Dean energized for next five years
David B. Williams has been reappointed to lead The Ohio State University College of Engineering through May 15, 2021.Already the longest-serving engineering dean since 1990,
Williams has stewarded numerous college successes since 2011, including achieving record levels in both number and quality of undergraduate engineering students, growing tenured/tenure-track faculty to its highest level in the college's history and increasing research expenditures to more than $120 million.
As he begins his second five-year term at the helm of the college, Williams recently took some time to chat about the achievements he takes the most pride in, the critical role alumni play in the college’s continued evolution, what’s ahead and more.
Q: What achievements or successes are you most proud of from the past five years?
A: I’m most proud of the quality, and indeed the number, of undergraduate students that we have attracted to the college over the last five years. And I’m particularly proud of how our faculty have worked to give the best quality education to our growing student body. In addition, we have won some extraordinary research awards in transportation and in manufacturing. We have built some incredible facilities, including Koffolt Labs, which houses the William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; CEMAS, the best electron microscope lab in the world; and the ElectroScience Lab, the world’s oldest and best radio microwave lab. We are building a premier manufacturing center, the Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence. We’ve opened up a great simulation innovation and modeling center. We have leveraged the Discovery Themes so that we will hopefully be, close to 300 tenure-track faculty members at the end of this year. We also met our fundraising goal of $350 million in the But for Ohio State campaign. And, in both the increase in students and the increase in faculty, we have increased the diversity in both women and other diverse members of the engineering community.
So this college is more diverse than it ever was, it’s bigger than it ever was and it’s better than it ever was. Those are some of the achievements, of course there are lots more.
Q: What is something that many people are surprised to learn about the college?
A: I think the scale continues to surprise, in terms of how many students we have and educate so well. As well as when people hear that we have partnerships with more than 800 companies and that we get more industry-funded research than just about every other public university in the nation.
Many are still surprised to learn that we aren’t open enrollment, even though it’s been 20 odd-years since that changed. People are impressed when they learn that we are among the top 20 percent of the Big Ten in terms of the quality of our undergraduate class. We’re right up there just behind Michigan and Illinois, fighting with Purdue for third place.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing engineering education and how is Ohio State poised to meet them?
A: One big challenge—and this is true across many fine engineering colleges—is the number of young men and women who now see engineering as a career that they wish to pursue. Managing the increased desire of students to get a great engineering education is a challenge that I think we’re meeting very well at Ohio State because of our commitment to education.
Another major achievement is the creation of the Department of Engineering Education. With this addition, we’re joining a select group of engineering colleges that are committed to ensuring that the way we teach students is at the cutting-edge. While our faculty are great engineers, full of knowledge and able to communicate that knowledge, we don’t know how to measure how successful we are at doing so. Engineering educators who are professionals can teach us the efficacy of different ways of teaching. That assessment will be the true value for our faculty and we hope, of course, that all our students will benefit.
Q: A recent Columbus Dispatch article implied that your title could just as easily be dean of job development. Tell us about your involvement in this area.
A: The college’s mission statement includes the idea that we see ourselves as being responsible for the economic development of the state of Ohio. These days, that’s summed up in three words: job, jobs and jobs. I have been involved in economic development at Ohio State, as well as in my two previous roles at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Lehigh University, because the role of engineering colleges is to produce professionals who become part of the workforce. More than 50 percent of our graduates stay in Ohio, so we’re a huge contributor to the state’s engineering workforce. We work with the economic development arms of Ohio (Jobs Ohio) and central Ohio (Columbus 2020), chambers of commerce and so on when they’re trying to attract or retain companies. We’re involved in those discussions to explain that we provide the workforce and the skills to help companies develop new manufacturing processes, new logistics processes, etc. We can help companies develop better products and hire better workers. So we are value-added to the economic development organizations that are present here in Ohio.
I believe that getting out there and letting the community know what role we play is particularly important because all that communities hear is how expensive education is, how much we are a drain on the state’s funds—all of the downsides of what a first-rate education is all about. My view is that you have to invest to get an education that is worthwhile to you and to the community. And to a certain extent, as in all things, you get what you pay for. We’re an extraordinarily good value for the money in terms of the cost of an Ohio State education for in-state and for out-of-state tuition. It’s less than half the cost of some Big Ten institutions and I don’t believe we give half the value of the education as those other great institutions do! So, while it is expensive, you get tremendous value for money out of not just an engineering education, but an Ohio State education.
Q: You often speak about diversity, both publicly and privately. How has the college evolved since you arrived and what progress is still ahead
A: The college and the university were very committed to diversity before I arrived. So it’s not new, it’s something that I’ve continued to build on. And this is diversity in all its aspects, diversity of our student body, which can be the more obvious aspects of racial diversity and gender diversity. But it’s also financial diversity, geographic diversity, diversity of skills—bringing a student body together that represents the very best of the state of Ohio and the rest of the world. The same arguments apply to faculty and to staff.
Historically, engineering has been the preserve of white men, very predominantly. In the years since I’ve been here we have changed, particularly at the leadership level, the distribution of voices at the table. We now have much broader diversity—gender, racial, economic and geographic—in our executive committee. We have done the same in our External Advisory Council. So the leadership and those that influence the leadership team are very different to what they were five years ago. For example, at our senior leadership meetings, more than half those present are women and two are African Americans. We have a very diverse group and diverse voices bring diverse solutions. Those with different experiences and different backgrounds think differently, and that’s all the better for finding the right solution.
And we will continue to increase our diversity. We have the opportunity to hire dozens of new professors and over the next five years, and educate another 10,000 or more young men and women. The more of those that are from diverse backgrounds, the better it will be for all our students.
Q: One of the College of Engineering’s greatest strengths is its strong alumni network. What are the benefits of that network and what role do alumni play in the college’s continued evolution?
A: We have over 60,000 alumni and we add a couple of thousand to that every year. That worldwide network provides an opportunity for our students to get involved with alumni, both the companies they work at or the countries they go to.
I regularly wear Buckeye ties, so when I get in the cab in Atlanta I hear “Go Bucks!” Or I’m at breakfast at Shanghai and someone says, “O-H!” Just being part of this organization means being part of a worldwide network of Ohio State alumni. The commitment that these alumni have to the university and to the college is huge. I was in Mumbai three weeks ago and there were 20 alumni talking about the next football season and they want to know what’s happening in engineering. And they were from the business college! They came just to be part of Ohio State’s network in Mumbai. We have another group that gathers in Shanghai, so it’s truly a worldwide group of alumni.
Our alumni’s commitment to the college is demonstrated in many different ways, including helping students, coming back to share their wisdom in the classroom, serving on various external advisory boards or being part of Ohio State’s workforce. Many give scholarships to recognize the scholarship help they received while attending Ohio State. Since you can’t pay back, as Woody Hayes said, you pay forward and we have thousands of alumni who are paying forward. We have more scholarships than ever for our undergraduate students and, in fact, more fellowships than ever for our graduate students. And that’s in many, many cases because the generosity of our alumni.
Of course then you go to the Knowlton School of Architecture; Scott Labs, after Peter and Claire Scott; and the new Koffolt Labs, home of the William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. That new facility would not have happened without Bill Lowrie’s leadership, generosity and the way that he pulled together alumni from that department, under Stuart Cooper’s leadership as chair and now under Andre Palmer’s leadership. We enjoy bringing alumni back here to celebrate the good times that they had and to show them that the Ohio State they remember is not the Ohio State we have today. We’re a different place and that’s how we should be. But we’re a different place often because of what the alumni have done for us and it’s for that reason among many that last year we were the single most successful fundraising arm of the university.
Q: The saying that “engineers can change the world,” has almost become a cliché, but I suspect that you truly believe it. Can you give some examples of where you see that change happening now or on the horizon?
A: I see that change happening on a daily basis. The college’s strategic plans are built on strengths it has had for many years, but now we’re trying to be even more careful about where we invest. We pick areas that are very important to the state of Ohio and drive its economy, like aerospace and transportation. We have among the nation’s best and largest research efforts in those areas. Much of that is driven by companies like Honda, here in central Ohio, GE Aviation in Cincinnati, Parker Hannifin in northern Ohio and so on. Our alumni have helped us build huge partnerships with those organizations so we have the opportunity to help those companies as they develop the next generation of automobiles and aircraft engines. We have two unique facilities, the Transportation Research Center, right next to Honda’s North American Research Center, and Don Scott Field, the Ohio State Airport, where GE Aviation tests its jet engines. So work that’s being done here will be in the Honda of 2025 and the next generation of GE engines. In fact, work is in the current generation of GE engines and Honda automobiles.
Other areas where we are breaking new ground include at CEMAS, the Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis. We’ve built the first statewide network of stations, basically, where individuals at NASA Glen, Wright Patterson or another university can sit in their offices and run the world’s best electron microscopes here at Ohio State over the 100 gig Ohio Research Network. This has been talked about for 20 years in the field and now it’s been done here. That will transform how many, many more people can get access to the very highest quality scientific instrumentation. The ElectroScience Lab—the world’s oldest radar and communications lab—has helped transform the wireless world in which we live. ESL is home to specialists in antenna and signal processing, which includes how your cell phone picks up the signals that are coming through the air and transforms them into something that you can hear, be it music, a map, Siri or whomever you’re talking to.
We also have a huge range of partnerships with Ohio State’s seven health science colleges. I think there’s less than five universities around the nation that have so many health science colleges on one campus. More than 60 of our faculty have joint appointments, joint research or partnerships of some kind across the health sciences. Amongst the foremost of those are in the area of neuroscience, working with Dr. Ali Rezai’s deep-brain stimulation work. We’ve got faculty in electrical engineering who are, basically, doing electrical engineering inside the electricity in the brain. And we have Bill Marras working with the spine surgeons at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to find better ways to do the very delicate, very dangerous and yet transformative surgery that can be done on damaged spines. As a systems engineer, he can model the spine in ways nobody else can and this helps surgeons choose which is the best operation to do to relieve the particular issues that the patient has. That’s just a handful of ways that we change the world.
Q: What are your greatest priorities for the next five years?
A: We have built a great leadership team for the college. Continuing to build that team and bringing on more faculty and staff as leaders is essential. We work very hard to ensure that, for example, becoming a department chair is not an end to your scholarly career, but rather another phase. Our department chairs and the director of the Knowlton School are still fine scholars, leaders of national professional societies and authors of great papers in fabulous journals. We found the structure to do that. Ensuring that this college maintains and grows the very best leadership team in the university is absolutely the number one priority. Because without that team everything else isn’t going to work as well as it can do, from fundraising to research to teaching to working with the university leadership. So first and foremost we will continue to find talent, hire talent and retain talent.
We’ve hired over 100 professors since I came here and are hiring 50 this year. Much of that is to replace the older generation of professors hired in the 70s and 80s. That flux will continue over the next five years. We also have the opportunity to grow the faculty quite significantly, perhaps adding another 100 new faculty and growing to well over 300 faculty in total. So we’ll be a fundamentally different college in five years. Managing that change of bringing in a blend of very sharp young minds and experienced older minds is going to be a real challenge for everybody.
I also hope to bring more national recognition to our scholarly work. In doing that, we’ll continue to leverage the university’s investments in the Discovery Themes and perhaps in comprehensive energy management, if that comes to pass. We’ll continue to be selective in the areas I’ve talked about—data analytics, energy and environment, materials and manufacturing, transportation, health science partnerships. These are all areas where we will continue to invest and will grow truly international strength in. These areas are broad enough that all departments and all faculty, if they choose, can bring their skills to bear.