Some of us in the TSK who frequently attend meetings may remember Ward Plummer who held a chair of excellence in material science and who wanted to have the new materials science lab built on the UTK campus. He was one of the most highly paid professors at UT, near the $400,000 mark, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a rare
occurrence it seems among UT professors, and he is one of the country’s leading scientists in his field with some 300 scientific papers to his
credit. One would assume that he was one of the most valuable assets of UTK.
Just recently he left UTK to join the faculty of LSU as special assistant to the vice chancellor of research and economic development and professor of physics and astronomy. He is expected to play a major role in advancing LSU’s efforts toward developing a materials science cluster at LSU, the Louisiana flagship university.
The LSU press release from which some of this information is taken describes the planned developments in materials science as “the fabrication, analysis and theoretical understanding of the basic properties of materials, allowing the design of stronger, more lightweight materials for use in aircraft and automobiles; more advanced magnetic materials allowing for greater data storage on computers; faster and more reliable electronic materials used in cell phones and DVD players; and new and improved ‘lab on a chip’ technology that has homeland security applications….Having Plummer join the LSU faculty
is definitely a major step in the right direction, and with his input and impressive body of work, we are gaining the momentum needed for the university to meet and even surpass its goals. …Hiring multiple high profile faculty members to create interdisciplinary areas of national prominence, is another method that LSU is using to achieve its Flagship Agenda goals of improving the university and its faculty and students.” The materials science field is so hot that Plummer, in his advanced sixties, did not have to tarry as soon as he felt that things were not going his way at UTK. So LSU’s gain may well be UTK’s loss, and the ongoing developments may just be another chapter in the story in which UTK, ORNL and TVA, to name the three main players of the Knoxville area, haven’t gotten their act together in the over 40 years since I came to know the area.
Earlier in the year when the TSK asked the UT president for an interview on where the UTK flagship initiative was going (a request that was never responded to), I predicted that some Ivy League institution would steal Ward Plummer away with an even more attractive offer than UT/ORNL could afford. But Ward himself, who unintendedly read my message directed to Steve Levy said “No Way!” (go to www.technicalsociety.net) Then, things began to unravel for him at ORNL. His appointment there was terminated for no apparent reason (according to his message from which I quote) and he felt that UT failed to support him. Now, who would take such insults lying down? Ward promptly left UT for Louisiana State University, a somewhat bizarre turn of events for a man of his stature, with 20 years of Ivy League background and 16 years at UT, a veritable coryphaeus in the field.
It seems Plummer felt gravely mishandled by administrators and in order to save his sanity he had to get out. He felt that his scientific as well as his emotional base had been eroded by decisions at ORNL and UTK, that these institutions “did not appreciate the importance of individual creativity and scholarship and that neither system can or will tolerate opposing viewpoints.” He quotes from Einstein by Walter Isaacson, who said “Freedom is the life blood of creativity. The development of science requires a freedom that consists of the independence of thought from restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudices. Nurturing that freedom should be the fundamental role of government (leadership) and the mission of education.” Einstein knew what he was talking about and Plummer felt that the quote fit his guiding principle during his tenure at UTK and ORNL. He felt that he brought the best scientists to East Tennessee and “passionately protect(ed) and foster(ed) their individuality and creativity.” Here I remember a quote from a professor in Berlin many years ago about the difference between müsige Tätigkeit und tätige Muse (spinning wheels versus creative contemplation), in other words, it is an administration’s task to create a substrate on
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which novel ideas can sprout and grow in contrast to busily harvesting small crops.
We had the opportunity to meet one of Plummer’s colleagues in the person of Prof. Hanno Weitering who gave an excellent talk to the Technical Society on October 20 on his work in nanotechnology that ultimately may allow changing mechanical and chemical properties of materials. Materials science has become one of the most crucial sciences in a nation-wide effort toward advanced technology, and UT seemed to have been positioned at the cutting edge with a leader like Plummer. He operated the Tennessee Advanced Materials Laboratory and was of the opinion that “there was every promise that we would and could move to the next level with the state, university, and federal funding of the new Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM). It is clear to me now that JIAM will never materialize as the interdisciplinary center for research and education that we all dreamed about.” According to a News Sentinel article on October 25, by Tom Callcott, a UT professor emeritus, the planned center suffered continued delays and its direction was effectively taken over by the UT system administration with Ward as a nominal director move sideways in a sort of lateral arabesque, as the Peter Principle would define it, a move designed to drive an active doer to despair. And, lo and behold, it worked.
Ward Plummer held former chancellor Crabtree in high esteem and came to the conclusion that “Crabtree’s team which was positioned to take UTK to the next level of recognition and excellence, will evaporate within a few years.”In the quoted article, Tom Calcott identifies some of the people that have already left the UT including the Dean of the College of Engineering, Way Kuo. In the latter case, however, it was probably an offer Dr. Kuo could not refuse.
This writer is not close enough to the situation to fully appreciate the meaning of these recent developments at UT, but the fact that a very highly regarded and rewarded member of
the UTK faculty leaves in such short a succession after chancellor Crabtree and others is sort of disquieting and could be an indication that UTK’s dreams of becoming a nationally recognized flagship university may not be cruising toward a happy ending. WOW.