ASEE Prism Magazine - May/June 2003
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All The President's Friends
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All the President's Friends

- By Alvin P. Sanoff    

You might think that running a top-ranked undergraduate engineering program would be Rose-Hulman President Sam Hulbert's greatest achievement, but his real genius may be his warmth. Incredibly, he's on a first-name basis with most of the school's 1,800 students.

Most college presidents don't remain in office for a decade, let alone more than a quarter of a century. But when Sam Hulbert retires as president of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology next year, he will have spent 28 years at the helm of the Indiana institution.

For both Hulbert and Rose-Hulman it has been quite a run. During Hulbert's tenure, the school has achieved national stature, increased its endowment ninefold to about $180 million, and added $90 million worth of new facilities. While engineering schools are known more for their rigor than their warmth, under Hulbert's leadership Rose-Hulman has managed to be both tough and caring. The National Survey of Student Engagement, a foundation-funded effort to assess the quality of undergraduate education at hundreds of institutions, found that Rose-Hulman students are far more likely than students at peer institutions to say their school both provides a supportive environment and offers an academic challenge. Rose-Hulman students also rank their school more highly on student-faculty interaction and on active and collaborative learning than their counterparts at comparable institutions participating in the national study.

The survey results reflect the nurturing environment Hulbert has helped to create. Chuck Howard, Rose-Hulman's dean of admissions, who has been at the school even longer than Hulbert, says that the president's "real genius is his warmth. He has a desire to include faculty, staff, and students as part of his family. He knows most students on a first name basis. He is the heart and soul of Rose-Hulman."

Part of what endears Hulbert to the campus community is his ability to laugh at himself. A few years ago, wearing a trench coat, sunglasses, and hat, he climbed into an 8-foot cylinder placed on the dock of the campus lake. He emerged 60 seconds later wearing a Superman outfit. Pretending to be the Man of Steel, Hulbert jumped into the lake as a crowd watched. Hulbert was not fulfilling a lifelong fantasy. He was making good on a promise to take the plunge when alumni giving to Rose-Hulman reached the 50 percent mark—a level that few schools attain.

That colorful stunt was out of character for Hulbert, who is not inclined to call attention to himself. A faculty member who has written a history of the school that covers the quarter of a century between 1974 and 1999 describes him this way: "Sam Hulbert's success stemmed from his innate, almost childlike, humility. A man of intellect, self-confidence, physical stamina, almost photographic memory, and a very healthy desire to come out on top, he seemed, nevertheless, to be without ego. His guiding principle was to surround himself with people who were better than he believed he was."

Hulbert arrived on the campus in Terre Haute in 1976 from Tulane University, where he had served as dean of the engineering school and as a professor of bioengineering. He expected to stay at Rose-Hulman for five years, or at the most 10. But Hulbert and Rose-Hulman proved to be made for each other, although there were times when both parties had their doubts—notably when Hulbert pushed for co-education.

The subject of admitting women to what was then an all-male bastion first arose when Hulbert was being considered for the presidency. He told the search committee that the school needed "to accept students based on their credentials, not their gender." While the board embraced Hulbert, a tenacious minority did not embrace his belief in co-education. Year after year Hulbert sought to persuade the trustees that Rose-Hulman would be a much better place if women were admitted. And year after year he was rebuffed. The major obstacle: A small band of traditionalists who were able to prevail because the change required approval by three fourths of the trustees. Hulbert consistently fell one or two votes shy of the needed margin. "Every time I failed I would think about leaving," he recalls, but he always decided to stay and fight. There were some board members who hoped he would leave, but they never had enough votes to push him out.

Finally, in 1991 Hulbert prevailed but with a catch. Women would be admitted, but only after a four-year transition period. In 1995 the first group of 80 women enrolled. While Hulbert would like to see a student body that is 25 percent female, today women account for 18 percent of Rose-Hulman's approximately 1,750 undergraduates. "We are not where we want to be in terms of enrolling women," says admissions dean Howard; something that is an ongoing problem for most engineering schools.

Even though women remain a distinct minority on campus, Hulbert says that "the quality of conversations on campus are much better" ever since women enrolled. "It has been a wonderful change."

It is probably no coincidence that in the eight years since co-education came to Rose-Hulman, the school's standing has improved. In the past, says Hulbert, "a lot of good students didn't come because the school was all male." Now, year after year, Rose-Hulman comes out on top in the U.S News & World Report rankings of undergraduate engineering programs among schools whose highest terminal degree is at the bachelor's or master's level. Its No.1 ranking also extends to five specialties—chemical, civil, computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering.

As a result of its enhanced stature, Rose-Hulman vies for students not only with its traditional competitors, the Big Ten schools, but with such private institutions as Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon. It now draws students from all over the country, though the bulk of them continue to come from the Midwest.

Like most university presidents, Hulbert spends a substantial amount of time raising money. To maintain its standing, the school needs resources. He describes himself as "not very good at fundraising. I present my case in a low-key way and hope that the potential donor sees that there is an opportunity." But Hulbert has been persuasive enough to help bring more than $230 million in donations to Rose-Hulman.

 

BIOENGINEERING THE FUTURE

In spite of such demands on his time, Hulbert manages to teach a course every quarter in his area of expertise, biomedical engineering. Hulbert, who holds a doctorate in ceramic science, has spent much of his professional life applying his engineering skills to medical problems. This involvement began while he was on the engineering faculty of Clemson University. He read a story about the damage inflicted on American troops in Vietnam by bullets designed to disable them by blowing out large sections of bone. The damage was so severe that amputation of the affected limb was often necessary. Hulbert came up with a possible alternative: A synthetic bone with a ceramic face. He interested a surgeon at the Medical College of South Carolina in the idea. After an initial experiment with a dog, it was tried on a patient who faced amputation because of a bone sarcoma. Hulbert's invention was eventually used widely, but he did not profit directly from his creativity, as he had not taken out any patents. But then Hulbert, who has received a number of grants for his research, says that he prefers to focus on solving problems rather than making money.

Hulbert sees biomedical engineering as a specialty that will explode over the next 20 years. "There is a huge amount of engineering to be done," he says. Currently biomedical engineering is offered only as a minor at Rose-Hulman. But once sufficient lab space is built, says Hulbert, students will be able to major in it.

For all of his achievements as president, Hulbert remains a teacher at heart. He is something of a presidential Mr. Chips. Perhaps that's not so surprising. After all, it was a teacher who turned Hulbert on to higher education.

One day while he was in high school, his chemistry teacher told Hulbert that he wanted to speak to his parents, neither of whom had gone to college. Hulbert recalls his family sitting around the kitchen table while the teacher told them that "‘Sam ought to go to college. I'd like to take him to visit schools.'" The teacher drove Hulbert to Alfred University, about 180 miles away from the small town in upstate New York where he lived. He eventually enrolled and earned both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees there.

It was in Alfred's College of Ceramics that Hulbert found his calling. "If I hadn't gone to Alfred, I wouldn't have gone into engineering," he says. And if he hadn't gone into engineering, both the profession and Rose-Hulman would be the poorer.

 

Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Md.
He can be reached at asanoff@asee.org.

 

 
 
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