All posts by Michael Bezilla

The University President as Researcher

Earth scientist, geographer, sociologist, biologist, musicologist, plant pathologist, electrical engineer.

Those are the academic disciplines that launched the last seven Penn State presidents on their careers in higher education. To be sure, each had transitioned to administration before taking the reigns as the University’s chief executive. But each also has left his mark as a researcher.

I started thinking about the President as Researcher when I read a biographical sketch of Eric Barron, who recently took office as Penn State’s 18th president. Barron first came to the University in 1986 as director of the Earth System Science Center. Earlier, he had been a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado and subsequent to leaving Penn State, he served for two years as NCAR’s director. He’s authored more than 125 peer-reviewed papers in geology, oceanography, and climate issues.

So what about other six presidents?

Barron’s immediate predecessor, Rod Erickson (2011-14), is a bit of a hybrid when it comes to scholarly research. He came to Penn State in 1977 as a geographer, the discipline in which he holds a Ph.D. But his interest in economic geography and regional economic development led to his appointment as professor of both geography and business administration in 1984. In the Smeal College of Business, he directed the Center for Regional Business Analysis and was associate director of the Division of Research. His interdisciplinary approach to research served him well as Penn State’s Vice President for Research from 1997 to 1999.

Graham Spanier (1995-2011), a family sociologist and demographer, is the author of more than a hundred scholarly publications, including 10 books. He also is the founding editor of the Journal of Family Issues, a peer-reviewed research publication.

Spanier was preceded by a biologist, Joab Thomas (1990-95). Hard to believe, but he’s the only Penn State president to have a fossilized pollen named for him. He completed his dissertation at Harvard on that pollen, now named “joabthomasii,” and his research work there and later at the University of Alabama won him international distinction as a specialist in the family Cyrillaceae.

Bryce Jordan (1983-90) is an accomplished flutist and holds a doctorate in musicology from the University of North Carolina. In the 1960s, he directed graduate studies in music at the University of Maryland, before moving into administration at other universities.

Penn State had a plant pathologist-president in John Oswald (1970-83). As a member of the faculty at the University of California Berkeley in the 1950s, his published research included such subjects as fungus root rots, plant viral diseases (particularly of cereals and potatoes) and the fundamentals of the serology of plant viruses. In 1951 he discovered the Barley Yellow Dwarf, since recognized as one of the world’s principal cereal diseases. He became chairman of the department of plant pathology at Berkeley, and then followed an administrative path for the remainder of his career.

Eric Walker (1956-70) was a Harvard-educated electrical engineer and during World War II directed that institution’s Underwater Sound Lab, where researchers helped to develop sonar. Walker moved the lab (renamed the Ordnance Research Lab) to Penn State after the war but retained its focus on national defense-related research, particularly problems related to sounds made by the propellers of torpedoes and submarines. The facility later became the Applied Research Lab and broadened its work to non-defense fields. Meanwhile Walker became dean of engineering and in 1956 was all set to become Penn State’s very first vice president for research — a post created by then-President Milton Eisenhower — when Eisenhower abruptly resigned to become an adviser to his brother, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Penn State’s Trustees then named Walker president, largely at Milton’s strong recommendation.

The Penn State presidents prior to Walker were an eclectic mix of teachers, administrators, even full-time clergy. Having strong research credentials was not expected of college presidents in the long ago. Only one stands out as a legitimate scholarly researcher: Evan Pugh, the University’s founding president (1859-64).

The spirit of researcher-President Evan Pugh lives on in the lobby of Old Main. Image: Patrick Mansell
The spirit of researcher-President Evan Pugh lives on in the lobby of Old Main.
Image: Patrick Mansell

Pugh, a chemist, held a Ph.D. from Germany’s University of Goettingen. He won international recognition for resolving a debate then raging among European scientists: did plants absorb nitrogen from the air, or from the soil? Pugh proved it was from the soil. In doing so, he became “the father of the modern fertilizer industry,” as Roger Williams (executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association and a Pugh scholar extraordinaire) likes to say. Cynics might argue that the title aptly fits a college president.

Certainly fitting was Penn State’s decision in 1960 to establish the Evan Pugh Professorships, given to faculty who, among other qualities, have earned high distinction as researchers. The Pugh Professorships are the highest honor the University bestows on its faculty; only 68 have been awarded.





The Last Word on the First Grad Degree

The start of an academic year is traditionally a time to look forward. In this blog entry, I choose to look back. Maybe it’s the historian in me.

In 2012-13 Penn State observed the 150th anniversary of the awarding of its first graduate degree.

C. Alfred Smith

One hundred fifty years ago, the academic year began in February and ran until early December, so the college was not even in session when, on January 3, 1863, President Evan Pugh penned a kind of “to whom it may concern” note of 202 words certifying that C. Alfred Smith “possesses a very good general knowledge of practical, analytical, and pharmaceutical chemistry and will be able to work successfully at any ordinary chemical work.”

Continue reading The Last Word on the First Grad Degree

Just off press: A Guide to Historic Penn State

Did you know that Penn State faculty did pioneering research to make diesel engines more fuel efficient? Or that Penn State physics professor Erwin Mueller was the first person ever to “see” an atom? Or that Henry Armsby’s research in animal nutrition helped lay the foundation for today’s high-value, low-cost livestock feeds?

HistoricMapYou can learn more about Penn State research – and other aspects of the University’s history – in a new keepsake edition of A Guide to Historic Penn State, highlighting the University Park campus’s series of blue-and-white historical markers, just released by the University Relations office and the Penn State Alumni Association. In map form, the guide lists all 63 historical markers – many of which call attention to Penn State’s research activities. Others highlight achievements in teaching and a variety of other historic milestones.

But wait – there’s more. The map identifies the 31 major structures within the two campus historic districts and gives thumbnail descriptions of each. Plus six more equally interesting and historic sites that are located outside the two districts. Many of these also have a connection to research.

Map in hand, you can stroll the campus and soak in all the history up close and personal.

As an added bonus, the map includes an 8 x 15 inch reproduction of Richard Rummell’s (modestly) famous 1910 bird’s-eye view engraving of the campus.

The Guide to Historic Penn State, sure to be a collector’s item, is not available in stores or even online. To obtain a free copy, you have to stop by 221 Ritenour Building or the reception desk at the Hintz Alumni Center, or send a nice email to Cathey Chaffee in the University Relations office.

Happy anniversary Ag College of Pennsylvania!

A colleague reminded me the other day that 2012 is a milestone year in Penn State’s history: 150 years ago, the Farmers’ High School—the name under which the University was incorporated in 1855—became the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.

Two more name changes lay in the future. The ACP became the Pennsylvania State College in 1874, which in turn became The Pennsylvania State University in 1953.

So what’s the big deal about the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania? And what does it have to do with research? (This is a research blog, after all.)

Take a look at the ACP’s seal – jam-packed with two dozen or so objects that suggest many areas of higher learning, including a test tube and a microscope and probably a few other items (that I can’t identify) used at that time in scientific research. (See all of Penn State’s official seals here.)

The ACP seal would be a nightmare in today’s world of sophisticated “branding.” But in 1862, its graphic elements reflected the blend of teaching and research activities that founding President Evan Pugh envisioned for Penn State. Pugh himself was a brilliant chemist who won international recognition for his experiments on the use of nitrogen by plants.

The name and seal of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania were intended to strengthen the institution’s case to become Pennsylvania’s land-grant endowment. By early 1862, the High School’s Board of Trustees recognized that Congress would soon enact legislation establishing a nationwide system of land-grant colleges. Representative Justin Morrill’s bill called for each state legislature to designate one or more institutions as land-grant colleges. In exchange for offering instruction in scientific agriculture and in engineering, these colleges would receive an endowment created by sales of federal land. (Go here for more particulars.)

The Farmers’ High School had been established as a college of scientific agriculture, and in fact awarded the nation’s first baccalaureate degrees in that subject in 1861. Its founders had chosen the name “high school” for fear that farmers would be prejudiced against enrolling their sons in a “college,” which were widely perceived as places where boys typically partook of drinking and card playing, and otherwise developed evil habits.

But with the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, the Trustees reversed their thinking. The “High School” moniker could weaken their claim that their institution was of baccalaureate-level quality. Numerous other colleges laid claim to Pennsylvania’s land-grant endowment; the competition was fierce. Supporters of the new ACP had to use every weapon in their arsenal.

They succeeded. On April 1, 1863, Pennsylvania designated what we know as Penn State as the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant college, and it has been thus ever since. The land-grant designation bestowed on Penn State its historic mission of teaching, research, and public service.

Also in 1863, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania awarded its first graduate degrees—two masters of scientific agriculture. But that’s another story—and another anniversary. Watch for more about the 150th anniversary of graduate education at Penn State during the 2012-13 academic year.

I’ll give you a McCutcheon for a Benkovic…

Justin Verlander, Andrew McCutcheon, Barbara Rolls and Stephen Benkovic. All four of these people have made it to the top of one of life’s pinnacles—they’re featured on trading cards.

Verlander and McCutcheon are baseball stars. Rolls and Benkovic are stars of a different kind—they’re world renowned Penn State faculty researchers, Rolls in nutrition and Benkovic in chemistry. They are just two of 50 researchers, living and deceased, that the University has touted on a series of trading cards over the past five years. You can see—and download—all of the cards at the newly created Research Faculty Trading Cards website.

Dave Pacchioli, of the University Relations office, helped to oversee production and distribution of the cards since their inaugural year. I asked him if anyone associated with the project considered—strictly for the sake of authenticity—inserting sticks of bubble gum into the decks.

“No, but maybe we should have,” he said with a chuckle. He then added, as if discounting this thought on further reflection, “We used clear packaging and you would have seen the gum.”

Gum or no gum, the cards quickly became popular and have enjoyed a wide distribution, both within the Penn State community and externally. In fact, our Research Communications office still occasionally receives inquiries from serious collectors about the cards’ availability. We have a few surplus sets from more recent years. If you’re interested in having one, contact Cathey Chaffee in our office.