By Alvin P. Sanoff
IF W. KENT FUCHS HAD BEEN a more
effective preacher, he might be
delivering Sunday sermons today
instead of serving as dean of Cornell
University's College of Engineering.
You see, Fuchs (pronounced "Fox")
once planned on becoming a minister.
While attending Duke University,
where he earned an undergraduate
degree in engineering in 1977, Fuchs
got to know the pastor of his church
in Durham, N.C., who had previously
been a professor at a seminary.
Fuchs says his "blend of scholarship
with the practical application of
theology and biblical scripture"
appealed to him. Fuchs decided he
wanted to pursue a career that would
offer more opportunity for dealing
directly with people than engineering.
So, Fuchs enrolled at Trinity Evangelical
Divinity School in suburban Chicago,
where the faculty represented many
But in the second year of the three-year
master's program, Fuchs began to
realize that teaching, rather than
preaching, was his calling. When
he delivered sermons, he would often
use transparencies. That might work
well in a classroom, but it did
not stir parishioners. "My teachers
told me I would be a great professor,"
he recalls. "It was their way of
telling me I would not be a great
preacher. Billy Graham was not threatened
Still, Fuchs completed the program
and holds a master's degree in divinity.
"I wanted to finish the degree in
the seminary, but I knew I needed
to go to graduate school in engineering
to teach." He subsequently earned
a doctorate in electrical engineering
at the University of Illinois, Urbana-
Champaign and in 1985 joined the
Illinois faculty, where he specialized
in dependable computer systems and
testing and fault diagnosis of integrated
circuits. He advanced rapidly from
assistant to full professor but
left in 1996 to head Purdue University's
electrical and computer engineering
school. Then in 2002, at the age
of 47, he moved to upstate New York
to become dean at Cornell, which
has the largest engineering program
in the Ivy League. Fuchs oversees
a college with a $220-million budget
and a faculty of 230 who teach 4,000
students, 2,800 of them undergraduates.
As he reflects on the turns in
his career, he sees a certain continuity.
Both engineering and religion, he
says, are designed to provide assistance,
albeit in very different ways- one
tangible and the other spiritual.
"Engineers don't talk enough about
or think enough about the fact that
what we are really doing is working
to improve people's lives," he says.
"Religion is also focused on the
person but on that person's relationship
to a higher being."
At Cornell, Fuchs has translated
his values into action by supporting
or launching initiatives that emphasize
utilizing engineering to improve
society. He has been a staunch backer
of a program called Engineers for
a Sustainable World (ESW) that was
started by a Cornell engineering
graduate. In the program, students,
faculty and practicing engineers
draw on technology to help solve
problems in developing communities
in different parts of the globe.
For example, volunteers in Honduras
have worked with local technicians
to bring clean water to hundreds
of communities. ESW has ongoing
projects in Africa, Latin America,
Eastern Europe and East and Southeast
Asia. The organization now has a
presence on about 80 campuses.
Rachel Davidson, an assistant professor
of civil and environmental engineering
at Cornell who teaches a course
entitled Engineers for a Sustainable
World, says that Fuchs has been
"incredibly supportive." That has
enabled her to spend time developing
the course and a related program.
As part of the course, students
undertake engineering- based group
service projects in cooperation
with partner community organizations.
Undergraduates also examine the
politics of technology, the relationship
between engineering and international
development and ethics in engineering
practice. This includes ways that
engineering can be used positively
and negatively in development. "Kent
seems to realize that it is important
to bring to the forefront that the
reason we do technical stuff is
to make the world a better place,"
Fuchs has also placed a high priority
on increasing the diversity of both
the student body and the faculty.
He has created the position of associate
dean for diversity, a halftime post
held by Zellman Warhaft, who leads
an office of six time people. Warhaft,
who has been on the engineering
faculty for almost three decades,
describes Fuchs as "completely dedicated"
to achieving diversity. He says
the dean wants 50 percent of faculty
hires to come from the ranks of
women and underrepresented minorities.
Last year, the school reached that
goal for the first time.
The College of Engineering's strategic
plan calls for increasing the proportion
of women undergraduates from 25
to 35 percent and the proportion
of underrepresented minorities from
6 to 10 percent. At the graduate
level, the plan calls for increasing
the proportion of underrepresented
minorities from 4 to 7 percent and
the number of women from 21 to at
least 30 percent. "We have made
consistent progress" toward those
goals, Fuchs says. The dean believes
one reason engineering suffers from
a lack of gender diversity is that
it's perceived as putting technology
ahead of people. "We have lost track
of the human component of what we
do," he says. "We have focused on
the technology, not on the good
that it can do."
Colleagues describe Fuchs as an
energetic extrovert who often turns
up at events that he is not expected
to attend, such as student meetings.
Warhaft says that Fuchs "enjoys
being involved. He is not a backroom-type
dean." Fuchs draws on his seminary
training in social situations and
says his pastoral experience has
enhanced his speaking, counseling
and interpersonal skills, all of
which come in handy in his role
Fuchs has established an ambitious
set of goals for the college. The
strategic plan calls for Cornell
to be among the top five engineering
colleges in the nation at both the
undergraduate and graduate levels.
Another goal calls for the college
to be recognized as "the premier
research university in advanced
materials, information sciences
and nanoscience," as well as a leader
in bioengineering, complex systems
and energy and the environment.
To help Cornell fulfill its ambitions,
four buildings dedicated to engineering
and science are in various stages
of design and construction on the
Fuchs is optimistic about what
both Cornell and the profession
of engineering can achieve. "I believe
in engineering's ability to make
breakthroughs that will dramatically
improve the quality of life worldwide,"
he says. But he is also mindful
of the potential misuse of technology.
"We need to think a lot about the
applications of what we are developing,"
he says. "There is a need to focus
beyond one's self and to look at
how the end product might be used
for good or for evil."
AS POLICY MAKERS
BELIEVES the best way for engineers
to assure that the fruits of their
labor are used positively is to
venture outside the lab and become
engaged in policymaking. In the
United States, he says, few policy
makers have backgrounds in engineering
and science, while in China, the
vast majority of political leaders
do. Fuchs says it is important for
engineers to spend time in Washington
working as government aides and
advisers, and he suggests that it
would be a good thing for the nation
if some engineers pursued political
office, although he has no such
ambitions. Even though he is immersed
in running the College of Engineering,
religion, broadly defined, still
remains a subject of ongoing concern.
He is not reluctant to speak up
in administrative meetings of university
deans about the need to have the
study of religion become a more
important part of undergraduate
education. "Many of the opportunities,
challenges and misunderstandings
in the world are based on religion,"
he explains. "Our students need
to understand the world's religions
more than they do now if they are
going to work in a global environment."
Summing up his own view of humankind,
Fuchs says that as individuals "we
don't necessarily behave for the
good of society. But we can be educated
to work for the good of others."
It is a view that seems to reflect
both his study of scripture and
his experience in the academy. For
Fuchs, that has proved to be a perfect
Alvin P. Sanoff is a freelance
writer based in Bethesda, Md.