Bridging Divides: The Origins of the Beckman Institute at Illinois

Bridging Divides: The Origins of the Beckman Institute at Illinois

by Theodore L. Brown

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This book offers a first-hand account of the origins of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, an interdisciplinary research institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign devoted to leading-edge research in the physical sciences, computation, engineering, biology, behavior, cognition, and neuroscience. Theodore L. Brown, the Institute


This book offers a first-hand account of the origins of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, an interdisciplinary research institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign devoted to leading-edge research in the physical sciences, computation, engineering, biology, behavior, cognition, and neuroscience. Theodore L. Brown, the Institute's founding director, brings an insider's personal perspective on its conception and its early operations. _x000B_ _x000B_Brown follows the progress of the Institute's creation, from the initial conceptualization of a large, multidisciplinary institute; through proposal formulation; to the architectural design and actual construction of its state-of-the-art building, completed in 1989 and made possible by the largest gift made to any public university at the time: a $40 million contribution from Illinois alumnus and founder of Beckman Instruments, Inc., Arnold O. Beckman and his wife Mabel M. Beckman.

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The Origins of the Beckman Institute at Illinois
By Theodore L. Brown

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03484-8

Chapter One


Our story begins quite a long time back. Arnold Beckman was born in the small town of Cullom, Illinois, about seventy miles north of Urbana-Champaign. He grew up there and in Bloomington, Illinois, where he was a student at the laboratory high school associated with what was then Illinois Normal University. After military service as a marine in World War I, during which he met his future bride, Mabel Meinzer, Arnold attended the University of Illinois and received a BS degree in chemical engineering in 1921 and an MS degree in physical chemistry in 1922. He had a very successful career at Illinois as a student. After marrying Mabel and working two years at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, he went on to receive his PhD at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and become a member of the faculty there. In 1939 he left Caltech to found the company that eventually became Beckman Instruments, arguably the greatest scientific instrument manufacturer of the twentieth century.

Arnold Beckman was an inventor par excellence. His initial instrumental invention was a pH meter that was the first to incorporate detection and measurement functions into a simple, robust, and accurate device, one that also for the first time included the use of electronic amplification of signals. The Beckman DU spectrophotometer, another classic instrument, appeared in 1941; it revolutionized the measurement of light signals from samples and was of vital importance in war research during World War II.

Arnold Beckman became a very successful businessman and public servant. He was a leader in the affairs of Caltech; indeed, he served as chairperson of the board of trustees of that institution from 1964 to 1974. In addition, he and Mabel made many financial contributions to Caltech. He was also active in public affairs in the state of California. Although he had spent nearly all his time in California after graduating from the University of Illinois, Arnold never lost touch with his Illinois roots—particularly with Cullom, his birthplace, and the University of Illinois. He became a member of the University of Illinois Foundation in 1962 and was within a short time a member of the President's Council. In 1980 he was a member of the Illinois Cabinet, the national governing board of the Campaign for Illinois, the university's first major university-wide fund drive.

I first met Dr. and Mrs. Beckman in 1978, during the fall University of Illinois Foundation meeting. My spouse Audrey and I were invited to go to dinner with the Beckmans after the opening reception. I was at the time not an administrator, simply a chemistry faculty member appointed to the Campus Research Board, which operated under the leadership of the dean of the graduate school to make awards of funds and other forms of support for faculty research. As a mere faculty member, I was not aware that the Beckmans were being asked to make a leadership gift to get the Campaign for Illinois off the ground. They eventually made a gift of $2.5 million in Beckman stock and 2,000 acres of valuable farmland in the Cullom area, to be used to support the activities of the Campus Research Board. The Beckmans insisted on a match of $5 million from other sources, and so the total endowment from which funds could be drawn was worth $10 million. The income on that amount represented a big boost in the monies available for support of faculty research.

As it happened, I was appointed vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate College in the fall of 1980, just as the Beckman gift was announced. I was therefore in the enviable position of being able to take advantage of the new resources that the Beckman gift represented. We established Beckman Fellowships for junior faculty in the Center for Advanced Study. The fellowships provided release time for a semester for not-yet-tenured faculty to devote themselves more intensively to their research activities. For more senior faculty, a select number of research grants were labeled Beckman Research Awards. In addition, we established the annual Arnold O. Beckman Lecture on Science and Innovation, with Dr. Beckman as the first lecturer. That series has brought many outstanding figures to the campus.

Beckman Instruments merged with SmithKline, a pharmaceutical company, in 1982, creating SmithKline Beckman. Because Dr. Beckman was on the board of the merged company, he attended board meetings at company headquarters in Philadelphia. It was not inconvenient for him to stop off at Urbana-Champaign on many of his board-related trips. He particularly enjoyed meeting with faculty who were doing interesting research, and we made sure that he spent time in laboratories and offices of the Beckman Fellows and those receiving Beckman Research Awards. He also met on occasion with the professors in the Center for Advanced Study. His visits provided opportunities for him to become better acquainted with the university's president, Stanley Ikenberry, Vice President Mort Weir, John Cribbet (chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus at the time), and other campus administrators, including me.

One aspect of the Beckman Research Awards merits mention here for what it tells of Arnold Beckman's capacity for evaluating new ideas. When he and Mabel established the endowment for support of research board activities, they might have had in mind just scientifically oriented research, though they imposed no restrictions of that kind. But the research board was charged with support of faculty scholarship generally. From the beginning, the research board designated outstanding proposals from faculty in the social sciences and humanities for Beckman Research Awards. As an illustration, the Graduate College annual report for 1986 mentions Beckman Research Awards to several scientists, but also to Charles Capwell, an ethnomusicologist; James R. Barrett, a historian; Marianne Kalinke, a professor of Germanic languages and literature; and William Schoedel, a professor of classics. The fact that the Beckman name was associated with highly visible awards to faculty outside the sciences helped to establish goodwill among faculty as the Beckman Institute project came into being.

The Proposal Is Born

On a cold morning in early 1983 John Cribbet, Ned Goldwasser (vice chancellor for academic affairs, the chief academic officer under the chancellor), and I crossed Wright Street for a meeting in Mort Weir's office at the Henry Administration Building with Mort (vice president for academic affairs under President Ikenberry) and Lewis Barron, the executive director of the University of Illinois Foundation, the quasi-independent fundraising arm of the university. Lew wanted to talk about how the university might improve its strategy for attracting major gifts from wealthy alumni and friends. The problem, as Lew described it, was that public universities were expected to count on the state of Illinois for the resources to build major facilities or initiate major new programs. In contrast, private universities regularly appealed to their alumni and friends for major gifts; they were the private university's major source of such support. In fact, however, the University of Illinois could not aspire to be a first-class research institution if it were to depend solely on the state for support of new initiatives. While the federal government funded major facilities, there were significant constraints on the fields eligible for such support, and they were not available except at certain times.

Lew suggested that the university should develop a new strategy for attracting private support. What was needed, in his view, were ideas for sweeping, imaginative new projects that would move the campus to the forefront in promising research areas, and which were of such a scope and character that the state would almost certainly not provide funding for them. To interest a potential private donor we would need to come up with ideas that would fit this mold: facilities and programs that went beyond the normal frame of university organizational structure. No names of potential donors were mentioned at this meeting. Lew was insistent that this was a matter of giving the foundation materials it might employ as opportunities arose.

After the meeting in Mort's office, John, Ned, and I held discussions in our Troika meetings. The Troika label was used to identify our regular meetings to discuss issues that any one of the three of us might want to raise for general discussion and advice. Established by John, the Troika was a vehicle for open and freewheeling discussions of any and all matters of campus administration. Over periods of an hour or two the talk ranged over a gamut of issues: faculty affairs, campus policies of all sorts, relations among administrators, dealings with the president and his staff, budgetary matters, and so on. The arrangement was wonderfully cordial and collegial, and it contributed immensely to our collective effectiveness.

We decided that inasmuch as the initiative would be centered on research, it would be appropriate for me, as vice chancellor for research to, as John liked to say, "take the laboring oar," reporting frequently in Troika. Discussions of the proposed initiative were held with Dan Drucker and Bill Prokasy, deans of the colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences, respectively. The faculty of these two colleges would be most heavily involved as we proceeded.

Keeping in mind that our proposal should be ambitious, and of a scope spanning traditional departmental or even college boundaries, we came to think increasingly in terms of a facility that would support broadly based multidisciplinary activities. We decided that we could most effectively move forward by drawing on the expertise of a group of faculty, drawn largely from both the physical sciences and engineering and the life and behavioral sciences. I prepared a draft letter of charge and circulated it to John, Ned, Dan, Bill, and Ross Martin (associate dean of engineering). John, Ned, and I also met with a group of professors in the Center for Advanced Study to obtain their reactions. My notes indicate comments from David Pines (physics), Nelson Leonard (chemistry), John Bardeen (physics and electrical engineering), Nick Holonyak (physics and electrical engineering), Hans Frauenfelder (physics), Don Burkholder (mathematics), Ralph Wolfe (microbiology), Michio Suzuki (mathematics), and Gregorio Weber (biochemistry). Center professors mentioned several institutes and centers around the world as possible models, but none had the scope we envisioned for the new initiative. Many good ideas and questions on physical and administrative arrangements came forth; concerns were raised over whether a broadly based entity would be able to attract the interest and allegiance of faculty.

Armed with a good bit of advice, I came to the conclusion that we should appoint two committees, and John and Ned concurred. I then proceeded to polish up the letters that would go to them. The next task was to select the membership of the committees, and—most important—the chairpersons. As a result of my membership on the Campus Research Board for several years prior to my appointment as vice chancellor for research and dean of the Graduate College, and more than two years of experience in those administrative roles, I had acquired a broad acquaintance with faculty members in departments across the campus. After consulting with Deans Drucker and Prokasy, I had tentative lists of candidates for committee members. My next task was to convince two particular people that they should chair these committees.

Greg Stillman, a professor in electrical and computer engineering, was very highly regarded for his research accomplishments and was well liked. I made an appointment to see him in his office. I made my pitch that this would be an opportunity to start something really important, and at the least an opportunity to contribute to a greater sense of community and collegiality among the faculty. To my great pleasure, after mulling it over for a few days, Greg accepted the chairmanship. Next I approached Bill Greenough, from the Department of Psychology. Bill's work involved physiological studies of learning and memory, using rats and other laboratory animals in his work. Bill already had a reputation for advocating cross-disciplinary work. For example, he was jointly appointed in physiology and biophysics and headed a campuswide program in neuroscience. I recall that we met for lunch in the Illini Union Ballroom, the locale at that time of many informal faculty gatherings. Bill was understandably concerned about the drain on his time that such a commitment would represent, but he couldn't resist the allure of such a challenge. I had my two chairpersons, and with their help we refined the list of other faculty members who would be involved. I also assigned two staff personnel from the Graduate College to act as executive secretaries for the committees: Elaine Copeland for the Greenough Committee and Harvey Stapleton for the Stillman committee.

The letters appointing the two committees went out in early May 1983. Appendix 1 is a copy of the letter to the Greenough committee, followed by the first page of the closely similar letter that went to the Stillman committee. It is worth pointing out a few key elements of the letter. First, we asked the committee members to visualize a new physical facility, and at the same time, to define a new organizational form appropriate to it. The initiative was to draw upon existing strengths of the campus and be directed toward areas of study that had great potential for growth. At the same time, the emphasis in the letter is not upon disciplinary orientations, but rather on multidisciplinarity. The figure of "up to $20 million" was mentioned as a starting point for the committee in considering the size of the proposal.

In meetings with the committees at intervals over the next few months, I emphasized that the potential for interesting a donor in such an initiative lay in creating a compelling new idea, one that could greatly enhance the campus's research capabilities and open new opportunities. No mention was made at this stage of a particular individual to whom a proposal might be directed. The idea was to create something that could be used by university administration and the UI Foundation as opportunities developed. Of course, my remarks did not prevent widespread speculation over whom a proposal might be presented to.

Over the course of the summer, Greg Stillman became ill and was unable to continue his role as chairperson of the committee for physical sciences and engineering. After making inquiries about a replacement, I was referred to Karl Hess, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, with a joint appointment in physics. Karl had first come to the Urbana campus from Austria as a postdoctoral research associate with the illustrious John Bardeen and had quickly demonstrated extraordinary creativity in theoretical work. He was thus appointed to the faculty and quickly rose in the ranks to full professorship. Karl found the initiative intriguing and accepted the chair responsibility.

During the summer I met with both committees on a few occasions, mostly to clarify our intent in formulating the initiative and to encourage the faculty to keep at the difficult work. They were, after all, being asked to imagine some sort of interdisciplinary entity with only the vaguest of guidelines. A few faculty members dropped out after a while, figuring that the chances of the effort eventually coming to something were slim, and they had better ways to spend their time. That the committees kept at the work was due in large measure to the enthusiasm and leadership of Karl and Bill. They kept people involved and did the major share of the hard work of formulating the materials into proposals.


Excerpted from BRIDGING DIVIDES by Theodore L. Brown Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Theodore L. Brown is the founding director of the Beckman Institute and a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also served as dean of the Graduate College, vice chancellor for research, and interim vice chancellor for academic affairs. He is the author of Making Truth: Metaphor in Science and Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science and a coauthor of Chemistry: The Central Science.

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