Whitfield County native leads Texas A&M through pandemic as interim president

John Junkins

Whitfield County native John Junkins has forged an acclaimed career in science, engineering and academia, and he's currently interim president of Texas A&M University. 

John Junkins, a native of Whitfield County, has shepherded the country's "largest university" — Texas A&M — through the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating winter storm as interim president.

"I could not have chosen a more challenging time to serve as interim president of the largest university in the nation — 71,000 students — (as) the pandemic forced the university to quickly transform its entire educational and research programs to online, except for the extraordinary and highest priority functions, which had to be performed in person," said Junkins, a distinguished professor of aerospace engineering who holds the Royce E. Wisenbaker Chair in Innovation in the College of Engineering and stepped into the interim president role Jan. 1, 2021, replacing Michael K. Young.

"In about two weeks of a mad scramble (last spring), we were able to begin online teaching of essentially our entire curriculum — to say the leadership and the faculty were challenged is an understatement, (but) we drew upon the university's large Health Sciences program to establish protocols and safety measures that could be implemented immediately to protect the health of our faculty, staff and students — (and) remarkably, we have not suffered a single casualty from COVID-19."

"While we survived (the) spring of 2020, it would be fair to say that the quality of our educational programs suffered and many university functions were hardly recognizable, from sporting event cancellations to online virtual graduations," said Junkins, who will conclude his interim president duties June 1 and return to his former roles.

During the summer, "we took numerous steps" — (from) upgrading software and training, to instituting improved protocols for COVID-19 testing on a grand scale, to retrofitting classrooms for social distancing and with new air filtration systems — so that fall 2020 semester classes could be taught with a combination of face-to-face and remote modes that were very significant upgrades from last spring."

In the fall, more than two-thirds of the university's classes were offered with a face-to-face option, said Junkins, who taught at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech before moving to College Station in 1985 as the first endowed chairholder in the College of Engineering. "Improved protocols, along with aggressive vaccination schedules, are being implemented this spring, so that education delivery is further improved over fall 2020."

"Thankfully, projections that account for mass vaccinations indicate that we can be returned to almost-normal" next fall, he said. "The level of effort and cost of the pandemic for Texas A&M University has been enormous — (more than) $125 million — (which) has brought budgetary challenges, (as) in essence we evolved a significant pandemic response team that could not possibly have been imagined in January 2020."

The pandemic hasn't been the only hurdle for Junkins, as the university suffered along with the rest of the state during a historic cold snap in February.

"I was surprised when 120 of our 700 buildings on campus had plumbing leaks, some massive," he said. "In one case, a new seven-story building had all seven floors wet, (but) we organized a student team of more than 1,000 volunteers to inspect every floor of every building once per hour to locate — and image using their cellphones — leaks so that we could prioritize our effort to stop leaks as quickly as possible."

All buildings except a handful were back in operation within a week, he said.

"We lost one week of classes which we are making up (partially) by having only one day for spring break."

No doubt, his appointment as interim president "had some fine print 'other duties as assigned,'" including "emergency response leader," but, in hindsight, "it provided an opportunity to see the best of our faculty, staff and students pulling together to solve urgent problems," he said. "The pandemic has forced the faculty and staff to quickly learn and build upon skills which will no doubt be a part of educational delivery going forward, and the winter storm was an expensive lesson for our state — and indeed the nation — that we need some oversight of our energy grid to make certain that it is much more resilient to tolerate worse than expected weather extremes."

Humble beginnings

"The well educated of my two parents had a sixth-grade education, (but) both were bright and knew that education was the key to the futures of their children," Junkins said. His father, a World War II veteran, became a machinist, while his mother worked in the textile business, and though their "combined income would put us at poverty levels by today’s definitions, the general standard of living was lower around Dalton in those years, so, while below average with respect to wealth, we had plenty of company."

"Also, my parents had a 'whistle while you work' mentality (that assured) their five children grew up with a strong work ethic (and) did our part" on the family's five-acre farm, where "we raised a large garden and at least one pig each year, so fresh vegetables we grew along with curing meat and canning food for winter months were a part of our culture," Junkins recalled. "My mother had a sewing machine and made clothes for the family, as well as for additional income, and my older sister, Faye, was a second mom who helped hold the family together since both parents frequently worked long hours."

Junkins was a track and field and football standout at North Whitfield High School, both "very rewarding" endeavors, he said. "God never intended me to be a pole vaulter — (I) was built more like a linebacker — but I became obsessed with it and ultimately excelled enough to set our regional record and place in the state meet."

He also learned life-long lessons, he said.

"That sport taught me the virtue and power of setting both long-term and, especially, 'stepping stone' short-term goals, (as well as) being persistent."

As much as he loved sports, Junkins ultimately turned his focus toward academics, first at Berry College, then at Auburn University. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

His high school track coach, Crossland Cregg, "was brutally honest with me, when he said, 'John, whatever God’s plan for you is, it does not have a damn thing to do with your body, it has something to do with your mind, (so) go figure it out,'" Junkins said. That message was delivered during the spring of his senior year, 1961, and between that advice and President John F. Kennedy's "Apollo Quest" speech at Rice University — the president said "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard" — Junkins elected to pursue aerospace engineering.

"After my first quarter at Auburn, I began a co-op program alternating quarters at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, so in January 1963, at age 19, I shook the hand of Wernher von Braun" — who served as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V super heavy-lift launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon — and began working on the Apollo program, Junkins said. "In essence, I have been surfing on a wave of enthusiasm ever since."

His work in aeronautics has supported numerous spaceflight missions, including the final three Apollo missions (Apollo 15, 16 and 17), according to The Bryan-College Station Eagle. He's received the Robert H. Goddard Astronautics Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the highest honor in the field of astronautics.

Academic 'Godfather'

Junkins started his career in academia because of the example set by one of his UCLA professors, Peter Likins, who went on to serve as president of Lehigh University and the University of Arizona.

"He was such a great professor and showed it was possible to teach, do research, consult on space missions, and have a lot of fun while leading this busy life," Junkins said. "I was hooked."

In January 1970, at 26, Junkins, his wife, Elouise, and their first child, John Stephen, moved to Charlottesville as he joined the faculty at the University of Virginia. He was there for eight years before moving to Blacksburg, and eight years later departed Virginia Tech for Texas A&M.

The Hagler Institute for Advanced Study, which he founded a decade ago, is among his most cherished accomplishments.

It's "been extremely successful, attracting 80 national and international superstar researchers to Texas A&M to team with our faculty and students on some mutually interesting research projects," he said. "These research projects have attracted more than $50 million in external research sponsorship."

“Dr. Junkins is an accomplished researcher, outstanding teacher and an innovator whose Institute has transformed our faculty,” Chancellor John Sharp wrote in a statement when Junkins was elevated to interim president.

Junkins has about 160 doctoral descendants, with three generations of professors, from his decades of teaching, and that is "very rewarding," he said. Some even "refer to me as 'Godfather!'"

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