By Roger Blais, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Aging brings accelerating indignities. The once fashionable well-tailored mantle of youth becomes a tattered coat upon a stick. Remembering to pick up dry cleaning is problematic, but stories decades old ferment in my mind, always ready to make the eyes of younger friends and family roll in polite silence as I contemplate relishing one more retelling of an event they have already heard described too often.
Perhaps the long arc of a career resembles struggling along the Santa Fe Trail. Pioneers counted a day well spent if they covered a dozen exhausting miles. Fixated on the boot heels of the trekker ahead of them, they seldom had time or energy to look up in wonder at the unfolding landscape around them. The relative ease of crossing the prairie west of Independence yielded to the arid rigors of the Panhandle of an Oklahoma not yet organized, then the struggles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. After months passed and only days separated them from the rest and comfort of destination Santa Fe, they must have looked back on their journey with relief and amazement that they had endured so long and seen so much. So it seems as I near retirement after a 41-year journey spent at The University of Tulsa.
I arrived at TU in the fall of 1977 about to turn 33, hoping that I would earn tenure in physics at TU, and that my wife Mary and I would be blessed with children. Over the decades we took pride in watching a son become a career naval officer and a daughter become a grants administrator with a philanthropic foundation. I worked with colleagues Zelimir Schmidt and Dale Doty in petroleum engineering and mathematics to start a research consortium supported by industry that is now in its 35th year — Tulsa University Artificial Lift Projects. The directorship of TUALP has passed to new hands, but it continues investigating questions that improve the efficiency of energy production and that train a new generation of graduate-level innovators in petroleum engineering. I had the opportunity to watch the progress and development of this remarkable university from a commuter school meeting the needs of a growing city that had no public higher education into a top 100 national university; indeed, a top 50 private university.
Beginning next fall, many of the freshmen will have lived only in the 21st century. Images of TU as I first encountered it will seem as remote to them as a flickering, black and white, silent film image of World War I is to me. Three of the 14 current TU faculty who have taught at TU as long as I have will retire this year as that image fades from relevance.
There have been obvious physical changes in the campus. Today our presence along Harvard and 11th Street is bold, while in 1977 it was hidden behind little houses, a tiny Dodge dealership, an Arby’s, a bar and pool hall, a dry cleaner, an exterminator and a head shop painted almost in TU colors. Engineering students rode the Blue Goose school bus to the North Campus on Lewis, rather than the shuttles now carrying health science students to the Oxley Campus on Boulder. We had no arena for varsity basketball on campus. We had a men’s baseball team, but they practiced off campus. Title IX was 5 years old, and athletic scholarships for women were only beginning to support their already proud tradition as student-athletes. Nancy Lopez, a sophomore in 1977, was about to join the LPGA and underscore that women were no longer to be ignored in college sports.
But what really makes me proud of my years at TU are the achievements of the members of the TU family — students, faculty and staff. The daily effort of so many in roles prominent or unseen has been like the pioneers on the Santa Fe Trail, trudging along until the new landscape and elevation becomes unmistakably different — beautiful and filled with opportunity. Faculty in the arts, humanities, business, engineering, law, and the social, natural and health sciences have made extraordinary contributions to their disciplines and established the tradition of innovation and social justice that today we are publicly celebrating as our brand. Innovation and social justice can be claimed as a lodestar for our future with confidence, because they have guided our path since our roots as a mission school for Native American girls in Muskogee. We talk about our stellar graduates who win nationally competitive scholarships at rates that are extraordinary for a university of our size, but each commencement ceremony also contributes hundreds of graduates who carry commitment to innovation and social justice into their professions and their communities around the world. It is in TU’s DNA.
Looking back on the portion of the TU journey I have witnessed, I am struck by how fully this admirable institution embraces the core values of its mission: excellence in scholarship, dedication to free inquiry, integrity of character and commitment to humanity.