Located 66 miles northeast of Dallas, Commerce, TX has been home to the institution now called Texas A&M University-Commerce since an 1894 fire forced its relocation from Cooper, TX. A&M-Commerce occupies a unique space straddling a line between an urban and a rural identity.
In this episode of The President's Perspective, university CEO Dr. Mark Rudin talks about how the institution can leverage its location to align with initiatives that serve growth and success on both the urban development front and the rural service front.
A transcript follows:
Jerrod Knight: This is The President's Perspective, a podcast with the purpose of sharing what's important and what matters to the president and CEO of Texas A&M University-Commerce, Dr. Mark Rudin. I'm Jerrod Knight. We're starting this series dedicated to the 2019-2024 Strategic Plan adopted by A&M-Commerce. It spells out the vision and mission of the institution as well as its four foundational principles, which we'll talk about in depth in another episode. The plan itself is available online at tamuc.edu/strategicplan, and we'll link to it everywhere this podcast is available. Included in the plan are five strategic priorities and goals, which are student preparedness, elevate research, create an inclusive community, align our initiatives and transform our operations. Today though, we're looking specifically at the strategy around aligning our initiatives. Dr. Rudin, it's a pleasure as always.
Mark Rudin: Jerrod, great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
JK: So right now, we're chatting in a relatively modern modular recording studio using state of the art equipment on a relatively well appointed State University campus. But to get here, I had to drive past pastures with cows and horses and a lot of, you know, open space, open land. A&M-Commerce kind of occupies this weird, unique space here in northeast Texas, doesn't it?
MR: It sure does. You know, we're really at this intersection between the urban and rural communities in northeast Texas. And I think as a university, as indicated in this strategic plan, we need to embrace that. We need to simultaneously serve both the urban and rural communities in this part of the state.
JK: So you talk about this hub, it was, too... Commerce, Cow Hill, originally, I think, was a hub. It was sort of this, this hub of industry here in northeast Texas. And it was intersectional between larger cities, you know, to the west, as you know. And then these rural communities had to have these places to gather where the railroad came through in order to do their business. It made great sense to put a University here in the first place. And here it exists today, we're still taking advantage of this sort of unique real estate.
MR: Yeah, you know, for a while when I first came here (so I've been here about a year and a half) when I first came here, and I drove out here, I was like, "Boy, this a little bit farther away from the Metroplex than I thought it was." But you know, given our profile and who we are, as a university I think it presents a lot of opportunities for us and the university forward and again, straddle this urban rural setting, I'm really excited about it.
JK: Talk about the challenge in explaining the attractiveness of this place, to the academic talent that we are recruiting and bringing to A&M-Commerce in order to teach and to do research.
MR: Yeah, you know, I would say, you know, as I sit here talking to you, I realize and I guess I've realized this all along, we tend to create and, I guess, in the plan we tend to create a clean demarkation: Urban, Rural. Well, you know what? The world's rapidly changing. I think we can sit right here and say, you know, agro agribusiness, agricultural, agricultural production, at the end of the day, and people will agree: ag is a high tech business. Right? And so you have high tech expertise at the university, computer science, data analytics, those type of things to tell us about trends and numbers. We have companies in Dallas and the Fort Worth area that are high tech in that regard. But again, Jerrod, operating his farm, is pouring through a lot of data... now has to consider things like a high tech tractor or a combine that is able to be run by a computer and understand how that works. And so, you know, the lines are blurred. I think sometimes we put on our rural hat; sometimes we put on our urban hat. But, boy, those two worlds are blurred. And anything the university can do... any way that we can leverage the assets - and what I mean, "the assets," I'm talking about talent, the talent of our faculty and staff; I'm talking about facilities at our university. We have capabilities and facilities that companies and our friends in a rural area don't have. My goal, my desire, is to open the university up for business. How do we leverage the assets of the university for the social, cultural, economic benefit of the region in which we serve? A company... if we have mass spec equipment, for example, (and we won't get into what that does,) but when we have high tech equipment, and a company wants to relocate in this area, they have to make a decision. "Do I want to pay $150,000, $200,000 for this piece of equipment, or can I go to the university and say I need help?" And conversely, the university should be reaching out and saying, "How do we help? How do we help you? How do we not only provide you those services, but how do we, for example, train our students and have them interact with you and solve real life problems with pieces of equipment that may benefit industry?"
JK: And it shouldn't be seen as a surprise that a University, a State University in rural northeast Texas is capable of providing the top-of-the-line training and skill sets that the next generation of agribusiness professionals, for instance, would need.
MR: Yes, absolutely.
JK: There's no reason to go to, in my humble opinion, there's no reason to plan your life around paying back these exorbitant sums for an education at the largest name school when the fact is we are right here in sort of the heart of agribusiness.
MR: Absolutely, absolutely. And, I would venture to say, I mean, we're not out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, we have high tech companies right here in this area. With L3-Harris and Innovation First, right down the road, right? And a lot of interaction with those groups. And we're working more and more, especially in our science and engineering college, to... traditionally we have had... we put together "capstone" experiences for our students where they work in teams to solve problems. Well, now we are actively seeking and reaching out to these companies; ag companies, too. How can this team get together and help you solve a problem? It doesn't have to be the world beating problem, right? But it could be something that makes their life easier, their products better, their processes better, whatever that may be. And I think things like that are an important contribution to this area.
JK: Right. But there's some universal tenets that apply, I think, too, to the history of this institution, and the fact that it has forever been known as a high producer of teachers. Education is a universal concept. Nobody with a teacher degree couldn't teach either in an urban setting or a rural setting, if they are, you know, this dichotomy... if it's not all suburbia by now, you know, but someone with a teaching degree could sort of have the pick of the litter as it were, as far as, you know, the sort of surroundings they want to live in.
MR: Absolutely, absolutely. And you know, I think I jumped right off the bat about high tech, right? I don't necessarily want to do that. If I backtrack for a second, when I say the university's open for business, and how do we interact with our rural and urban friends, you know, the example I previously used was research. We can help them conduct research and do things that benefit and help them along, we can provide services. But at the end of the day, Jerrod, and I think I've mentioned this to you before, is: our greatest asset are our graduates. That talent that's coming out of the university, whether that's high tech, or as you mentioned, education - preparing the next teachers that are preparing the next generation of folks that live in urban and rural areas, talent is king. Right? And if [A&M]-Commerce is going to grow, and we, our game plan is again to interact with with the community, we would love to attract companies to come to Commerce and come to Hunt County and so forth. You know, we are right now actively, we will be actively, pursuing [an] ask of our legislature to create and build [an] Agricultural Research and Education facility, just south of campus. It'll be state of the art, it will allow us to hold events and conduct research, but primarily hold events here that we would have to go elsewhere because we simply don't have the facilities to do that. And and, of course, everyone's saying, "Hey, this is going to be great. It's going to help us kickstart enrollment. We're going to be able to capture kids." A little secret, Jerrod, is that I'm interested in building that facility because of that, but going back to this theme of, "Talent is king," I think building a state of the art facility like that - producing talent that is able to leverage and learn in that state of the art facility - I'm hoping and we, I guarantee you, we will be working to start discussions with companies saying, "How about creating an outpost to your company in Commerce." Right? What about interacting with not only the university, in terms of all this research and service and so forth, but be right there and get your pick of talent coming out of the university and build your brand, build your company here in Commerce. Really interested in that.
JK: That seems like the natural progression... and you see it replicated across institutions of higher education, you know, across the nation. Once they start something like this, once they build a facility and they start churning out the research relevant to an industry, that industry grows around that hub of bleeding edge knowledge in the industry, right?
MR: Absolutely, absolutely. And again, we will be interested in trying to attract companies in agribusiness. But again, ag is high tech. So now you start bringing in engineering, industrial engineering, computer science and those type of high tech areas of potential growth areas and attracting companies in those areas, also.
JK: Some of the verbiage in the strategy include, "Leverage the assets of the institution for the economic, cultural health and social benefit of the region." We've talked about the obviously educational aspect and how that can help with the economic impact. But when we talk about leveraging for the sake of cultural health and social benefit of the region, explore some of that. What are we talking about?
MR: You know, and I'll give you one example: We have tremendous expertise at this university in mental health, whether it's our counseling center, our counseling department, social work and so forth. We actually proposed a Mental Health Center that would serve the needs of Northeast Texas, both at the university and in the community. Unfortunately, it didn't get funded. That's not stopping us. We continue to pursue and look at opportunities. I sound like a broken record here. But to leverage our expertise at the University for the benefit of our region. We just built a brand new... and completed... and we moved into... not yet completed but close to be completed... a Nursing and Health Sciences building that is producing young professionals that are going to go out and serve the healthcare needs of this region. And I'd also like to bring back up education. You know, the last bullet there says, "Cultivate and strengthen partnerships that serve regional needs," and I've done a lot of traveling around to independent school districts in this region, both in urban and rural areas and, you know, they're all saying the same thing. "We are trying to stave off a shortage of teachers." So we are partnering with these institutions, the ISDs, to figure out tracks where we can attract young people that may be interested in the education profession being teachers, and get them into a pathway through either their high school or community college or straight to A&M-Commerce and get them prepared. And then kind of a 'grow your own' type of thing where they sign on and come back, and then maybe they'll teach a Seagoville, maybe they'll teach at Terrel, when they graduate from A&M-Commerce. And we know that it gives the school districts time to groom those individuals. So these partnerships, again, I felt like I focused a little bit too much in high tech can be in the healthcare, the cultural, the education realms, and really, again, serve the needs of our community.
JK: I had, too, a thought with regard to what we might call the cultural benefit of the region is: institutions like this one, in the course of teaching students, will oftentimes find some of the grandest examples of the industries that these students might go into. And that includes - I was an arts major. And even when it comes to the arts, when it comes to music, we have phenomenal performances that take place here that exemplify not only the talent of our students and our faculty, but also others in the field who are coming here in order to exemplify what some of these students are striving to be able to do and make careers out of one day. I had a conversation, as a quick anecdote, had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a principal now at a rural school not too far from here. And for a while before some things fell through, we were working on an opportunity to maybe bring some live music programming like a performance to the high school where the district could come, the students could come - it'd be during the regular school day - and expose them to some kind of music that they otherwise wouldn't usually have coming through this small town. And I said, you know, "I don't know how much interest," (it was going to be jazz) and I said, "I don't know how much interest K through 12 students are going to have in a live jazz program." And she said, "Jerrod, these students, many of them are not going to go to a concert." Like the economic state of rural northeast Texas, is that a lot of students, a lot of families are just not going to be exposed to live music and concerts, you know, the way that they would be if if we could pull this off. She said, "Definitely, let's do this, if we can do it." And the idea that right here on our campus, less than, you know, 20, 30, 40 miles from so many small rural communities where folks could come and they could see some world class musical performances... They could come and see some incredibly high value art shows there at the University gallery, or they can come and see some award winning University plays. They can come and they can just experience culture that they don't have to go to Dallas, they don't have to plan that far in advance, the prices are affordable. We've got this planetarium that's showing, you know, all kinds of shows exposing young people to constellations and stars and how the earth was formed and all of this. And you don't have to plan a special trip months out, you don't have to get a bus, you just pack the family up and come to Commerce. And come check out these programs, these opportunities to experience these culturally significant things. It's right here in northeast Texas.
MR: You know, it's funny, you say that. I just had a conversation with someone, and we were semi joking about this. You know, it was just right after our wonderful Christmas show that we put out at our university that is tremendously popular. You know, we were talking about how we have a world class production, I feel like. I'm talking to a lot of people that feel the same way. A world class production that, when it's over you hop in your car, your home in five minutes. Right? I mean, how tremendous is that?
JK: You could walk home!
MR: Exactly, exactly. But you know, you bring up some great points there. And you know, much in the same way we use the words, "educational hub." We are a cultural hub of Northeast Texas. For all the reasons you mentioned: our wonderful music productions, our theater, our art galleries, and the wonderful faculty and students we have in those areas. You know, every year it does my heart good to see that each of those groups; music, band, art, theater, also hold these summer camps where kids, hundreds of kids come to campus and get to absorb that and not only enjoy it, and not only embrace it, but sit back and say, "Man, I can see how this could be a career for me. I can see how this could happen for me." And it's just exciting to see that and I'm so proud of our university and especially in the in the fine arts area that really stepped up and really reached out to the community. And said, "You know what, Jerrod, this could be for you." Right? And, and the response has been tremendous.
JK: You talk about, "Talent is king. Talent is the currency." And we have this opportunity here to literally print the currency that industry needs by finding and latching on to that passion of these young people. And they come here.
MR: And you know, and sometimes our connection with the community is not direct. Maybe sometimes it's indirect. Because I'll tell you, when I get a chance to talk to great students in the arts and music, and so forth, every time I say, "Hey, what do you want to do with your career?" I mean, they love to perform. I feel like, and I don't want to put words in their mouth, but you can just tell they love to perform, whether it's on stage, in a theater production, or in a concert, whatever that is. They love that. That's what they live for. But at the end of the day, I say, "Hey, what do you want to do with your career?" And they say, "You know what, I'm going to be an art educator or a music educator, or a theater educator," and they're giving back to the community that way training new minds to really explore who they are as a person and maybe consider the arts and the humanities as part of their career choice. And also, you know, I don't want to sound corny but, [it's] a circle of life type of thing.
JK: It's that circle, and finding a way to keep it going... you could define that as an alignment, right? And this is one more way that initiatives are being aligned at A&M-Commerce.
JK: The Presidents Perspective is produced by 88.9 KETR from the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce. Episodes are online at KETR.org. While you're there, you might consider making a contribution to support public radio here in northeast Texas. You can click the donate button at the top of the page. Dr. Rudin, thank you so much.
MR: Jerrod, thanks for having me.
JK: I'm Jerrod Knight. Thanks for listening.