Luis Proenza preaches talent. The former president of the University of Akron argues: Attract the best, and the rest will come, among other things, grant money, research assistants, ideas and innovations, the products and engines of local economic activity.

At the university, there’s no better example of such thinking than Matt Becker, the W. Gerald Austen Professor of Polymer Science & Polymer Engineering. He has three start-up companies. He recently received $2 million from the state Third Frontier Commission to advance his development of a degradable polymer film, implanted in the body after surgery for pain relief, providing an alternative to opioids.

Becker arrived at the university nine years ago. He was drawn by the international reputation of the College of Polymer Science & Polymer Engineering, built over many decades, the college, as he put it in a recent conversation, “moving in a direction where we were going to matter to the state and the nation.”

He then added, in much frustration, “That’s all gone.”

Gone?

Practically everyone knows the UA story of the past four years, the turmoil of the Scott Scarborough era, the sharp drop in enrollment, the need to attract students and find savings to make financial ends meet, Matt Wilson, the new president, at the front, wearing a happy face.

What Becker finds “maddening” in all of this is the absence of strategic thinking. He sees Wilson (“ … nice guy. He doesn’t have a strategic bone in his body”) and others failing to make the hard and necessary decisions to preserve and enhance the strengths crucial to the future of the university and the community. The result is, programs, weaker, stronger and in-between, are starved, most notably as positions go unfilled.

The university has its programs with a national profile, for example, the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology, men’s soccer and the poetry of the University of Akron Press. None matches the polymer college. Without it, the university, the city and the region would be diminished in a big way.

No board of trustees or president would want to be the answer to the question: Who lost polymers?

Yet that is what worries Becker. He counts the lost positions in the college, the faculty down from 42 to 30, with support staff reduced by 10. He cites seven or eight faculty members now near retirement, another handful looking elsewhere or likely to be approached by other schools.

“So that’s when I say in two years, there may not be a polymer college,” Becker warns. “Because if we drop down to 15 or 16 people, which if I were a betting man, I’d take that bet, that’s not a college anymore. That’s a department. They’ll shut us down and throw us in the college of engineering, and that will be it for polymers at the University of Akron.”

What does Becker want?

“I would like the university to say that research matters because if it doesn’t matter, I am not going to be here much longer.”

It catches some eyes when the university’s job posting for a chief academic officer pays seemingly little heed to the research element. Yet in Eric Amis, the dean of the polymer college, the school has someone well equipped to plan and lead, even with limited resources. The idea isn’t to restore the faculty and staff to previous levels. Rather, commit to the talent required to make the contribution that brought Amis (in 2014), Becker and others to the college.

How embarrassing it would be to lose Becker and Amis. How surprising it is the case must be made for the importance of the polymer college.

As Becker reminds, 22 percent of Ohio’s economy goes to the polymer and rubber industries. He points to 2,000 local polymer companies. He notes the university is the largest generator of talent for the sector statewide, producing as many graduates as the rest of the country combined. Thus companies have a huge stake. And so do the rest of us.

Remember the Battelle analysis four years ago, identifying a promising niche in biomaterials, the polymer college as the centerpiece? What a shame to see it neglected by city leaders. What could be far worse? Allow the polymer college to contract.

If the frustrations and fury of Matt Becker are not persuasive enough, consider the thinking of John Austin of the Brookings Institution. In a December post, he explained how the Great Lakes cities doing better shaking off the rust are those with strong research and teaching universities.

Those schools face a range of financial challenges. What Austin stresses is the return on the investment in talent, or making choices to support the strong, distinctive and promising. In Akron, that means being strategic about polymers.

Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or emailed at mdouglas@thebeaconjournal.com.