I think one function of university faculties is to be a living storehouse of knowledge. Think of it this way. Suppose every mathematician in the world and everyone who knew any math were killed. All that was left of mathematics were math books. How long would it take to recover mathematics? You have to start from scratch and learn the notation and rediscover many very subtle concepts. I believe that mathematics is really embedded in the minds of living human beings, and the books are like sheet music to guide the mind. That’s true for many subjects. The primary role of an academic is to be a guardian of knowledge and transmit it to the next generation. The reason we write papers and do research is to prove that we are performing that function. The advancement of knowledge is a by-product. The corollary to this is you never know what research going to be important. Work that most people at the time thought was going to be completely useless has turned out to be very important. Subjects that were considered central to the graduate curriculum in economics in 1970 are no longer taught. Graduate students today would not recognize most of the big names in many fields of that era. There’s no one with the wisdom to make the judgment about what work will be important. So you just basically have to let people alone, let them work on problems that interest them. This does not mean that I don’t have strong opinions about much of the scholarship being produced. In my old age, however, I have become more careful in voicing those opinions.
The other important role of faculty is to spot talent. Most students at Rice are very good, but every so often you meet one with real talent. They are not necessary the strongest students on paper, but they are the ones that ask questions you did not expect and demonstrate deep knowledge of their subject. You know these students may make a difference, and one of the more pleasant aspects of being a faculty member is to mentor them.