Vice chancellor gives "State of the College" address at annual meeting

October 12, 2005
| By: Aubrey Bloom

State of the College Address G. Kemble Bennett Vice Chancellor and Dean of Engineering Good afternoon! It seems that just as we became accustomed to fewer pedestrians bravely crossing campus streets along oddly unpredictable paths¿enjoyed shorter lines at restaurants...and never had to sit through more than one cycle at the stop light¿. they're back! And this semester, the students are back in big numbers. Among the 44,661 Aggies on campus this semester, 8,857 of them are engineering students -- roughly one-fifth of the entire campus population. We have seen increases in all classifications with 6,787 undergraduate students and 2,070 graduate students. Our freshman class is the largest one in five years with 1,739, up 218 students from last year. We also have 51 engineering students displaced by hurricane Katrina enrolled in classes, most coming from Tulane University. In addition to the 8,857 student engineers on campus, we also have two departments with new identities. The Department of Industrial Engineering is now the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Department of Electrical Engineering has been renamed the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Computer engineering, however, will remain a degree option in both computer science and electrical and computer engineering. Based upon those impressive numbers, it is indeed my pleasure to welcome you to our annual fall meeting. The beginning of the academic year is a good time to pause and consider the state of our college and discuss where we are going and how we will get there, together. As you know, Vision 2020 outlines 12 imperatives that Texas A&M University must focus on to obtain a "culture of excellence". President Gates identified three of these imperatives as highest priority, added one of his own, and requested campus-wide support of this effort. These imperatives are: • Elevating the faculty • Pursuing diversity in both student and faculty recruits • Expanding the built environment on campus • Enhancing undergraduate and graduate education. I am pleased to report that we have made significant gains over the past year in our support of all these initiatives. Without question, the faculty reinvestment program is one of the most ambitious and exciting undertakings of its kind. Other universities are conducting large faculty hiring drives, but none are adding 112 new engineering positions. We are now half way through the reinvestment program and I am proud to report that we have done an outstanding job, recruiting 49 new faculty members across all ranks and in most disciplines. Additionally, we have filled 28 vacant positions, bringing our total tenured/tenure track faculty hires to 77. Today, the Look College has 439 faculty members and 364 of them are tenured/tenure track, reversing a decade-long trend of diminishing numbers where we lost 32 positions. Clearly, we are growing¿and growing quickly. But that is not to say we are growing uncontrollably. As we fill the reinvestment positions, we are not only pursuing the best candidates in the growing fields of technology, but also making sure the candidate pool is a mix of diverse populations. Our efforts to enhance faculty diversity have been successful, in terms of both gender and ethnicity. Among our newly-hired faculty starting this fall, almost half are from underrepresented populations and 36 percent are female. Next year, the third year of the four year reinvestment program, we will hire 31 new faculty members and in the fall of 2007, we will add 32 more. These numbers may sound overwhelming and I assure you, it has been and will continue to be a vigorous exercise in recruitment. But it is extremely important. We must fill each allotted position. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build for the future of engineering at Texas A&M University and we must seize it. To support our continued recruitment activity, I asked Engineering Communications to conduct research on our new faculty and students, to determine what brought them to Texas A&M Engineering and to use this information to craft recruiting materials that highlight our strengths and show prospective faculty and students why they should join our program. I am pleased to report that the materials Engineering Communications developed are simply superb. Because I believe this recruitment phase is so important for our future, I am making a significant investment in these materials now, so that they will be available to the departments and their search committees this fall. Although the faculty reinvestment is a unique opportunity, I fully recognize that our past and current faculty deserve the credit for bringing our college to where it is today. I thank them and each of you. And, I truly appreciate your commitment to our faculty recruitment process. Although grueling in some respects, we must continue our unwavering commitment to recruit the best and brightest minds to join our ranks. They and you will define our future. I am not alone in recognizing the high quality of our faculty: this has been another impressive year where countless prestigious awards, honors and designations have been bestowed upon our ranks. I am also very pleased at the level of external support we have garnered from our many benefactors. Through our renewed focus on development activities, engineering continues to receive the largest number of endowments in the university, with 43 chairs and 74 professorships. While our distinguished faculty members are rewarded through our many endowments, we are also committed to supporting the integrated career development and teaching activities of our junior faculty. Through specialized assistance programs, like our NSF CAREER award workshops, we can help build a strong start in their academic careers. These are our up-and-coming academic leaders and our support of them will pay huge dividends for us all. I am pleased to report that in just the past two years, eight of our new faculty members have received CAREER awards and one of those eight, Dr. Mike Bevan of Chemical Engineering, was chosen for the highest honor bestowed upon young engineers and scientists: the PECASE, which is awarded by the President of the United States. Finally, all faculty benefit from association with a stable, respected program. We remain strong and competitive among our peers. One indicator-albeit not a terribly scientific one-was recently made public in the U.S. News and World Report undergraduate rankings. I do not like to put too much emphasis on these rankings, as they are not a true measure of quality. However, many do use the rankings to promote their programs and it would be foolish not to ensure our numbers remain strong. I am pleased to report that the Look College rose two places to #14 overall, remaining eighth among public institutions. Congratulations to you all! Few things add more to the experience of discovery than a perspective different than our own. This is the very heart of our second priority endeavor - campus diversity. As a major public university, Texas A&M must create and maintain an atmosphere that affirms diversity of people and viewpoints. Together with President Gates, I am committed to supporting the wide array of characteristics that enhance life and learning. The Look College does not tolerate bias by race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation or disability. We have worked very hard over the past two years to increase the diversity of our students through an aggressive recruitment program, which has added enrichment in a multitude of ways and we will continue to focus upon these efforts. Deans and department heads make personal phone calls to prospective students and faculty and staff answer questions in real-time Aggie chat-rooms. Even our students are engaged in this activity: they serve as sounding boards, tour guides and gracious campus hosts. The commitment and participation in our student recruiting efforts run from top to bottom in this college and that is why we're succeeding. Reversing a seven-year trend, minority freshman enrollment university-wide is up significantly this fall, with major double-digit gains reported for African-American and Hispanic students. However, of all the colleges, Engineering made the most notable improvement by increasing the number of African-American students by 92 percent. We also increased the number of Hispanic students by 29 percent. And while the university as a whole experienced a 2 percent drop in female students, we continue to improve, attracting 26 percent more females this semester than last fall. I commend all who have done so much to strengthen our recruitment activities. As we create an environment that supports a more diverse student body, we cannot overlook the importance of the enhanced diversity of our new faculty hires. Our students look to their educators as role models. We live in a multicultural world and you, our faculty, lead by example. We need to ensure our students are seeing a culture that is rich with different genders, ethnicities and beliefs. When we talk about diversity, we often overlook a very important group: first-generation college students. Twenty-eight percent of the entering freshman class at A&M are the first in their families to go to college. University-wide, 2,300 scholarships have gone to socioeconomically-disadvantaged students and more than half of those have been awarded to individuals in ethnically underrepresented groups. We have more than 250 of these first-generation students in our college. All students deserve our support, but these first-generation college students especially do. Their success will pave the road to a better life for them and their families for generations to come. The third area of emphasis is the built environment: enhancing the building space and facilities we have and carefully expanding where we can. Without question, the faculty reinvestment program will change the landscape of Texas A&M-literally and figuratively. The Look College received the greatest number of reinvestment positions, but along with that comes the growing pains of accommodating 112 new faculty and their research. There is simply not enough space; there was not enough space even before the first new hire stepped on campus. For the past two years, I have worked closely with the Council on Built Environment and I assure you that our needs-greater than all of the other colleges combined-are well known by all. And I am pleased to inform you that we are making tremendous progress toward addressing this pressing need. By conservative estimates, the college of engineering needs 350,000 square feet of space to accommodate current and future space needs associated with the faculty reinvestment program. Slowly, but surely, we are finding and acquiring this much-needed space. First, I looked at current use and relocated personnel. One-hundred-thirty TEES staff members have been moved off campus to a building off Greens Prairie Road. This opened 28,000 square feet of space for faculty on campus. We have also reconfigured offices and labs on campus to maximize the use of our space and these efforts will increase and intensify. Officially opening the Jack E. Brown Engineering Building provided 205,000 square feet of very attractive classrooms, labs and faculty offices, but it does not solve the overwhelming 350,000 square foot need. This building was planned and built before we embarked on our reinvestment program. It did, however, open up space in the Zachry Building, where the departmental space shuffle is almost finished. Affirming our enormous need for space, President Gates has announced that engineering will be the primary occupant of the new Emerging Technologies Building. Two-thirds of the building will be assigned to engineering and the remaining one-third will be assigned to other colleges who must partner with us. I will have a strong hand in deciding who will join us in this facility. The $50 million building is expected to be built in the next three years. We owe President Gates our gratitude for securing the resources to make this facility possible. Although many locations have been suggested, the site for the building has not been decided. As to the new Life Sciences Building, securing space in that facility has been a struggle. While we know engineering plays a major role in biotechnology, that fact was lost on our science colleagues who planned the facility, so participation by the Look College was completely overlooked. I have worked very hard to ensure our rightful place in that new facility and while no specific space has been identified as ours, I am now a participating dean in the project. Designed for multi-disciplinary use, engineering researchers who collaborate with other colleges in life sciences may find opportunities and space there. The breakthroughs in our understanding of the life sciences have been remarkable, but as I point out to all, it will be the engineers who translate this knowledge to the public good. We will be acquiring an additional 13,500 square feet of space in the Civil /TTI tower and 26,000 square feet in the Reed McDonald building. Both should occur this year. As a large private gift is supporting construction of two new physics buildings, engineering will eventually gain another approximately 35,000 square feet vacated by physics-related construction. Exactly when we will acquire this space is unknown. Although space has been one of my most-challenging concerns, I am pleased with the status of our current space expansion plan. I believe it will provide breathing room for the next two or three years, during which time we will actively seek more room to accommodate our growth and sustain our research program. Even with all of this additional space, we will still need one more $50 million engineering building and I will actively seek private funding to build it. Although I have spoken much about the faculty reinvestment program of Texas A&M and its significance to our future, our final imperative is the most important: our students. We have been working to reduce class sizes and the large addition of new faculty is already having an impact on the number of courses we can offer and reducing the average number of students per faculty member. Currently, that ratio is 20:1. Although recruitment is a priority, retaining our students is one of the biggest issues we have to address. The latest numbers show that we lose 53 percent of our students by their junior year. They do not leave the university; they just leave engineering. And the majority of these students are fully capable of attaining an engineering degree. We are analyzing this trend and implementing ways to better assist our students. I am determined to do something about this. We must do a better job of retention! If an industry lost 53 percent of its product, it would go out of business! One initiative showing great promise toward increasing retention is the NSF STEPS program. Designed to increase the comprehension of first year students in mathematics and physics courses, STEPS offers a hands-on curriculum and laboratory experience. As students participating in STEPS learn physics and mathematics principles, they are immediately applying them in ENGR 101 and 102. This semester, 471 students are enrolled in five sections of STEPS ENGR101. Another new initiative to better serve the needs of our students is a collaborative effort with the Mays Business School: a summertime business management certificate program. The intensive program includes basic business principles and operations. Thirty-nine engineering students participated in the highly successful inaugural section. As I talk with our industry partners, they continue to tell me that although we are seeing a shift toward the out-sourcing of engineering jobs to other countries, it is the U.S. educated engineer who will lead international engineering teams. This new program will give students who choose to participate a "leg-up" in that market and bring international understanding to that old Aggie truism, "What do you call an Aggie five years after graduation-BOSS!" As a Research I university, we possess the faculty expertise, research infrastructure and resources to provide undergraduate students opportunities for research experiences. Although the university is now moving aggressively toward inquiry and research based learning models for undergraduate students, it is something we have been making available to our students for some time. This summer, 39 undergraduate students (one-third of them women) were brought to our campus to experience academic research activities and hopefully, ignite the same passion we all share for discovery and to spark a desire to pursue a graduate degree: preferably, here at Texas A&M. As the profession of engineering becomes increasingly global, developing strategic relationships with international partners will add value for our students and our research. Our students must understand cultures different than our own. So we have formed many new international partnerships with peer institutions. Currently, we have memorandums of agreement with 35 institutions in 22 different countries. We are placing a special emphasis on building relationships with programs in China, South America, India, Europe and Qatar, where we have a campus in its third year of operation. In addition to the renewed emphasis on international MOAs, our study abroad programs continue to grow. This past June, our largest group of engineering students yet- 44 in all-traveled to Germany. Next summer, we will offer study abroad programs in Brazil, Germany, Panama, Singapore and Spain. Studying abroad is no longer a luxury for our students; it is becoming a necessity. Our industry partners continue to stress the importance of a global perspective in our graduates. We will continue to find ways to make these opportunities accessible for our students. While we are pursuing the best and brightest among a diverse pool of students, we must not overlook the importance of keeping them, once they enroll. As I stated earlier, 53 percent of our students leave us and graduate through other colleges within the university. Certainly, there are many factors contributing to this number and lowering our standards is not an acceptable retention option. However, finding innovative ways to support student success is essential. We have expanded the pool of faculty advisors and mentors in order to provide more personalized support and encouragement. We continue to offer learning communities where clusters of students provide supportive environments. The "Aggie Step" program-which is similar in name, but not related to the physics and math STEPS program I described earlier-brought 200 incoming freshmen onto campus for two weeks this summer to experience a realistic "dry run" at college life, including classes, meetings with mentors, living in the dorms and making new friends. The majority of these students came from underrepresented populations or were first-generation college students. We are making considerable efforts to retain students, but it is not enough. We must do more. We must have our best teachers engaged in lower division classes and we must make an extra effort to help our students succeed. And finally, to enhance the student experience, we must carefully cultivate growth. We have set ideal targets and have created deliberate plans to manage this growth. By Fall 2007, our undergraduate student enrollment should top off at 7,600 and the graduate population should grow to 2,400. Further, if this nation is to remain competitive with the much-larger pools of engineers educated in other countries, we must actively recruit more domestic students into our undergraduate and graduate programs and provide them with leadership opportunities. American engineers must possess something that sets them apart from the others: I would like that special something to be an engineering degree from Texas A&M. For public universities in Texas, appropriations from the state provide just one-third of their total budgets, so private support is needed to enhance quality. Texas A&M initiated the One Spirit One Vision Campaign to raise private gifts in support of the goals set out in Vision 2020. This campaign will quadruple A&M's private endowment from $700 million to $3 billion by 2020. Engineering has experienced unprecedented success in its fundraising this year. We are still confirming, but the $40 million our development officers raised last year may be the highest amount ever raised by a public engineering college. During the campaign we have added many new endowments including 12 chairs, 26 professorships, 7 graduate fellowships and more than 50 scholarships. Through the generous giving of our former students, we also are welcoming two newly named departments this fall: the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering and the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering. So what are the challenges that lie ahead? This semester, the 15-hour course load begins. The state's flagship universities are experiencing increasing pressure from the Texas legislature to provide greater access to higher education and to have undergraduate students complete their educations in four years. It is too early to determine the long-term impact of this measure, but the trend for professional degrees such as engineering has been for our students to take more than four years to graduate. This is not only due to the demanding and challenging coursework, but also to the value-added experiences that our students are known for: real-world experience through internships and co-ops, study abroad, extracurricular project teams and participation in leadership organizations. Making higher education available to more students is the right thing to do; balancing the need to shorten the time it takes to get through the degree program, while not discouraging the valuable "extra" opportunities outside the classroom, will be a challenge. Another challenge will be our fiscal constraints. The dollar is being squeezed tighter than ever and we must operate as responsibly as possible. We have been hit with many unexpected expenses: for instance, the university utility bill is $20 million higher than the university projected and we have been assessed our share of that payment. While we have streamlined and made our organization lean, we must continue to find ways to reduce costs. I urge you to practice energy conservation. We also must remain aggressive as we conduct our faculty searches and do so with more vigor than ever before. To strengthen that effort, I have asked a group of senior faculty to discuss cross-cutting technologies where we have or want to build strength. I am holding back 12 faculty reinvestment positions, along with three chairs and three professorships to attract outstanding candidates. These candidates must be involved in cross-college/cross-university research. Candidates with successful records of commercialization could tap into the Governor's funding for start-up packages. I want to "think big" about ideal candidates and ask you to do so, as well. I believe that to remain competitive, we must focus our research support and faculty efforts on multi-disciplinary academic and research areas where we have demonstrated strengths. The fields of energy, materials, informatics, robotics and autonomous controls are good examples. Through the reinvestment program, we have increased our faculty expertise in the underpinning technologies of "nano-bio-info"; it is now time to harness this knowledge to work in cross-disciplinary teams. We also must raise our faculty profile. We must continue to support faculty nominations for national and international awards and for appointments to key national boards and committees that shape policy and drive federal resources. Another area critical to our success is the active participation of our faculty in college planning. To better harness the collective wisdom of our faculty, I am creating three governance councils to serve as a think tank on three specific priorities: undergraduate student enhancement, graduate student enhancement and research. Councils will be made up of a diverse group including two full professors, two associate professors, two assistant professors, two department heads, one EFAC member, one faculty senate member, a student representative and a designated administrator who will serve as the "ex officio" liaison with the dean's office. Council members will serve a two-year term and will discuss issues and make recommendations for action to the dean. I will announce the membership of these councils soon. A big part of my job is analyzing data. I see a lot of it. But one statistic caught my eye. I was fascinated to discover that 28 percent of entering freshmen this year are first-generation college students. This statistic caught my attention because it reminded me of young man who came from a family of little means. Whose father worked in a sawmill and mother took in sewing to make ends meet. A family of many aunts, uncles and cousins who never had the opportunity to attend college. A family that wanted their son to have the opportunity for an education they never had. Well, one day, that young man enrolled in college. He was unsure of himself when he arrived on campus and was not sure he even belonged there. But a professor took interest in him and convinced him that not only did he belong, but that he could be successful. That professor became his role model. The young man gained confidence in himself and became the first in his family to graduate from college. He even went back for two additional degrees, became a professor and ultimately, the vice chancellor and dean of engineering at Texas A&M. He stands before you today as proof that one faculty member can change a life. As you leave, think of our students: their energy and enthusiasm, their promise and potential. Commit to finding one who needs a role model like you. I would like to sincerely thank each of you for your contributions to Texas A&M Engineering and wish you a productive, successful and memorable fall semester.

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