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Finally, A Little R & R

By Kerry Hannon

Is there life after running an engineering department at a top university? Here's what four former deans who spent years in the trenches have to say.

Most deans are disappointed when they step down from their appointments. Understandably so. It's a position of power, influence, and intellectual stimulation. It's a hard job to leave and even harder to make that next move that will prove as rewarding from an ego and career perspective.

In general, dean appointments are short-lived, rarely lasting more than 10 years. So if you are strutting into the position in your early 40s, you're moving on in your 50s—far from retirement age. And it's not so unusual these days to be appointed in your 30s, as Dean Denice Denton was at the University of Washington.

So it's a common conundrum. What to do when your time is up? Maybe you seek out a deanship at another school. Maybe you make a play for a provost position. Maybe you go back to teaching.

Teaching seems like the easiest segue. But it isn't always the panacea one might hope for after a decade in administration and fundraising, nose to the grindstone. The field has changed in myriad of ways, dramatically in many cases.

The students, too, have changed. The teaching methods have new demands. It may sound old-fashioned, but 10 years makes a huge difference in the methods, subject areas, and psyche of the students. It all goes by in a blink, when you're totally consumed with administrative duties and money issues, not solving engineering problems.

Conversely, some deans have broken through the barrier. John White, for instance, used to be dean at Georgia Tech and became president of the University of Arkansas. Henry Yang, former dean at Purdue, is now president at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

These are rare examples. So how hard is the next stage for these top-level deans around the country? We've spoken to a handful of former deans who have recently made the transition.

 

Ernest T. Smerdon

Dean Smerdon left his position at the University of Arizona in 1998, ten years to the day after he moved into the job. “I had only intended to spend three years in the position, but it was hard to let go. Some people stay on too long in administrative jobs and that worried me, but the decision to step down was wrenching nonetheless,” says Smerdon.

He didn't exactly slam the door on the academic engineering world. He chose to stay on as a professor of civil engineering, but it took some adjusting. “As a dean, it's very important that you spend your energy being a facilitator. The good strokes you get happen through other people's success in the department,” he says. “That's a completely different job from being an educator.”

Smerdon's background in the field has an interesting twist. Prior to taking the Arizona position, he held the Bess Harris Jones Centennial Professorship in natural policy studies in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and taught in the civil engineering department as well. It allowed him to combine his teaching skills in two very different areas of education. “Engineering is closely related to society,” he says. “Engineering looks with a global perspective and communicates societal problems that need to be solved.”

Although education is clearly his passion, Smerdon retired officially from the university in June at the age of 71. “I don't intend to stop my engineering endeavors,” he says. So he will continue to teach and write his autobiography. The tale is one of deliberation and drive, tracing his roots from a rural hamlet in Ritchey, Mo., a town with a population of around 200, to attending the University of Missouri and ascending to engineering prowess.

His motivation as a young man? “I was surrounded by dairy cattle and crops. I learned early on that hard work was good for you, and I learned that I didn't want to be a farmer.”

But don't imagine he will just be lolling around in the Tucson hills smoothly spinning his story. In 2001 alone he planned to travel to conferences in South Africa, Oslo, and Berlin, to name a few. It's all about education and learning. “You've got to keep thinking out of the box and be comfortable with change,” he says.

With that kind of globe-trotting, there's no doubt he will. A good engineer looks at a problem and breaks it down into fundamental aspects, he says. And that's what he has been doing in challenging his future career moves.

 

Lyle D. Feisel

Loyalty is Dean Feisel's strong suit. The electrical engineer, who earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. all from Iowa State University, dedicated 17 years as dean of engineering at SUNY Binghamton. Feisel bid adieu to the program last June. “Sure there is some post-partum depression,” he admits. “But not a lot of trauma,” he says.

Feisel confesses that what he will miss the most is what has always been the highpoint of his year - commencement. “I got such a sense of pride just being there with the students.” His goal in retirement was to find a decent place to live and time to read and learn again. He has, but he's wistful about his dean years and misses the interaction with other academics and administrators. Feisel is too much in love with the engineering profession to be totally disengaged.

“I think abstractly and I think that will help in my new life.” he says. “I want to spend time being thoughtful. There wasn't much time for that as dean.”

As the founding dean of the engineering school, his contributions to its success are legendary. When the school was started, there were 500 students; now there are roughly 1,400.

One colleague, Michael McGoff, associate provost for budgeting and planning, says Feisel is famous for figuring out how to get not from A to B but from A to Z. He is probably best known for aligning the fledgling school with the engineering community and with CEOs of both national and local corporations.

Feisel has always tried to look out as far as he can and envision where he is now and where he wants to be. Some things don't change. Feisel and his wife Dorothy have purchased a retirement home in the town of St. Michaels on Maryland's eastern shore.

He'll have plenty of time for thinking while he sails the waters of the Chesapeake Bay from the deck of his new 30-foot sailboat. “I had sailed the Chesapeake a few times, and we just kept coming back. So we decided to buy a home to retire in St. Michaels.” After being raised in rural Iowa, that must be a dream.

 

Ray J. Bowen

Another small-town boy who fought his way up the academic ladder, Ray Bowen, now 67, became a dean in 1981. Bowen grew up on a farm near Monroe, Miss. The thought of ever graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master's degree in 1957 and then going on to the University of California, Berkeley for his Ph.D. was unthinkable. “I thought I'd like to study physics,” he recalls. But his small high school had no way to prepare him for such a course of study. He managed to persuade his parents to let him travel down to Monroe, where there was a bigger school, for his senior year—and then MIT. “I survived MIT, but not physics,” Bowen remembers. He quickly switched to chemical engineering.

In 1996, it was time for a change of dean at the university. The writing was on the wall. Budget woes plagued the programs and fundraising was all consuming for Bowen. “I had to make a change,” he remembers. “And so did the university.”

His decision: bag administrative duties and get back to the basics of why he became an engineer in the first place. Time to recharge after 15 long years of fighting for money to get the best professors and keep the department growing and, of course, attract the best students.

Ever since his arrival at the university he continued to wear his hat as a professor of chemical engineering. But it's not as easy as it once was. Stepping back into the role of professor had its challenges. Relating to students on a full-time basis required some new learning, and keeping up with the literature was daunting. But he has thrown himself into the endeavor. “What you teach hasn't fundamentally changed, but the attitudes of the students have,” he says. “Their pace is different and their time constraints as well.” He's had to learn a new way of teaching to communicate with them and be more tolerant.

One of the problems he has found is that many of the students work part time and don't have the hours to devote to their studies that he expects them to. He now teaches classes part time and keeps office hours three days a week, two quarters a year.

The first year after Bowen resigned, however, he took it slow, spending six weeks traveling through Europe with his wife and writing a paper on the dynamics of exothermicity. A large portion of this past year was spent organizing the International Conglomerate for Dynamics of Reactive Systems, a group of some 300 engineers from around the world who meet to discuss combustion problems. He also advises small start-up companies like Fuel Cell Co.

Bowen may be passionate about combustion, but since his deandom ended, he and his wife have stumbled upon a number of love-Eco-cruise tours. They've spent weeks in the Galapagos and the Sea of Cortez, among other exotic spots, studying ecology, snorkeling, and hiking. And, he adds, taking lots of pictures—only 10 percent worth printing. Obviously, there are some things you can't learn from studying combustion.

 

Earl H. Dowell

For 16 years, Dean Dowell reigned at Duke's School of Engineering, the longest serving dean in Duke's century-plus program. That's a tough gig to give up. Along the way, he never relinquished his role as a professor of mechanical engineering. In 1999, he was named the J.A. Jones Professor for mechanical engineering.

Since he dropped the dean title two years ago, he has co-written four journal publications on such topics as “Experimental Active Control of a Typical Section Using a Trailing-Edge Flap” for The Journal of Aircraft. Airplanes are his thing. He's even had time to take gliding lessons. And he's headed back to the lab to dig back into his research. Dowell now goes three days a week to the lab and teaches one engineering course every semester at Duke.

Growing up near Champlain/ Urbana, Ill., there were always airplanes overhead. He wondered where they were going, he explains. That's how it all started, and he's been studying airplanes ever since.

His time as dean was extremely productive. Dowell tripled graduate school enrollment, expanded the tenure-track faculty from 45 to 75, and developed a research department that is 40 strong. As is the case with all the deans profiled here, his job was to recruit faculty and raise money. “If you don't do those things well, you will be limited in what you can achieve,” he advises.

The whole notion of what engineering is all about has changed dramatically since Dowell entered the field, and he's had some catching up to do. “But I was a faculty member long before I was a dean, and I still love to teach. “It's more fun,” he says. “If you screw up as a dean, it's not just a personal failure, it's a blow to the whole organization. Now I can make decisions that aren't irreversible. I can make small mistakes, and it's okay.” In addition to teaching one course a semester, Dowell dabbles in consulting work and researches nonlinear dynamics. The pressure has eased off. But as his assistant so aptly put it, if he's this busy now, I'd have hated to see him when he was dean.

As with the other past deans, Dowell still travels extensively to conferences, but when he's home in Durham, he can often be found on the tennis courts. He's an avid player and has been for years, even when he was dean. “I managed to make time in my schedule for it because it was something that took everything out of my mind—just hitting a ball. I must say not being dean has improved my game,” he says with a chuckle. Best shot: His serve.

 

Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
She can be reached by e-mail at khannon@asee.org.

 

 

 

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