Texas A&M University expands emerging 'genius corps'

Feb 10, 2014

Nine internationally renowned researchers from various fields will be welcomed on Friday as fellows of the Texas A&M University Institute for Advanced Study, part of a group that administrators have nicknamed the Genius Corps.

The term is a nod to the university’s storied Corps of Cadets, a student military organization that has largely defined campus culture since its founding in 1876. But it is also an indication of Texas A&M’s desire to transform itself into a destination for top research talent, women and men who can elevate the university’s academic profile.

“We’re about changing the way excellence is pursued at this university,” said John L. Junkins, a professor of aerospace engineering and the institute’s founding director. “It is 100 percent about people. It’s about having a strategy to bring people here.” 

The pre-eminent model for such a program is the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., which recruited Albert Einstein in 1933 and — as Junkins hopes to do with his fellows — maintained an affiliation with him for the rest of his life.

The latest inductees — the institute’s second class of fellows — include a Nobel laureate, a National Medal of Science recipient and a winner of the 2014 Wolf Prize in Agriculture.

Like the six inaugural fellows in the last academic year, they have agreed to spend time in College Station working on projects tailored to their interests that were initially suggested by rising stars among the A&M faculty. The institute provides their salary, housing and funding for two doctoral students to support their work.

One new A&M fellow, Robert S. Levine, an English professor at the University of Maryland and a general editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, said the program was like having a second department at his disposal. He said he had been impressed during recent visits by the engagement of A&M students.

“I had never been to Texas A&M before,” he said, “and I am from the east, where there are probably some unfair stereotypes about Texas institutions.”

Combating such biases was among Junkins’ objectives when he first floated the idea of creating such an institute at A&M in 1999.

His initial proposal failed to work its way onto the priority list of the university’s administrators for more than a decade. In the meantime, he personally set about raising the $10 million he believed was necessary to run such a program for five years.

In 2010, the Texas A&M University System board approved the plan. In 2012, John Sharp, the system’s chancellor, announced that he was committing $5 million to the institute.

That was followed by the creation of the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, a $100 million program that provides financing for the recruitment of prestigious permanent faculty members — including former fellows of the institute — at Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University.

The institute’s current budget will last only through 2017, but Junkins hopes to raise enough money to establish an endowment. In a gesture of long-term support for the program, Junkins and four other faculty members have agreed to leave their estates to the institute.

“It is an initiative that has tremendous potential. The basic question is sustainability,” Christodoulos Floudas, a chemical engineering professor from Princeton and one of the latest inductees, said.

In addition to an endowment, he said, A&M’s institute in the long run needs a physical location on campus and some fellows in permanent residence.

As for whether they will continue to be called the Genius Corps, Junkins said: “It has a nice ring to it. This institution is bound by traditions, but it is too well kept a secret that we are also about excellence.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at