In the president’s conference room I have placed a Smithsonian Institution poster showing a group of about a dozen meerkats. For many years I have been fascinated by these small mammals, about the size of prairie dogs, that survive in the harsh conditions of the Kalahari Desert. I first learned of them in an article in the Smithsonian magazine in the early 1980s. Since that time there have been a number of studies, magazine articles, and at least three television specials on these small members of the mongoose family. They have been the subjects of extensive study, not just because they are small, cute, and generally friendly to humans, although these factors probably play some part. Observers are fascinated by their propensity to work together, sacrifice for each other, and practice the division and specialization of behavior for the good of the group. In an article relating some findings from a lengthy study in the September 2002 National Geographic, Tim Clutton-Brock writes, “This long-term study, from 1993 to 1998, grew out of my belief that meerkats might offer vital insights into the evolution of mammalian cooperation.”
As a reminder of the importance of teamwork within the University, I sometimes ask my colleagues to identify with one of the meerkats in the poster. It is not such a far-fetched idea! We are not in the Kalahari Desert contending with eagles, wild dogs, and other predators, but we do face problems in shrinking budgets, new demands on our resources, increasing regulations and restrictions, and the challenge of keeping current in a dynamic research and teaching environment. Success depends on working together to use our shrinking state appropriation effectively, find new sources of support, and employ all of our resources in pursuit of University priorities.
By now most of you know that our “core four” goals include providing the best undergraduate education, attaining new heights in research and scholarship, promoting trust and respect within our community, and maintaining a commitment to excellence in all that we do. Each of these goals demands collective commitment, but I believe that the one that most effectively pulls us together is our commitment to students and their education. And working together is not always easy, because, by its very nature, a university brings together people whose interests and skills are extremely diverse. To start with, the expertise of the faculty ranges from poetry to animal science. It is a place with scientists in genomic studies and scholars focused on global politics or world history. In addition, we have policemen, coaches, electricians, as well as professionals in information technology, student affairs, libraries, and a list too long for this space. This diverse organization is a working community because of our common purpose.
Recently I attended a reception for students who have been offered the prestigious Regents scholarship. About 25 staff and faculty attended with me and worked as a team in addressing the questions and concerns of these prospective students and their parents. As thousands of new students arrived this fall, I saw hundreds of staff, faculty, and senior students helping the new freshmen move into their dorms and apartments and make them feel welcome in our community. Last spring, when there was deep concern about the consequences of war with Iraq, the faculty and staff were available to direct discussions, help with questions, and keep an open environment for dialog among our students. These are examples of community values reflected in individual effort and commitment.
When I ask students and alumni about their experiences at the University, I frequently hear about help they received from an individual faculty or staff member at a time when they were making critical choices or dealing with a personal issue. These stories are often very touching and personal. I know we miss some, who pass through WSU without those positive experiences, but I am proud to be a part of an institution that has centered its values and goals on student needs. We become a community, which is more than just a place where we work and attend school, when we focus our efforts on that common purpose. For meerkats, the consensus is that their incredible cooperation stems from a group commitment to the next generation. The tribe cares for and teaches the young in a collective way with the responsibilities of parenthood shared across the group. Someone gave me a “meerkat motto” shirt that reads, “all for one and one for all.” That is not all that different in spirit from, “World Class, Face to Face.”