Date: 
Thursday, June 25, 2009

It is a tremendous honor to join you today and to speak with you about the challenges and opportunities we face in higher education.

I think it goes without saying that we live in a world of rapid change. A common aphorism during times of change and upheaval is “adapt or die.” That’s a pretty dour—and limiting—piece of advice, though. I prefer to take a more proactive approach.
As that great management guru Peter Drucker once said, “In a period of rapid change, to adapt is too dangerous because it means you are always running behind. You have to find a way of getting ahead . . . call it a vision, call it a mission, it’s basically taking responsibility for shaping events.” So today I’d like to focus not on how we should be merely reactionary in higher education—and in Colleges and Schools of Engineering—but how we can seize the opportunities before us and shape, rather than be shaped by, events.

Before we can craft how we move forward, though, we need to take stock of where we are. As a University President, one of the refrains I often hear from faculty is that various constituencies “don’t understand what we do.” It might be the general public, legislators, parents, or even students themselves. There’s a lot of truth in that complaint, though often less than some might think. Nevertheless, it most likely is quite true for engineering programs. Telling the story of what we do and why we are important is an ongoing project for any higher education administration. And it is one in which faculty in all disciplines must take an active role.

Engineering faculty are presented with particular challenges in telling their story. I’d like to focus for a bit on one audience that is critically important to the future and can be a challenge for engineering schools to reach. I’m also thinking of this audience as important not only to the future of engineering, but to the future of our society. That audience is students—undergraduate and younger.

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say that there is a pressing economic and social need for more education in science and engineering. But let me briefly make that point. Our future is certainly based on knowledge. And technical knowledge certainly plays a primary role in today’s world. And that role will only increase. It goes without saying that we, as institutions of higher learning, are training the next generation of thinkers, discoverers, teachers, inventors, problem-solvers, leaders, and so forth. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to be leaders in science and engineering education. And I think it’s readily apparent that, as a country, we’re not doing so well along those lines.

Last week, the National Summit concluded its proceedings in Detroit. The Detroit Economic Club convened this meeting to discuss ways to revitalize the country’s economy as we face increasing global market challenges. Some of the nation’s top business, government, and academic leaders aimed to create consensus recommendations for increasing America’s competitiveness in technology, energy, environment, and manufacturing.

Many CEO’s at the meeting pointed out that manufacturing can be the critical sector for U.S. economic growth, but this nation lags in producing the engineers and other technically skilled workers that the industrial sector needs. Wayne State University President Jay Noren in his remarks said that “education for a creative and entrepreneurial workforce is the essential element that drives the American economy.”
He went on to suggest, among numerous recommendations, that in order to provide the effective technical education America needs, we would need to restructure the U.S. school system to a 14-year public system, extending it to the first two years of college.
He also called for the creation of a national higher education trust fund to protect universities from economic downturns, such as the recession we’re experiencing now, in the same way that the U.S. government created Social Security and Medicare.

One of my Iowa predecessors, Mary Sue Coleman, currently President of The University of Michigan, said that universities need to be more supportive of entrepreneurship among both students and faculty as another kind of restructuring.
She noted that with support for entrepreneurship, particularly in technological fields, failure is a necessary risk. But risk is part of both the educational and research and development process. Universities cannot be timid about risk-taking if we are to be part of the country’s economic development and growth.

So it’s clear that higher education must do a much better job of preparing the next generation of thinkers and leaders, especially in technical fields. And that better job must not just include external support for what we do, but it also must include internal change in the way we do things.

The National Summit comes on the heels of a mixed report from the NSF (conducted by Westat) on how much impact college professors have on improving math and science education. You may be familiar with the NSF Math and Science Partnership program, which focuses on having college professors help schoolteachers improve their content knowledge, as well as encouraging their own college students to consider careers as schoolteachers. The report suggests that little evidence exists that the professors involved had any direct impact on student test scores, though professors and schoolteachers generally felt that their participation was valuable. Perhaps the biggest concern, though, is that only about 900 college professors nationwide were participating in the program as of 2006. One culprit seems to be that tenure-track professors are often not rewarded for participating in such programs, as tenure and promotion policies at research institutions reward STEM faculty primarily on research and scholarship. A research university is usually the lead partner in the MSP programs. Unfortunately, most universities that received the program’s grants did not change their policies significantly to help their faculty become involved. And even where the program is going well, there are doubts that MSP-like efforts will persist once NSF financing ends.

I think the upshot of both of these events—the National Summit and the MSP report—is that colleges and universities need to do a much better job of impacting our educational system when it comes to STEM fields. They have to take education at least as seriously as research, and they need to provide the resources, incentives, and infrastructure to allow teachers to teach and students to learn as effectively as possible.

In order to teach students, however, the students have to be there. In order for our students to be there at the university level, they have to have a basis for understanding our programs, and they have to know what opportunities lie ahead for them in our fields.
Engineering is especially challenged when it comes to reaching younger students through K-12 and undergraduate curricula. This is because engineering as a discipline is rarely, and perhaps almost never, taught at the K-12 level. As students are entering college as undergraduates, they usually have had little to no exposure to engineering. (This harkens back to my earlier point that engineers often feel that they are misunderstood—without a strong presence in the K-college curricula, that is in fact probably true.)

For college and university faculty, direct involvement in K-12 curricula is not realistic, at least at this time. The NSF has the right idea with the MSP program—higher education faculty should start by working with K-12 teachers. But engineering education needs to go beyond just teachers, especially in our current swiftly changing, globalized technological environment. We need to create a culture of engineering education among many sectors, including business and industry. We need to teach teachers how to teach, but we must also teach workers how to learn. Therefore, I would advocate for the continued development of engineering education programs at the college and university level.

I am proud that, while I was Provost at Purdue University, we established Engineering Education in 2004—the first department in the world dedicated to the art and science of learning engineering. The program has really taken off, tripling its faculty in just a few years to 18. One of the department’s major programs is INSPIRE—the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning. Much of the effort of the Institute is possible thanks to a five-year grant from Purdue alumnus Stephen Bechtel, Jr. The goal of INSPIRE is to help educators investigate how students learn and to instill a desire in students to study engineering from elementary through high school. INSPIRE is working to prepare and place engineering teachers in K-12 classrooms; conducting research on how people learn and get involved in math, science, and engineering; and providing in-service training for K-12 educators to increase classroom activities that build STEM skills.

More engineering schools need to follow Purdue’s lead and create a discipline around engineering education. When the NSF is able to find only 900 faculty across the country to participate in their Math and Science Partnership program, that is a clear signal that higher education needs to develop its responsibilities in engineering education.

The future of engineering, of course, is not entirely in engineering education as a field. The fact remains, though, that the future of engineering programs in colleges and universities must lie in attracting undergraduate as well as graduate students. This can be done, in part, by engineering remaining responsive to the needs of the greater society. Let’s presume that your freshmen may still come to your college or university with little to no exposure to engineering in their own schooling or little knowledge of what engineering is all about. But students, we hope, do come to college with a vision of what kind of work they want to do in the world. Very often, that vision can find its fulfillment in a School or College of Engineering, but students may be attracted to the specific program first rather than the field writ large—as long as that program is in your curriculum.

I think one of the best examples of this is in the field of sustainability. Sustainability is the defining issue of our time. We face a world that must become more environmentally responsible and sustainable. And we in higher education are the source of discovery and new knowledge in the world that must lead the way. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to advance our leadership in this critical challenge. Universities have always been places where new ideas are nurtured and social progress is born. In taking up the challenge of sustainability, we are not acting only in our own interest, but more importantly in the interest of our children, our students, the society we serve, and future generations we will never know.

Many young people feel this urgency and are already devoted to the issues of sustainability when they come to college. Many are looking for majors that will allow them to work in the field. Colleges of Engineering are places where these students can find this kind of education, even if they didn’t know it coming into the University.

Here, I can draw on the experience and direction of my current home institution, The University of Iowa. A little over a year ago, I declared a Sustainable University Initiative at the UI. We are focusing our efforts on all aspects of the University enterprise: our facilities and operations, our research, our curriculum, and our service and outreach. In terms of our curriculum, we are fortunately able to build on a long and strong academic tradition, and much of that is in our College of Engineering. Iowa’s Civil and Environmental Engineering program has long been ranked one of the top 10 in the country. It has had a sustainability focus for many years. In addition, we have a strong tradition of developing and supporting multi-disciplinary research organizations focusing on sustainability issues. These include the Lucille A. Carver Mississippi River Environmental Research Station near Muscatine and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, both housed in the College of Engineering.

In recent months, we have augmented these existing efforts with several new initiatives. The new wind power management program is already up and running in the College of Engineering and is one of our signature sustainability programs. The College has been a leader in wind energy research and is working with state government, our sister institutions, community colleges, and the Iowa wind energy industry to develop further research and training programs to advance Iowa’s wind energy industry. The upshot of all this is that for students interested in a career in sustainability and looking for a major, many roads lead directly to the College of Engineering at The University of Iowa.

Another possible area of special interest for students at Iowa is flooding. Last summer, the University faced perhaps its greatest challenge ever—a historic flood. The Iowa River flows right through our central campus, and it overflowed its banks in June 2008 to a degree never seen before. Nearly two dozen buildings were impacted by floodwaters, including our student union, a high-technology laboratory building, several liberal arts buildings, our main library, and our entire arts campus, including Hancher Auditorium, our performing arts center. Our updated damage estimates put full recovery at $740 million.

As an institution of higher education, we have also responded to the flood through our core mission: learning, discovery, and engagement. One year later, University of Iowa researchers are conducting 10 federally funded studies. Many of these are located in the College of Engineering's IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering research unit—one of the most renowned hydraulics programs in the country, if not the world. These studies will not only lead to greater understanding of flood-related phenomena, but they will also help to alleviate the effects of future floods here at home and throughout the world.

UI flood research includes a wide range of projects. We are exploring the genesis of the 2008 Iowa Flood to better understand the interplay between successive storms and basin drainage topology. The roles of climate change and land management in last year’s flooding are also being studied. We are monitoring nitrogen and phosphorus in Midwest floodwaters and evaluating their impact on Gulf Hypoxia—the “dead zone” resulting from Mississippi River runoff into the Gulf of Mexico. We are identifying chemical pollutants and their sources in the sediments that were transported and deposited throughout the city of Cedar Rapids. And we are studying how decision makers deployed resources among Iowa communities during the flood in order to better guide future decision-making processes during extreme events.

The high level of research activity at The University of Iowa has already led to the establishment of a new center on our campus—The Iowa Flood Center. This new center will play a key role in flood frequency and forecasting studies in our state, develop new flood inundation maps, establish community-based programs in Iowa to improve flood monitoring, and train a new generation of experts in flood research, prediction, and mitigation. At this stage, I don’t know if our experience will lead to an influx of students interested in studying floods—but it very well could. And as we respond to the pressing societal need for flood research in Iowa, we are prepared to provide the education that students very well may seek.

My ultimate point here is two-fold.

First, again, if Colleges of Engineering continue to respond successfully to current societal needs as well as traditional disciplinary areas, students will find you, whether the word “engineering” ever entered their career-choice vocabulary or not.

Secondly, our programs and colleges should never underestimate the importance of niche engineering. I again turn to my home state of Iowa for another example. First of all, I firmly believe that every good research university should have engineering programs. As we face budget cuts in Iowa, currently and in the past, and as is happening everywhere, consolidation of programs always comes up high on the list of cost-saving measures. In Iowa, our three universities are governed by a single Board of Regents. When the budget ax looms, many people often ask, “Why do both The University of Iowa and Iowa State University need engineering schools?” On the surface, it seems obvious to some that Iowa State’s engineering school—as part of our land grant and historically technical university—should remain intact. It is, indeed, larger and more comprehensive than the UI’s. But on closer inspection, it is clear that the engineering folks at the UI and ISU do very different things. I’ve already mentioned our growing programs in sustainability and hydraulics, but medical imaging is another perfect example of The University of Iowa playing to its strengths and creating its special niche.

Health care, the health sciences, and the life sciences play a major role at Iowa. We have one of the largest teaching hospitals in the country, one of the leading NIH-funded Colleges of Medicine in the country, and four other colleges among our eleven dedicated to the health sciences (public health, nursing, pharmacy, and dentistry). Within the health sciences, we are a national and international leader in medical imaging. And we would not be a leader in medical imaging without the College of Engineering. Clearly, this is an area where engineering and medicine naturally interface, and it is an area that is growing swiftly. Our Department of Biomedical Engineering conducts interdisciplinary research with colleagues in the Carver College of Medicine in such areas as ultrasound and other medical imaging equipment design, as well as medical imaging processing and quantitative analysis. But their work goes much beyond imaging, too. We are also leaders in biomechanics and prosthesis, biofluids, biomaterials, and tissue engineered implants.

At Iowa, our College of Engineering prospers because we know who we are, we have crafted our own identity around our strengths, and we pursue excellence in those specialty areas. This is a strategy that also has important implications for addressing one of the other great issues in higher education today—putting resources in strategic areas of excellence during times of budget challenges. However, depending on the context of your own institutions, specialty areas should be nurtured not only for the survival and prosperity of your programs in and of themselves, but also for attracting the students you need to your areas of strength.

I have been talking about how Schools and Colleges of Engineering themselves can play a leadership role in our country’s education today. Ultimately, though, any educational organization is primarily about its people, not its facilities or its equipment, or even its curriculum in and of itself. So not only is it incumbent upon schools and colleges to take the reins of leadership, but even more importantly it is necessary for people—our faculty—to step up to the leadership role. So I would like to conclude my remarks today, before we get to some questions and answers, by focusing on engineering faculty as leaders.

College and university faculty can sometimes be an insular lot. No news there. Some might argue that engineering faculty in particular face challenges in “getting out there” and doing the work that needs to be done with our fellow faculty and staff, other institutional units, legislators, donors, and the general public. Whether that’s a stereotype or not, my point is that we shouldn’t focus entirely on people’s faults when considering leadership development While we should always strive to build new skills, we shouldn’t wholly focus on what we need to change about ourselves to become leaders. As with our schools and programs themselves, we should focus on the strengths and talents we already have and nurture those into the leadership qualities necessary to meet the challenges we face.

As a biologist, I share with you the scientific and technical mind that is both our strength and sometimes our weakness. But I believe it is my strengths as a scientist that have led me to a position of leadership in higher education.

First, there is the characteristic that defines us all in the academic world, including our colleagues in other disciplines: an intense intellectual commitment and purposeful vision of life fueling our desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world. For me, my parents—immigrants who were never educated beyond high school—instilled the value of education in me. If they were still with us, they would probably also say my success came about through sheer stubbornness. Let’s just say that I prefer to see it as persistence and hard work. Those qualities have always been necessary for academic success, but they have been especially crucial for higher education leadership, as well as for women in the sciences in particular.

Second, I think there are a couple of characteristics of the biological sciences that have prepared me well for higher education leadership. Whether our specialties involved genetics or molecular biology, organismal or evolutionary biology, or perhaps larger entities like ecosystems, biologists are trained to think in systems and to solve problems analytically. It is in our nature to see the ways in which the parts fit with the whole—and that is exactly the job of the university or college President.

I think engineers share those same general characteristics. You are trained problem-solvers. Engineers approach problems analytically—you know exactly how to zero in on a problem and create a structure to solve it. In many ways, a department, or a college, or even a whole university is no different. It is a system of many working parts, and all must operate effectively as a whole. Of course, we cannot be completely mechanistic about it. We must realize that we are talking largely about people rather than machines or ecosystems. We have to learn to factor into the equation personalities, egos, conflicts, collaboration, personal bonds, individual strengths and weaknesses, spontaneity, and myriad other human characteristics. But if we can integrate strong people skills with the analytical and systematic talents we have, we can be very successful leaders.

Finally, don’t forget that most of us have already developed significant management skills. Writing and administering grants, setting up and running labs, engaging in interdisciplinary research with students and colleagues—these are all skills that translate directly into leadership. In fact, they are already leadership in practice.

The world before us—the world of education and the greater world of which it is a part—is full of fascinating, and sometimes frightening, challenges. As educators and researchers, we certainly must lead the way in navigating our society through these challenges. But we must remember that leading is not entirely about imposing a rigid vision upon a changing world. We must balance our leading-edge innovation with a sensitive responsiveness to what’s really out there and what real people need today. I think scientists and engineers actually understand that very well and very deeply. I think we have much to offer the world of higher education and the world at large.

And now I am eager to engage with you in further discussion about how we can lead in order to meet these challenges facing us today.

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