Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Strib Editorial - University of Minnesota was Key in Borlaug's Story

Student aid, second chance gave the world a great scientist.

Norman Borlaug was born in Iowa, died in Texas, and was known the world over for increasing wheat yields in Mexico, India and China. But he spent his career-forming young adult years at the University of Minnesota, and carried the imprint of lessons and values learned there into a lifetime of life-saving service to humanity

The Nobel Prize-winning wheat scientist's death Saturday at age 95 is felt personally by many at his alma mater, where Borlaug was expected to be a homecoming grand marshal next month. But tributes paid Borlaug upon his passing should also stir pride in the role the University of Minnesota played in his work, and attention to the institution's capacity to spawn the next generation of world-changing scientists.

Borlaug was a good high school student and talented wrestler from Cresco, Iowa, in 1933, when he followed an older Cresco football star's lead and headed for the University of Minnesota. But Iowa's math and science high school standards weren't up to Minnesota's in those years. Iowans were required to take an entrance exam before enrolling. Borlaug failed.

But that year, for the first time, the university offered another option: General College. That second-chance program for underprepared students was Borlaug's gateway. Within a year, his good grades and work ethic won him admission to the College of Agriculture.

His studies were threatened again less than two years later by financial problems. This time, it was the federal government -- and in particular, Eleanor Roosevelt -- who came to the rescue. The First Lady was behind the first federal foray into student financial aid, the National Youth Administration (NYA), born in 1935 just in time to finance Borlaug's education. It assigned needy students to work for top professors in a variety of capacities. Borlaug's assignments exposed him to scientific enterprises about which he previously knew little.

"NYA is what saved me," Borlaug told biographer Leon Hesser, author of the 2006 book "The Man Who Fed the World." One of the professors Borlaug worked for was plant pathologist E.C. Stakman. Stakman "set me on a path of science" and arranged for the newly minted Ph.D. to move to Mexico and take up his life's work, the development of high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat.

Recent developments at the U of M are disturbing. Would a Norman Borlaug even get into the U nowadays? Priorities seem to have changed - and not for the better.

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