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By Dave Jones on October 6, 2006 in University

Jeffrey Mount: Geology professor, holder of the Roy J. Shlemon Endowed Chair in Applied Geosciences, founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences

For the past few years, my son and I have taken time during the summer to read several books together and, in a family tradition, discuss, or more accurately, argue about them. One of this summer's books was Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point. As many of you know, Gladwell's book focuses on how ideas and social changes propagate like epidemics: starting small, reaching a threshold or tipping point and then spreading rapidly with significant cultural, political and economic impact. In reviewing Gladwell's analysis with my son, I was struck by how well the book inadvertently framed the way universities conduct the mission of service.

Universities, ours in particular, are the crucibles of social epidemics. Our success in changing the way people think and act stems from our unique culture and the combined talents of our students, staff and faculty. The emphasis here is on combined talents, rather than individual talent: something that gets lost in our tendency to focus on individual achievement as our sole metric for success. As Gladwell points out in his book, social epidemics are rarely generated by one individual. Rather, they are created when diverse individuals with specific skills address a common task.

There are three types of individuals necessary for the creation of social epidemics: Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen. All of us at this convocation fall into one or more of these categories. Our Mavens are our teachers and knowledge generators, conducting what most of us consider the fundamental role of a research university. Their scholarship forms the foundation for our service mission and the substance behind our social epidemics. The Connectors among us serve the critical function of linking together disparate people and ideas, creating the necessary, creative spark that ignites these epidemics. And, finally, there are the Salesmen, those of us who engage directly in one way or another with the making of public policy and the promotion of new ideas. As of late, I have played the role of Salesman, pushing the very ideas that my colleagues, the Mavens and Connectors of this campus, have been developing in flood control and water resource management over the course of many years.

However, there is one necessary ingredient that Gladwell did not dwell on in his book: risk. The translation of ideas into social change frequently involves risk: the risk of being misunderstood, the risk of having one's ideas misappropriated, or the risk of being penalized for unpopular or controversial positions. Indeed, I was fired by the governor one year ago to the day from my position on the state Reclamation Board, presumably for my outspoken opposition to floodplain urbanization (fortunately, I still have this wonderful day job). But our culture of academic freedom and independence allows us to experiment and take the risks necessary for the creation of social epidemics. It is this seamless integration of risk-taking Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen that makes universities in general, and ours in particular, so effective at our public service mission.

Presented here are the speaker's prepared remarks.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,