Oil money lures academics, but can it buy excellence?

Asked five years ago where he'd be today, it's doubtful that Bill Stout would have listed College Station, Texas, as a hot spot for relocation. Nor is it likely that he was even thinking of leaving his 27-year tenure at Michigan State University, where he had built a world-class reputation as an agricultural engineer.

But the lure of this Sunbelt outpost, where the tallest structure is a football stadium and the most popular restaurant offers only butcher knives to eat with, was sufficient to uproot Dr. Stout and bring him packing south to Texas A & M University.

It wasn't the climate or even a better salary that prompted the move, says Dr. Stout, who approached the university for a job even before its aggressive faculty-recruitment program had come up with his name. It was Texas A & M's reputation and the promise of it's industrial connections that attracted him.

Texas' academic reputation, as Dr. Stout saw it, ''had always been sort of inward or regionally oriented. . . . I didn't note too much coming out of Texas A & M 10 or 15 years ago that was of much interest in my own work.'' But Dr. Stout, who specializes in biomass fuels, notes: ''I came here because it's a better academic climate. The word is out in our business that A & M is the place to be.''

Dr. Stout's situation is an indication that gears are in motion to build the state's higher education system into a sort of global Silicon Valley.

The formula Texans are bankrolling stems from the successes of places like Boston's Route 128, California's Silicon Valley, and North Carolina's Research Triangle - all profitable research and development areas centered in university communities.

Texans, whose vision of the future is colored by the region's endemic bravado and phenomenal prosperity, not only want to emulate the Silicon Valleys of the world, but do them one better.

Diversity is the watchword. Texans are delving into the lucrative computer industry, as well as aiming to build strong links to academia in industries such as agriculture, defense, energy, medicine, and oceanography.

While the business community prepares to build research parks to plug into the new academic power centers, university and state officials reel off statistics of the state's growing academic reputation:

* The University of Texas system alone has a $1.6 billion endowment, fed by oil revenues from a state land grant. The endowment, which is shared with Texas A & M, rivals that of Harvard University's kitty.

This money translates, of course, into buying power. The two schools have lured away scientists from the best schools in the country with better salaries and promises of bigger budgets. (Texas A & M officials say faculty salaries run about 10 percent to 15 percent above the national average.)

Texas A & M administrators have actually picked out schools in ''depressed areas such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania'' for recruiting new faculty. One state education official said the whole faculty of the nautical archaeology department of another university had been moved lock, stock, and barrel to Texas A & M.

* State government figures show a growing outside interest in Texas schools. More than 57 percent of the growth in college enrollment occurring here since 1976 comes from out-of-state and foreign students.

* Growth in technical studies at Texas colleges is indicated by the state approval of 75 engineering-degree programs since 1975.

* Texas attracts more students than any other state in several technical degree programs. Texas A & M alone boasts the largest enrollments nationwide in its agriculture, architecture, environmental design, and veterinary medicine programs. Its engineering school, with 11,500 students, is also the largest in the country, accounting for a third of the university's enrollment.

* While quantity is not necessarily quality, Texas A & M administrators note that the school ranks in the top 12 universities in the number of national merit scholars it attracts.

While the influx of growth and wealth has moved academic mountains, the recognition of a need for the industrial tie is fairly new. This does not make any less intense the business community's interest in tapping Texas academic resources, as indicated by the recent Texas 2000 Commission report.

The commission identified research and development activity as the key to the future of the Texas economy. But at the same time, it noted, the state's lack of tradition in this area shows up strikingly in research-expenditure figures: The average US per capita expenditure for R&D is $216; in Texas the figure is $126 per capita.

''If Texas is to maintain a competitive position in the nation and sustain its own economy,'' the commission's report concluded, ''it must expand R&D efforts and focus them on areas most important to the state. Development of strong R&D partnerships among Texas government, universities, foundations, and the private sector will foster this expansion. . . .''

The report goes on to identify universities as the focal point for building a successful R&D base. And research park proposals have cropped up on drawing boards across the state as developers, local government officials, educators, and businessmen begin to recognize the mutual benefits of research and development. (For example: At the research stage, a university likes to get the funding offered by industry for research. In turn, industry can use the talents and know-how based at the schools. At the development level, industry expands local economies.)

''It's hard to keep faculty from leaving for (higher-paying) jobs in industry , and with industry here, we can retain faculty,'' explains Frank Vandiver, president of Texas A & M, where annual R&D expenditures have tripled, to $90 million in the last 10 years, placing the Texas school among the nation's top 20 universities in R&D funding. The university is working with local officials to develop the park, and the first stage of planning already has the city trying to upgrade local airport facilities and services to accomodate the large influx of population expected to accompany the planned industrial park.

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