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NMSU President Couture feels at home in many worlds, from art to science fiction

A university is a place where great traditions of classical music, dramatic opera and the full range of arts are right at home. But it's also a place of exploration, where an atmosphere of discovery, high-tech innovation and cutting-edge research is nurtured.

NMSU President Barbara Couture and her husband, Paul, competed in the 1991 Ohio Star Ball, an annual ballroom dancing championship now in its 34th year. (Photo submitted.)

So for Barbara Couture, president of New Mexico State University, a university setting is pretty much the best place to be.

In the 20 months since her arrival at NMSU in January 2010, Couture has been almost all business, devoting great amounts of time and energy to the university and the changes she has introduced. But she is still able to squeeze in the occasional hour or two, here and there, to keep her non-work passions alive.

She and her husband, Paul, participated in a ballroom dance class last spring. She was recently able to squeeze in a trip to the Santa Fe Opera, where the Coutures saw Puccini's "La Boheme" and Menotti's "The Last Savage." And her classical piano playing is a lifelong pursuit. A small concert grand piano at the president's residence gets regular attention from Couture the pianist, who continues to refine her skills with piano lessons. She recently had an opportunity to learn from master pianist Laura Spitzer, an associate professor of music at NMSU.

So, why the love of music?

"It requires all the senses," Couture says. "It is very tactile. It's aural; you're listening. It's mental, the interpretation, especially classical music. To get into a piece of music, you have to be able to hum it, hear it, see it. It's a total sensory experience. It's very satisfying. It's a very human experience."

Couture's musical experience began very early, when she started playing her mother's Baldwin Spinet piano at the age of 7. Later, as her mastery of the instrument advanced, she would practice for six months to a year to prepare for some of the most challenging concertos. She played at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She branched out to other instruments, such as the flute, but the piano remained her focus through high school. And, while she majored in English language and literature in college and pursued a career as an educator, she continued to pursue her musical interests.

Earlier in their marriage, she and Paul got involved in comedic operas and musical theater, usually performing as members of the chorus of "peasants," although Paul occasionally took quasi-leads and she filled in as the rehearsal accompanist on the piano.
"As the rehearsal accompanist, you have to do the whole thing," she said. "It was a lot of work!"
She and Paul also participated in the 1991 Ohio Star Ball, an annual ballroom dancing championship now in its 34th year.

"Dancers are allowed to compete at every age and skill level," she said. "You always compete with others at your level. Everyone came back with a trophy!"

They specialized in the Tango and the Foxtrot.

"We were rank amateurs," she said, "but it was great fun."

She pointed out that dancing is the only contest that allows for audience participation.

"You compete and then the audience gets up to dance! It's the only sport that allows it," she said.

The enjoyment that music brings is very important to Couture.

"If you want to make yourself happy, start singing!" she said.

Couture's connection to music is important in her professional life, as well, and the beginning of the construction of the new Center for the Arts project at NMSU was a happy coincidence soon after her arrival here last year.

"I am absolutely thrilled that we are building a fine and performing arts center here. The design is beautiful. It's a great light to the community, welcoming them in to learn more about the student and faculty productions here at New Mexico State University," Couture said. "We have the wonderful Las Cruces Symphony that we have an attachment to, our great theatre program and the wonderful music performances that I know this community has come to expect from our faculty and students."

A university involves much in addition to the arts, of course, and Couture can hold her own in a technical world, as a former longtime faculty member in technical writing and award-winning author of six textbooks. Her books include "Toward a Phenomenological Rhetoric: Writing, Profession and Altruism," which was selected for an Outstanding Book Award at the 2000 Conference on College Composition and Communication. Couture also is a member of the editorial boards of two academic journals.

At NMSU, she has launched a series of Research Rallies, which bring the attention of the campus and neighboring community to the university's most significant research efforts. Another rally is scheduled on Friday, Sept. 2, that will focus on NMSU's role in a National Science Foundation-funded project to establish an Engineering Research Center, with the goal of reinventing America's aging and inadequate water infrastructure. NMSU will join a multi-university team that includes Stanford University, Colorado School of Mines and the University of California, Berkeley. NSF will invest $18.5 million in the center over five years, with additional funds to follow based on in-progress reviews.

NMSU civil engineering professor Nirmala Khandan is co-investigator on the project and leader of the center's work here. He and others will outline the project at the rally, which starts at 9 a.m.

"We plan to make Research Rallies a regular event on our campus at each opportunity where we have something really of significance to talk about with our communities," Couture said. "We want to celebrate the researchers, our partners and the funding agencies, and let the public know what important, game-changing research is being done here, right here, at your state university, New Mexico State University."

Even in the area of high-tech innovations, Couture's professional interest is mirrored in her personal life.

Turns out, the top Aggie is also a top Trekkie.

From the original television series in the late 1960s to the most recent Star Trek movie, Couture and her husband are avid fans of the science fiction cult phenomenon. She remembers making a model of the Starship Enterprise as a child and has found the character "Mr. Spock" particularly fascinating.

"Who didn't like Mr. Spock," she said, "that tension between reason and emotion? He was an outsider, but everyone relied on him." Lt. Uhura was another favorite. "She was such a beautiful, capable woman."

Couture believes what really captured her attention was the way the television episodes and movies dealt with the same issues people of today face, only in a futuristic setting.

"They were morality tales," she said, stories that related well to challenges in administration and leadership in everyday life.

When the 25th anniversary Star Trek convention came to the Detroit area where they were living, she and Paul attended (without costumes or ears!) and were able to see stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

Another aspect of Star Trek that Couture enjoys is how music is used to set the stage for what's to come: whether used as a prelude to a scene with Mr. Spock or a build-up to an encounter with the mischievous Ferengi. She also has enjoyed seeing how the technical advances introduced decades ago in Star Trek episodes - like the clamshell communicator - have led to real-world innovations of today - like the flip-open cell phone.

It may be a while before the classroom doors at NMSU slide open with an automatic "whoosh" like those on the Starship Enterprise, or students are beamed from class to class, rather than walking from place to place, but the world imagined by Star Trek can certainly be seen in these early days of the fall semester at NMSU, in the abundance of high-tech smart phone usage between classes, the super-slim laptops in student backpacks and the amazing Nooks, Kindles and iPads that now almost seem commonplace.

For Couture, "commonplace" would not be a term she would use to describe the university experience. Instead, NMSU is a place of innovative research on one hand and rich, artistic expression on the other, which feels like the perfect place for Couture the pianist, the Trekkie and the President.