Re-engineering the College of Engineering

New dean Manos Maragakis has big plans to improve college

2/26/2009 - By: John Trent
Maragakis Photo by Jean Dixon

Manos Maragakis knows that there is a “gathering storm” surrounding the nation, one that could compromise the country’s chances for future growth and prosperity.

The National Academies, in its seminal 2006 publication, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” identified the major problem as a lack of enough technological talent to keep up with the demands of an increasingly technologically dependent world. Couple that with an economic downturn that is cutting budgets and deflating long-range goals, and it could be argued that colleges of engineering throughout the country are facing a bleak future in this country.

Maragakis, though, believes the reverse is true. Certainly, he says, the College of Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno is facing “some very extreme challenges, which will require us to make some hard decisions,” he says.

Yet on the other hand, Maragakis foresees a strong future for the College of Engineering.

“Engineering education is recognized as a critical need,” says Maragakis, who was named the College of Engineering’s dean on Feb. 13 following a national search. “This is an opportunity for all of us in the field, including our College of Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“Within the next few years, I believe we will reach and achieve measurable national recognition for our education, research and outreach. We have a first-class faculty. We have good enrollments, and in fact, in certain programs, such as civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering, enrollments are up strongly.

“The state is going through a particularly hard time right now. But the College of Engineering has an excellent base from which to build upon so that we can continue to fulfill all aspects of our mission.

“Periods of hardship are often perfect moments to decide the future.”

The 51-year-old Maragakis’ academic and research portfolio is substantial. He has been a member of the College of Engineering faculty since 1984, and has played an important role in the college’s growth, serving for 14 years as chairperson of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

During Maragakis’ tenure as department head, the department grew to include an environmental engineering program. The department was recognized in 2008 by U.S. News & World Report as ranking among the top 50 civil engineering programs among the nation’s public institutions.

Maragakis has also received numerous National Science Foundation grants for research and has a lengthy scholarly record of published articles in a number of engineering journals. His most recent accomplishment includes a Grand Challenge project on the seismic response of non-structural systems, in which he leads a multidisciplinary research team of researchers and engineers around the country.

When Dean Ted Batchman announced he would be stepping down after 13 years at the helm, Maragakis was appointed interim dean in July. His time as interim dean, as well as interviews and presentations during the search process impressed many on campus, including Provost Marc Johnson, who said, “Manos’ leadership performance as interim dean convinced me that he has the ability and passion to lead the college through this difficult budgetary time and position it for growth in the near future.”

How does Maragakis plan on helping the College of Engineering realize its future?

What follows is a question-and-answer session where Maragakis spells out his vision for the college, including its major challenges and opportunities in the future.

Question: In your presentation to the open campus forum for candidates for the position on Feb. 2, you mentioned that the nation is facing formidable challenges, a “gathering storm,” if you will. Can you explain this?

Maragakis: The National Academies have articulated the “gathering storm” position very clearly. The nation has shown a recent inability to generate competent technological talent. If you look at the numbers, they are quite startling. According to the National Academies, the percentage of undergraduates receiving degrees in science and engineering are as follows: United States, 32 percent; Germany, 36 percent; China, 59 percent; Japan 66 percent. If you look at engineering alone, it’s even more stark: 5 percent of U.S. undergraduates receive engineering degrees; 50 percent of all Chinese undergrads receive engineering degrees.

Engineering schools must provide a better pipeline of talent to help the nation address the strategic needs of maintaining a leadership position in innovation and technology. Our future depends on it. This is our great opportunity, since we are called to help meet a national critical need. At the same time, we are facing major challenges in order to be able to excel in meeting this major objective.

Q: You have spoken often about how important it is for the college to constantly remind itself of the University’s land-grant mission. Why do you feel this is so important?

Maragakis: If you look at the some of the original language involved with the Land-Grant Act, it clearly states that engineering is part of the land-grant mission. There is reference to the “mechanic arts” in this early language. Clearly, “mechanic arts” has evolved into what we have today: energy and the environment, health, security, learning and computation, infrastructure in urban settings, engineering in medicine, to name a few currently under the engineering umbrella.

These are all aspects of the modern college of engineering, and represent key opportunities for the University’s College of Engineering to serve our community, our state, our region and our country. That is why I believe we are at an interesting and pivotal moment in our college’s history. More than ever before, in these areas and many others, there is a critical need to produce engineers that can innovate and perform in a competitive global environment.

Q: What are some of the major challenges facing the College of Engineering?

Maragakis: The world has a changed a great deal in the past 100 years, probably more in the past century than in all of the centuries preceding it combined. Scientific and engineering knowledge doubles every 10 years, and one of the great challenges is ensuring that our college remains well ahead of the curve in all areas where we teach or conduct research. Nanotechnology, renewable energy, materials science, information and communications technology are just four areas where we have made progress, but we need to expand our efforts and continue to recruit the very best faculty and students.

We have a very strong faculty already, and in certain areas I believe we have national- and world-class researchers. And there is no denying that circumstances can often play to our strengths. Physical infrastructure throughout the country is dated and is crumbling; some estimates put the need for new roads, bridges and large scale structures at $1.6 trillion. We have the faculty that is performing state-of-the art research in these areas. They are generating and applying new knowledge every day in their labs. But it is not enough. We can and should do more.  And we should be mindful that we are facing a strong national and international competition. Our students must be educated and trained to compete globally. Our research must solve important problems of the society. We must excel in all aspects of our mission. That is why over the coming days and weeks we will continue to develop goals and criteria of excellence that are measurable, and that even with budget constraints, we will strive to meet.

Q: How do you convince students that even with budget constraints, the College of Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno  is a worthwhile major for them to pursue?

Maragakis: First, I would tell any prospective student that great faculty and great teaching is our essence. Our College of Engineering has a long tradition of ensuring that our undergraduates see our faculty early and often during their academic careers. Our professors are expected to do many things, but first and foremost, they are expected to teach. At the same time our students will find unique opportunities to engage in first-class research. A strong, competitively funded research program is the other major component of our mission. A first-class research program not only is essential to our graduate education, but contributes significantly to the quality and reputation of our undergraduate programs. Engineering is a profession that gives our students the opportunity to have a deep impact on our society and the nation’s prosperity while it also allows them to do very well for themselves.

The challenge for our college is to convey this message to prospective students. We need to enhance the public’s – as well as student’s – perception of engineering in general. Some recent surveys have indicated that in the minds of high school students , engineering trails other professions. Students , and in some instances the general public, do not understand well what an engineer does. It is our fault for not communicating this better. Almost everything surrounding us involves an engineer. We need to let people know!

We have a number of initiatives where our college is reaching into the schools. We are planning on continuing this push. We need to show students that engineering is not only a much-needed profession in the world today, it’s one of the “coolest” jobs – with all of its problem solving, modern emphasis on sustainability, the environment and information and communications technology – that a young person can ever have.

Q: In a couple of sentences or less, what would you say your vision for the college is?

Maragakis: I really believe in striving for definable measures, with clear outcomes, so it would probably be something along the lines of, ‘The College of Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno will achieve measurable national recognition for its education, research and outreach by 2015.’

Q: How do you plan on measuring this?

Maragakis: I believe there are a number of useful metrics. For example, with our students, we should look at the quality of our students. What types of employment do they receive upon graduation? For research, how productive are we as a faculty in this arena? What is the national profile of our research programs?  What is the impact of our research on contributing to the solutions of the problems of our society? And as a college, how do we measure in national rankings such as U.S. News & World Report?

Already, we know that our CEE (Civil and Environmental Engineering) Department is ranked by U.S. News &World Report among the top 50 state university programs in the country. We know that our Mechanical Engineering Department is ranked 42nd out of 164 graduate programs for faculty research expenditures and tech transfer. We know we have a number of NSF CAREER award winners on our faculty. These accomplishments form a solid base that we can build on.

One of the big goals in the coming weeks will be to develop a series of comparative metrics for the College of Engineering, for all of our departments and programs. Once we develop these metrics, we can more fully develop our vision and chart the course to accomplish it.

Q: We are living in a time on campus where almost every facet of campus is being asked to “do more with less.” How do you plan to meet this challenge?

Maragakis: We need to view this period as an opportunity to re-tool, re-focus and make sure that when we come out of this, we have maintained a strong strategic position.  We have highly competent and dedicated faculty and staff and strong alumni and supporters. Therefore, I am confident that each one of us will rise to the circumstances as needed. A strong College of Engineering is a must for the economic diversification of the state.

We need to more fully cultivate certain aspects of the college. Industry partnerships are a great example. We need to reach out more to industry, and show them that we can be an excellent partner in a number of key areas. I’ve already reached out to our advisory board on this matter, and will continue to do so. We need to open our doors a bit more, establish flawless and efficient procedures and show our potential industry partners what we can do. A strong partnership between industry and our college is absolutely necessary for the prosperity of the region and the state. It can be particularly useful during these challenging times, and it can contribute to the future prosperity of the region.

We need to partner with other colleges at the University and other research and teaching institutions to pursue our educational, research and outreach goals. Strong interdisciplinary partnerships will be one of my major goals. They are always important and contribute to building competitiveness, but in economic times like these, they are absolutely essential.

Funded research is another area where I think we can continue to make important headway. We need to pursue federal assistance grants to build capacity in order to enhance our competitive grantsmanship. But it is significant competitive grants that need to be our goal in order to continue building our research program. This will not only help our research enterprise, it will help our teaching as well. It can become a “value added” in enticing more students to consider engineering: not only can you learn in a classroom in the College of Engineering, you can also participate in hands-on, cutting-edge research alongside some of the top engineering faculty in the country. This is a hard and challenging promise that we can certainly make to our students.

On the departmental level, I will be encouraging our faculty to develop focused research areas within the framework of engineering Grand Challenges as defined by the National Academies. I have seen firsthand how proper focus and planning can be of benefit.  They grow capacity, and increase collaboration and prestige for your program.

If we do these things, then even this period can be looked back upon as a constructive challenge for all of us.

Q: Finally, how would you describe your values? What values do you hope to instill in the College of Engineering?

Maragakis: Well, many of these values are already part of the college. As dean, I would like to stress excellence, collaboration and partnership. Diversity and entrepreneurship are also vital. I believe ethics are extremely important, as is integrity. If there is strong collegiality in what we do, and if it is done with an abiding sense of respect for our faculty, our students, our staff, our college and our University, then we will accomplish many great things in the future.


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