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  October 16, 2000

President's Column

The scholarly and creative work of our faculty enriches society in ways that go far beyond tangible material benefits.

Every year, we set aside a day to recognize the extraordinary work of an extraordinary faculty. This is the fourth year we have done so, and it is by now a UConn tradition.

Perhaps needless to say - but perhaps also worth repeating - the faculty represent the heart of a great University. We are tremendously proud of the talent present in such abundance at UConn, not just here at Storrs, but at the regional campuses, at the School of Law, and the Health Center.

President Philip E. Austin
President Philip Austin

This year our keynote speaker for our celebration was Lynn Bloom, professor of English and Aetna Chair of Writing, who gave a presentation on "Writing and Cooking, Cooking and Writing: Savoring Creativity." She says both activities share "a messy mix of knowledge and improvisation, experience and innovation, and continual revision, with a lot going on between the lines." That represents one of the more illuminating definitions of the creative process, and I think it's more descriptive and more elegantly stated than Thomas Edison's characterization of invention as a mix of inspiration and perspiration.

Professor Bloom has about 1,600 full-time colleagues across the university. Most of them came here as promising young scholars. Each year we welcome a few more, as we did last month, usually selected after an arduous screening of dozens if not hundreds of applications. We also manage to recruit a not-insignificant number of more senior people from other institutions who are well established in their fields.

They come to UConn because we are able to convince them - to a greater extent than ever before - that this is the place where they can find the colleagues and the facilities and the students who can help them do their best work.

Our expectation for every one of these brilliant men and women - young and not so young - is that they display a full commitment to their discipline, to the process of teaching and learning, and to the concept of the University as a center of excellence; and that over the course of their career they never lose the combination of curiosity and creativity that brought them into this line of work to begin with. To combine Professor Bloom's words with those of Edison, we want a mix of improvisation, experience, inspiration, and perspiration - and we want those traits brought to bear both on the conveyance of knowledge and on the generation of knowledge or artistic work.

The books, articles, paintings, and other works that were on display at the Dodd Center were just a small representative sample of what those traits produce.

I would like to think that the quality of this work speaks for itself, and I suspect that within the University community it does. But outside this community one hears questions, from time to time, about how to go about assessing the value of research or creative enterprise, and that gets to the more fundamental issue of how to judge the value of a public research university itself.

In some cases it's easy to respond, by simply pointing to the things we do that have a clear market application, now or in the foreseeable future. Connecticut leads the nation in most of the good economic indicators, and it isn't because of abundant farmland or rich mineral supply. In fact, as historians and economists will attest, you can attribute this state's wealth almost entirely to its intellectual capital - especially to the capacity to be creative. This is as old as Samuel Colt's firearms factory and as new as Professor Jerry Yang's success in cloning cows here in Storrs.

Knowing that, and seeking to serve the state, we put an increasing priority on innovation with market applications. We look far and wide for ways to support faculty engaged in that kind of enterprise. The returns on that investment are significant for the University and potentially even more significant for Connecticut as a whole.

But that response to the question "why support research?" only gets to part of the issue, and not even the most fundamental part. Here at UConn our faculty do much scholarship that yields economic returns. But they also write essays, novels, and poems; evaluate competing philosophies; examine our own history in the United States and the histories of places far removed, both geographically and culturally; they paint; they compose; they move to new levels of mathematical abstraction.

Much of that has no clear or immediate market return. So the question that arises is why that activity is so important - so important that a magnificent statewide institution devotes a great deal by way of energy and resources to support it.

My answer is simply that this is what a university is about. It defines what we are. It inspires those of us who work here to come every morning and it inspires friends to support us generously. Universities - especially big, important research universities - exist for many purposes, but at the center is a definitional commitment that we expand the boundaries of human knowledge, and thereby strengthen the fiber of our civilization.

Our students - 23,000 of them this year - are the most direct beneficiaries of that endeavor, since they are the ones who experience the product of our faculty's aggregate creative mind most immediately and most directly. Our great hope is that they carry what they learn with them throughout their lives, as 92,000 UConn alumni now living in the state of Connecticut do.

But the value doesn't stop there. I truly believe that the scholarly and creative work that takes place at the University of Connecticut ultimately benefits every person in the state. Maybe it comes through advances in medical science; maybe through the discovery of better ways of teaching students in the public schools; maybe through the ways our research guides the state's elected leaders in considering solutions to economic or social problems; maybe it comes through a livelier artistic or literary or musical life.

The point is that if you took away great research universities in general, and if you took away this university in particular, whatever the material calculation might be, our society would be a vastly poorer, vastly less interesting, and vastly less exciting place. And that is certainly not a legacy we want to pass on to the next generation.

That, in a nutshell, is why we honor our productive and creative faculty - and why we are so very proud of their outstanding work. We are honored that so many friends have lent us their support and we recognize our continuing obligation to live up to their expectations. That is an obligation we will be delighted to continue to fulfill.

This column is adapted from a dinner speech given by President Austin during the celebration of faculty research and creativity on Oct. 5.