PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - APRIL 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 8
From the White House to the Presidency - Engineering professor Martin Jischke recognized early on that he could better serve society by assuming leadership positions. As president of Purdue University, he is proving his point.
By Alvin P. Sanoff

When Martin Jischke was a young engineering faculty member at the University of Oklahoma in the mid- '70s, he faced a choice between taking a year's sabbatical and doing research or applying for a coveted White House Fellowship. He opted to take the fellowship route, and that marked a turning point in his life. "Like the Robert Frost poem, I took the road less traveled and it has made all the difference," he says today.

During that year in the nation's capital, he had an opportunity to compare himself with other White House Fellows, a group that included Wesley Clark, who would later become a general and presidential candidate. Jischke concluded that he, too, had leadership ability and was capable of becoming a university president, a job that he saw as "a powerful way to serve society."

A focused and careful planner, Jischke set up a timetable. He wanted to be running a university by the time he reached 50. He was off the mark by seven years. At age 43 he was named interim president at Oklahoma, where he had been dean of the College of Engineering. That was the beginning of a two-decade-long career as a university leader. Jischke, who holds a Ph.D. from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics, served as chancellor of the University of Missouri at Rolla and as president of Iowa State University. Since the summer of 2000 he has been president of Indiana's Purdue University, which The Times of London recently ranked as the 59th best university in the world. Along the way, the 63-year-old Jischke, who was the first member of his family to attend college, has been chairman of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and a board member of several other higher education organizations.

At each institution he has served, Jischke, who graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in physics, has shown himself to be a strong leader, a skilled fundraiser, and an expert communicator. Richard Schwartz, former dean of engineering at Purdue and a member of the search committee that chose Jischke, says that his performance "has been nothing short of spectacular. I wouldn't believe a president could move a culture and a university as quickly as he has."

Pushing Forward

When Jischke arrived, the Purdue faculty had dreams of making a first-class institution even better. But there was no game plan for doing so. Working closely with the university community, Jischke developed an ambitious strategic plan. Four years later, he says that "by every measure the university is better."

The data back him up. At a time when many institutions have had to limit hiring professors, Purdue is more than halfway toward an ambitious goal of adding 300 faculty members. The university's research program has grown by more than 25 percent. Forty-two building projects are planned, and a number of them are already completed. Faculty salaries have improved, as have the SAT scores of entering undergraduates. There has been a modest increase in student diversity, and the amount of scholarship and grant money available for students has soared from $69 million in 2000-01 to $101 million in 2003-04. And Purdue, a land-grant institution known for its engineering programs, has become what Jischke calls "an engaged university," working on a number of fronts to improve the economy of Indiana.

A basic assumption of Purdue's strategic plan was that while the state would not reduce funding, money needed to enhance the university would have to come from other sources. A tuition hike was one source, and an ambitious $1.3 billion fundraising campaign was another. That campaign has been so successful that the goal has been raised to $1.5 billion. The private funds have helped fuel the construction of an interdisciplinary complex called Discovery Park, which Jischke sees as central to making Purdue pre-eminent in scientific research.

An interdisciplinary complex called Discovery Park will house centers in bioscience, nanotechnology, entrepreneurship,  e-enterprise, and advanced manufacturing.Plans call for the complex, which is partially completed, to serve as home to centers in bioscience, nanotechnology, entrepreneurship, e-enterprise, and advanced manufacturing. A biomedical engineering building is being built nearby as is a center that focuses on innovative ways to teach interdisciplinary studies. Plans for several other centers are in the works, and the construction of a new engineering building named in honor of one of Purdue's most famous alumni, astronaut Neil Armstrong, is underway.

Engineering is an important part of Jischke's plan. One-fourth of the 300 new faculty being hired are in engineering. Moreover, biomedical engineering is not only getting a new building; it is expanding to offer undergraduate as well as graduate degrees. Jischke says it is "the first new school of engineering at Purdue in 30 years."

Jischke sees all the activity at Purdue serving as a catalyst for creating a new economy in Indiana built around science and technology. The state is already a center for the development and manufacture of orthopedic devices.

Jischke has propelled Purdue forward by reaching out not just to the university community but to the leadership of the state. Tim McGinley, who heads Purdue's Board of Trustees and was instrumental in wooing Jischke away from Iowa State, says that "one of the criteria in hiring a president was finding someone who could take the message of the university throughout Indiana to sell what Purdue wanted to do. He works extremely hard at that and is extremely good at that." Jischke makes more than 350 speeches a year, both on campus and off.

Talking Head

Once a month he does a radio show on a university station that is broadcast in many parts of the state. He says that the show helps put "a human face on the university, which is a large and complex organization." During the show, Jischke answers questions from callers, a risk most presidents would be reluctant to take in an age of hypercharged talk radio. But Jischke says that "by and large, people ask perfectly sensible questions that relate to the university and are overwhelmingly polite and generous. To hear a president answer questions and occasionally say, ‘I don't know but I will find out' is a very good thing."

McGinley says that Jischke has become "the voice of higher education" in the state. He cites a business newspaper's survey that asked which individuals could Indiana least afford to lose; Jischke was the only person in higher education in the top 10.

Jischke's efforts to communicate paid off early on when he won support for a $1,000 across-the-board tuition increase. To lay the groundwork, he met with political leaders and editorial boards to explain that the money would be used to hire more faculty and expand financial aid. McGinley says that Jischke's "ability to articulate what we were doing and why and where the money would be going and why pre-empted any negative reaction. We had support from some people who you might have thought would have reacted differently." Jischke says that one of the points he made was that compared with other universities in the Big Ten and peer institutions outside the region, Purdue's tuition "remains below average." Tuition today is just over $6,000 for in-state students; about two-thirds of undergraduates on Purdue's main campus in West Lafayette are from Indiana.

Jischke believes strongly that Purdue's engagement in economic development is part of its responsibility as a land-grant institution. To make sure that Purdue's activities are well coordinated, Jischke has established the post of vice provost for engagement. Rabindra Mukerjea, Purdue's director of strategic planning and assessment, says that typically at a land-grant university outreach efforts are centered around the agricultural extension program. But at Purdue that is one part, albeit an important one, of a larger agenda.

As part of its engagement effort, Purdue works with the Indianapolis public schools and the city's business community in a program called Science Bound, which is designed to help minority youngsters prepare for college in science-related areas. One hundred seventy-three youngsters are enrolled in the program, which starts in the eighth grade. Those who succeed will be offered four-year tuition scholarships to Purdue.

Jischke's training in engineering plays an important role in the way he operates. Schwartz, the former engineering dean, says that like a good engineer Jischke "asks the right questions and is a very quick study. If you give him an answer, he absorbs it quickly and doesn't forget it. Whenever you meet with him you want to make sure you have done your homework and are informed because you know he will be."

Jischke says that he takes "a systems approach" to his job, consistent with his training as an aerospace engineer. "I am very quantitative, but at the same time have a practical bent." Jischke says that at the heart of a lot of engineering is the use of approximations in models to gain understanding. "I recognize that problems or issues need to be resolved as best one can rather than searching for the perfect answer," he says. "You don't always have the luxury of time to pursue every detail. Accurate but imperfect solutions can be very useful." That pragmatic approach has served both Jischke and Purdue exceedingly well.

Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.


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