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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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DIVINE INTERVENTION -  By Alvin P. Sanoff - CORNELL’S W. KENT FUCHS ALMOST DIDN’T PURSUE AN ENGINEERING CAREER. HIS FIRST CHOICE WAS THE MINISTRY.

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 Protestant denominations.

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 by me."

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," Davidson says.

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 as dean.

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 Ithaca campus.

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."

ENGINEERS AS POLICY MAKERS

W. KENT FUCHS - Photographs by Chris Hallman, Cornell University PhotographyFUCHS 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 balance.

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

 

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