Institute For Advanced Study Brings The Brightest Academic Stars To Texas A&M.
An engineer at Texas A&M may have built a perpetual motion engine for academic excellence.
Partway into its first five years, the Texas A&M Institute for Advanced Study has amassed $11 million in funding, two Nobel Prize winners and a substantial promise for the university’s future.
Faculty members from across the university nominate the brightest stars in their fields, worldwide. After a three-month vetting process, TIAS lures them to A&M with “the mother of all sabbaticals,” as founding director Dr. John Junkins put it—most often for a full year of teaching, lecturing and collaborating.
“Everyone that I have approached about coming here, even if they can’t come, there’s a kind of an audible ‘Wow!’ and you can feel that they’re seeing something significant happening here,” said Junkins. “And so I think it will have a dramatic impact on perceptions of the university, and the reputations of these individuals help enhance the reputation of Texas A&M.”
Junkins, an A&M Distinguished Professor in aerospace engineering, pitched the idea of the institute steadily for more than a decade, pulling together support and initial funding. In 2012 he secured $5.2 million through Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp ’72 to make TIAS into a reality. “The real challenge now is to find enough resources to make it permanent,” Junkins said.
“The intellectual strength of a university is not a one-time ‘build it and it’s done.’ It’s an ongoing quest, and for the first time we have the opportunity to build a permanent mechanism to pursue that quest,” he said. “And it’s not driven by politics; it’s driven by the best people we’ve got on campus.”
According to Dr. N.K. Anand, A&M’s executive associate dean of engineering, “The proof is in the pudding”—TIAS is already raising the university’s profile. “We are recruiting top-notch performers in our field because of TIAS fellows.”
He pointed to two engineering fellows who have already been persuaded to stay at A&M: Princeton University’s Dr. Christodoulos A. Floudas, who will join the chemical engineering department and become director of the Texas A&M Energy Institute, and Dr. Alan Needleman of the University of North Texas, who will help start A&M’s new materials science department.
“Because of Floudas, we were able to recruit [Dr. E.N.] Pistikopoulos, who is a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering from Britain,” Anand said. “That’s the kind of leverage we are having.”
Academic powerhouses in fields from genetics to business made up the first class of six TIAS Faculty Fellows in 2012-13. The 2013-14 class of nine fellows tapped Harvard, Yale, Princeton and U.S. and foreign national academies for luminaries in chemistry, English, mechanical engineering and more. By 2018, Junkins expects TIAS to be pulling in 20 of the world’s finest scholars every year. And each appointment starts with a two-page pitch—not from the fellows, but from faculty members at A&M.
Every college can submit three nominations per year plus has the opportunity to make a cross-college nomination for a scholar whose work spans more than one field.
Page one of the nomination, Junkins said, is a short description of the candidate’s credentials. Here, Nobels are certainly a plus, but similar achievement at that level is the aim. “If you’re in the National Academy of Science, Engineering or Medicine—those are the three Congressionally mandated academies—then that is sort of the standard,” Junkins said.
“The second half of the nomination is, ‘What’s in it for Texas A&M?’” he said. “A high priority in evaluating the fit [is] that we have something permanent—not just the pleasure of their company for a year, that we have something that comes out of it that accelerates the careers of our faculty and students.”
The panel of distinguished faculty members who review the nominations, he said, looks at factors such as “productivity … being active and being a great mentor” and how the scholars and their work would fit with their hosting college or department.
“It is not just coming and sharing what they’ve done, though obviously that’s a piece of it.”
TIAS fellows present their work to A&M audiences at public events such as the Eminent Scholar Lecture. On Oct. 23, 2013, that lecture was given by Frederick Douglass scholar Robert Levine, who is at work on a book about the abolitionist’s writings and cultural legacy.
“When I go there to your campus, I do some of my work, but a lot of what I do is I present the book in progress that I’m writing,” said Levine, who’s described as “impressively prolific” and “an influential force in American and African American literature for thirty years” by the University of Maryland, where he is founding director of the Center for Literary and Comparative Studies.
“I interact with undergraduate students; I’ve attended a number of undergraduate classes,” Levine said. “I’m the general editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and there were a lot of classes that were using that book, so I was able to come in and talk about both the anthology and the writers.”
Rather than moving here for a year, Levine arranged weeklong visits to A&M across three semesters; he’ll return in October for his final semester.
“Each time I visit, I have an evening meeting with graduate students in American literature, and we talk about what’s going on in the field, we look at essays, and they share their work with me,” he said. “And then we all go out for Indian food afterwards.”
Levine said he benefits just as the students and university do.
“From my point of view we’re both getting a lot out of this, in the sense that I get the opportunity to share my work and I get very intelligent feedback, and Texas A&M gets someone who has a pretty good reputation in the field to work with undergraduates and graduate students in a kind of intense way.”
Though there are institutes for advanced study at universities across the U.S., A&M’s is unusual in its breadth—many such centers focus on fields such as humanities or on specific disciplines—but also because it exists as a part of the university, because its sole function is to bring in outside scholars and because of its faculty-driven selection process.
“In a very broad sense, going across the whole university, it encourages implicitly every member of the faculty to ask the question, ‘Who are the best people in my field?” Junkins said.
“Imagine it from the point of view of a really strong rising assistant professor in Department X,” he said. “And suppose that in the priority system of the dean and provost, Department X was not at the top of their list for giving faculty positions or resources … we might lose this young professor in Department X, because of frustration.”
With TIAS, he said, “the person only has to write a two-page nomination—and now a superstar in their area of interest can be brought to campus and totally change the career prospects for this young person.”
That process “is somewhat of a revolution in terms of the way universities work,” Junkins said.
“The biggest political problem that you have in these things when you have an engineer trying to do something like this is to convince people that you’re absolutely dead serious about a university institute where all disciplines have a fair and equal chance to succeed.
“You had to make it a university program and convince people that you were body-and-soul committed to creating a fair process that could evaluate apples, oranges, peaches and pears and reward all good fruit.”
Because it is driven by faculty initiative, he said, “Strong programs will get better, but especially it gives a vehicle for programs that are not so strong, and it gives them hope and a good opportunity to improve the program.”
“It’s driven by every individual college and every individual department,” Junkins said, “so that we have 72 departments and of course 10 colleges, plus the Health Science Center” now providing nominations for TIAS.
From the first TIAS class, Clemson University researcher Dr. Aleda Roth “made a dramatic impact in the food safety and food science area even though she’s in the College of Business,” Junkins said. “Aleda was quite impressive with her lectures and her impact in the press and television.” With her research on the dangers of unregulated foods and ingredients from China and India becoming part of national news, Roth “has been ringing that alarm bell for the last couple years,” Junkins said.
Jay Dunlap of Dartmouth University, a geneticist, gave the first TIAS Eminent Scholar Lecture. “His area of expertise is how Mother Nature has a 24-hour clock … he has proven this very definitively,” Junkins said. “There’s a genetic component that’s one area that he does research in, as to how fast the body reprograms its clock—basically, how cells know what time it is. And how fast they can adapt when you change time zones is just one example. So he does a lot of research in that area that has huge implications.”
Also in that first class, Dr. Vernon Smith “was a 2002 Nobel laureate in economics—he gave a fascinating lecture looking at the economics trends and cause-effect relationships underlying all of the major recessions, including the Great Depression and the Great Recession of 2008, and studying the roles that housing bubbles played in all of these,” Junkins said.
“He made it clear that it’s not only an indicator, it’s part of the cause of these recessions. And so I think that was a very interesting and well-attended and widely appreciated lecture.”
Such stars are drawn, Junkins said, by the package TIAS is able to offer.
“The people that designed it are people that are in some sense peers of the people that we’re trying to attract,” he said. With benefits such as “having two Ph.D. fellowships per fellow that we attract and providing discretionary monies for travel and whatever research expenses, and covering housing and all of those things, the colleges roll out the welcome mat in great style.”
Another unusual aspect of TIAS’ structure comes into play, also.
“When they find out that they’re nominated, they aren’t being asked to apply for something, they’re finding out that they just won a lottery that they didn’t know they had entered,” Junkins said. “And so it’s a pleasant ambush, where they find out that they have won something, at least won the opportunity to do something that is very attractive.”
Beyond the fellows’ teaching, research and mentoring at A&M, the biggest impact will be made by those who stay. Floudas’ hiring is the most significant outcome so far, Junkins said. “He negotiated quite a package—he got several faculty positions added to the chemical engineering department, he got another endowed chair, [Pistikopoulos] from London, to be a part of the package.” Floudas, “an expert in the chemical processes underlying production of energy,” also is “a person that raises several million dollars a year,” Junkins said.
Of recruiting Floudas and Needleman, Junkins said, “Their impact is revolutionary on the departments and will be very significant at the college and university level.”
They and Pistikopoulos became permanent faculty members thanks to the $100-million Chancellor’s Research Initiative fund. “Independent of TIAS,” Junkins said, that fund “is being used to fund stellar individuals that we can recruit to the permanent faculty, and TIAS is proving to be a mechanism for identifying high-impact individuals to truly ‘fit’ at Texas A&M.
“While TIAS is not at its heart a recruiting tool, bringing in stellar individuals to work with us for a year or so naturally offers an opportunity for the TIAS scholars, our current faculty and students, and administration to get well acquainted. When recruitment happens, it is because there is a meeting of the minds and it just makes sense.” That unexpected—or at least unplanned—outcome is among the reasons why TIAS appeals to the A&M community and others, Junkins believes.
“People can see that it’s not just words. There’s something changing that will have a permanent and lasting and perpetual renewal aspect to it to strengthen the university.”
The renewal aspect is not just financial, but inherent in the very process, he said.
“Let’s suppose you were a civil engineer and you’re interested in advanced reinforced concrete. If you make an endowment in a very sharply specialized area, fast-forward 50 years and there may be no interest in that area. You don’t know what the future holds.
“So an endowment like this is forever, [with] an inherent adaptability to it that covers all of the intellectual strengths of the university,” he said. “Everybody can play here, and it has inbuilt ability to adapt to what the priorities are perceived to be 50 years from now.”
An endowed chair for the director of the institute is crucially needed to ensure continuity of excellence at the highest staffing of the institute.
To support the Hagler Institute for Advanced Study and learn about endowment opportunities, contact John L. Junkins.