustained excellence for nearly 50 years, owes a great deal to its early leaders, particularly two outstanding physicists: the late Professor William Band, and the late Professor George Duvall. I have stood on their shoulders. If such awards [as the Eminent Faculty Award] had existed during their time, they would have been at the top of the list.
I have been fortunate to have worked with numerous talented individuals during my 35-year research career. It’s important to recognize that what we do here is truly a team effort, whether it’s the colleagues with whom we’re working today or our predecessors who have left a foundation of science and research that we can build upon.
Next, I want to talk about human existence and its relationship to the academy. The three pillars of human existence are food, health, and the environment; physical security and shelter; and intellectual curiosity and the arts. Through developments in agriculture, medicine, technology, business, and law, academic institutions have contributed greatly to societal well being and will continue to do so. As important as these fields are, though, they’re often too close to the outside world and are therefore subject to its influences.
But at their center is the core of an academic institution: fundamental science and humanities, the brain and the heart of a university. Keeping this core healthy and strong is essential to the well being of the “academic body.” In an era when there is increasing pressure to get an immediate payoff from our teaching and research, the faculty must strive to keep these core disciplines strong. The members of the faculty are, and must remain, the stewards of intellectual rigor, academic excellence, and academic integrity. We the faculty, and not the administration, have the final responsibility to keep the brain and heart of this body healthy.
We must not treat our students as customers, as some would have us do. Instead, we must think of them as our most valuable product. Society at large is our customer.
I see the dominant theme of the 21st century as ever-increasing rate of change. Within that theme, universities will face a number of challenges. More will be expected from us at a faster rate and with fewer resources. This will require creativity, flexibility, and accountability on our part, wise decision making on the part of the administration, and strong support from our alumni and friends. We must move forward without sacrificing excellence and rigor. Multidisciplinary education and research, the need of the day, is a worthy effort, but we must remember that it can be sustained only if the individual disciplines are strong.
As we look ahead, two other issues should concern the faculty: the growth of middle management in universities-the growing bureaucracy-and the increasingly top-down nature of decision making. We must reverse these trends. Senior faculty must take the lead in ensuring shared governance and reducing bureaucracy. Great universities are known because of their academic excellence, rigor, and achievements. Alumni and friends can help by being more involved with the University, connecting with faculty in individual disciplines, and helping ensure that the core values and disciplines are not compromised in these rapidly changing times. Those who care about higher education and about Washington State University should understand the needs of the school not only through the administration, but through their own contacts with faculty and students.
At the end of the day, a university is about teaching and research: dissemination of knowledge and creation of knowledge. As faculty, we have to ensure that our core academic values remain strong. We must not complain from the sidelines. We must get involved. Everyone who cares about Washington State University needs to think about its future needs. The world is changing and all of us who are part of the WSU family need to contribute. Go Cougs!
Physics; and Director, Institute for Shock Physics