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Meet Dennis Berkey

A Conversation with WPI’s 15th President

By Michael W. Dorsey

Arriving on July 1 for his first official day as WPI’s chief executive, Dennis Berkey was greeted by a large welcoming committee of staff from Boynton Hall. He quickly settled into the role of host, escorting group after group into the office that presidents have occupied since the university opened its doors in 1868. He took special pride in showing off the room’s newest feature: a fireplace that lay hidden for years behind the wallboard on the office’s west wall. (He’d discovered it after spotting a chimney rising above the building’s granite facade.)

During the first six months of his administration, Berkey has challenged WPI to take a similarly close look at itself, searching for the deeper truths and fresh ideas that may lie behind the facade of preconceived notions and old habits. Drawing on his more than three decades of experience in higher education, he has called on the faculty, staff, students, and alumni to question their assumptions about everything—from how the university does business to how it educates students.

In an address at the year’s first faculty meeting in September, Berkey noted that “the vision that has served the university so well for the past 30 years does seem ripe for some degree of reconsideration as we contemplate WPI’s future.” To set that reconsideration formally in motion, he has established seven commissions that will tackle the following subjects: general education and the first-year experience; the fine and liberal arts and the Sufficiency project; the Interactive Qualifying Project and the global programs; research and graduate education; faculty workloads; WPI’s ideal size and the distribution of enrollments between undergraduate and graduate programs, and among majors; and WPI’s national rankings.

In explaining the goal of these commissions, Berkey has made clear that his purpose is not to remake WPI, but to enhance and build on the strengths that drew him to the university. In a message to the WPI community on July 1, he said that those strengths include WPI’s longstanding emphasis on theory and practice, realized today in the WPI Plan, which produces “graduates well prepared for important work, for leadership, and for fulfilling lives.”

Before joining WPI, Berkey spent 30 years at Boston University, where he served as a faculty member in mathematics, Chairman of the Mathematics Department, Dean of Arts and Sciences, and University Provost. He says the primary lesson he learned at BU that he will apply as WPI’s president is that “academic leadership requires both a sense of the potential and a way to go about realizing it—as well as a willingness to encourage dialogue and debate, to listen, and to build on the ideas, passions, and abilities that reveal themselves in these interactions. Success is generally achieved by institutions over sustained periods of time, rather than by individuals.”

Berkey’s wife, Catherine, is a lecturer at the Harvard Medical School and a research associate in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The Berkeys have three children.

This fall, Transformations caught up with Dr. Berkey to ask him about education as well as his impressions of WPI and his thoughts about its future.

What do you think a college education should deliver to students?

As well as preparing a student rather deeply within a particular field or two, an undergraduate education should engage the student with a variety of modes of thought, styles of learning, and general areas of knowledge. A historian or an archaeologist may look at the world in an entirely different way than an economist or a physicist. Religion itself accounts for widely varying beliefs about the world. It’s part of the “And Life” component of an education to gain some sense of this diversity of thought, which plays itself out in nearly every aspect of global dynamics.

An undergraduate education should also provide opportunities for students to engage fully in good habits of social and civic responsibility, and simply engage with the world to significant degrees. WPI’s programs in public service, and especially the project work in needy communities, are excellent examples of how this happens in our community. I tell students that their WPI experience is part of the real world, not just preparation for it.

WPI often refers to itself as a technological university. Does this description fit your vision of the university?

That may remain our best descriptor, but regardless of the label, I think we must make the case that an education centered on science and technology, if enriched and balanced by the other important areas of learning, is an excellent platform from which to proceed in many directions. These include graduate and professional school, working in a broad range of organizations, and more generally finding fulfillment in life. The notion that WPI prepares students primarily for work in engineering and technical fields sells short the quality and potential of a WPI education. WPI prepares students for leadership and for personal fulfillment, as well as for achievement.

You’ve asked the faculty to consider a revision to the Sufficiency, WPI’s required humanities and arts project, perhaps by replacing it with an interdisciplinary first-year core curriculum. How do you think the educational outcome of a core curriculum would differ from those of the Sufficiency?

I would like us to engage students, particularly the freshmen, more broadly in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. Team-taught, interdisciplinary courses can be as much fun for the faculty who design and teach them as for the students who benefit from the shared intellectual experience. Big ideas and great achievements, as well as mankind’s struggles and failures, can be the stuff of exciting and challenging courses. I do not have a set notion of what should be done on this, and I do not want to eliminate the students’ ability to select a certain number of courses according to their interests, but I think we can do more at the outset to position and enable our students to get the most out of their undergraduate experience.

Are there other academic and research areas at WPI that you would like to see further developed?

Yes, I believe WPI should continue to develop its programs in the life sciences. Over the last decade we’ve seen the growing contributions of engineering thinking and engineering technology to advances in medical science, therapeutics, and medical devices. We want to continue to support these contributions. This has particular relevance to the future of the WPI Bioengineering Institute and Gateway Research Park at WPI, a science-based development that offers opportunities to both enhance our research facilities in engineering and science and stimulate economic development by advancing the medical device industry.

WPI also has well-developed areas of strength in engineering and science, and we don’t want to neglect those. Programs like the Metal Processing Institute are doing important work for whole industries. With new leadership, our Fire Protection Engineering Program is poised to develop its research component in an ambitious way that will redound to the benefit of society as well as to the university. Our mathematics program has had great success with its pipeline programs that reach out to elementary and secondary students and their teachers to help increase the number of students who are well prepared to study math and science at the college level. This work is important for the nation, and we will continue to support it.

“I ask that alumni be active and engaged ambassadors for WPI, helping identify prospective students, reconnecting WPI to other alumni, and generally promoting the university to all of our publics. I hope also that alumni will be loyal critics and active participants in our work to make their continuing association with WPI as satisfying to them as possible.”

—WPI President Dennis Berkey

What strengths does WPI currently have in the life sciences, and what areas does it need to develop?

We have a strong biomedical engineering department, but it’s small. There’s good strength on the electrical engineering side, the traditional root of biomedical engineering programs, but we need more development on the biology side. There is strong student interest, and enrollments are growing, so we need more faculty and facilities to support this growing enrollment base. Chemistry is finding its way increasingly into the role it has always claimed for itself as the central science, but now it is contributing powerfully—nationally and internationally—to advances in the life sciences, and I think that will be important for us going forward. We have strong new leadership in biology and biotechnology. And we are doing exciting work in imaging, including neuroimaging [the application of imaging technology in understanding the brain and its functioning].

Programs like neuroimaging are interdisciplinary in nature. You’ve indicated that interdisciplinary research is one of WPI’s strengths. Why do you think WPI has had more success than most universities in getting faculty to cooperate across disciplines?

Because of our relatively intimate scale, the barriers that typically exist between departments and schools at larger universities just are not here to any significant degree. WPI’s first R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health was received by our Mathematical Sciences Department, rather than one of our life sciences departments, a reflection of the high degree of collaboration between Professor Dalin Tang, the principal investigator, and his colleagues in the life sciences. That kind of thing is much easier at a place of this scale.

Are there educational benefits that will come from strengthening the links between the life sciences and engineering at WPI?

Yes, because these areas are increasingly of interest to students. It’s also the case that we can succeed in marketing WPI to pre-professional students in the health-related professions more than we have. All of this contributes to a nicely complex set of opportunities in the life sciences.

How would you characterize the role of research at WPI?

It’s especially important to continue the WPI tradition of focusing on what’s important to do in research, not just what’s interesting. The practical side of WPI is that its productivity really makes a difference in the world and I hope that continues to characterize our research programs. We can’t do everything in research. We have to focus on a number of areas in which we can be very good. That will be part of elevating the stature of WPI, because we’ll not only be doing very good things for the students we educate, but we’ll be doing very good things for society and the economy, and that’s the larger role we want to play.

Indeed, WPI has been struggling for many years to elevate its stature and broaden its reputation. Is this a worthwhile effort?

Yes. We must press hard on the important work of expanding our reputation. There are many areas of excellence in our faculty’s research and important programs outside of science and engineering, such as those in management, that need to be better understood by the public. As I have already noted, the more general value of a science-based undergraduate education is something we must promote vigorously. As we seek to expand our reputation, it will be important to have substantial achievement to talk about, but it will be equally important to get the word out so people can understand what it means and why it’s important.

In 2001 you led the visiting team from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges [NEASC] that evaluated WPI for reaccreditation. One area of concern the team identified was WPI’s incomplete success in achieving a diverse student body and faculty. How important a priority will diversity be for your administration?

Diversity in the staff and faculty ranks, as well as in the student body, will remain an important goal of this administration. But we must realize that the pool of students applying to technological universities nationally is quite limited, and that within that pool the minority applicants comprise an even more limited number. They are in great demand by the finest universities. The NEASC team was concerned about whether the goals in WPI’s Strategic Plan are realistic in this regard. We will work as hard as possible, within the limits of our resources and the constraints I have stated, to develop a more fully representative academic community.

At BU you helped recruit a number of distinguished scholars to the faculty, including one Nobel Prize laureate. How important a role will faculty recruitment play in your efforts to help WPI broaden its academic program and raise its stature?

It is critically important, and one of the most enjoyable parts of academic administration. WPI will settle for nothing less than the very best qualified individuals in those it recruits, retains, and promotes.

You told the WPI community this fall that to put the university on a more stable financial footing, we will need to bring the student body into better balance with the size of our faculty and staff—in part by increasing enrollment. What is the greatest challenge WPI will face should it attempt to enlarge the student body?

Increasing our applicant pool. WPI attracts excellent applicants, but not too many more than we actually admit. The ability to increase enrollment, which I do believe is necessary to bring our revenues into line with our costs, will depend primarily on our ability to attract a significantly larger number of qualified applicants to our undergraduate programs.

From the first days of your presidency, you have invested a great deal of time in civic outreach. Why do you believe this is important?

It’s very important that WPI continue to be regarded as a player in Worcester. That’s why I’ve spent considerable time meeting with the mayor and the city manager, and getting involved in a number of organizations in which WPI needs to be visible and needs to be contributing leadership. Much of this has to do with the development of Gateway Park, our signal contribution to the development of Worcester. What’s good for Worcester will be good for WPI. I’m encouraged that the colleges have come together with the business community and the mayor’s office to form a tri-partied collaboration that will focus on how to leverage these three components to the benefit of the development of the city.

In your conversations with city officials, what do they say they are looking to WPI to contribute to the city during the next decade or so?

I think they are looking to us for leadership in the revitalization of the economy and the region. We think it will be life science-based industries, in large part, that will lead the next phase of the development of Worcester and Central Massachusetts, and WPI is positioned to provide key leadership.

What is the vision for Gateway Park?

Gateway Park will be a life science–based development that will draw commercial tenants to the facilities in proximity to WPI faculty and with access to the research they are doing in engineering and the life sciences. We would also like to develop housing for our graduate students. What’s most important is that the whole project succeeds as a thriving, attractive, interesting component of the development of both WPI and downtown Worcester. The plan isn’t complete; the vision needs to be further developed. It’s important to get it right before we jump in fully, because this will be seen as a WPI project. Our partnership in this with the Worcester Business Development Corporation is an important one, and the WBDC’s role in preparing the site and the opportunity has been essential, but I think WPI will be playing the leadership role going forward, as we should.

President Dennis Berkey and his wife, Catherine, at Homecoming 2004.

Throughout history, there have been many great leaders. Which do you admire most?

I admire Ghandi, who said, “To find yourself, lose yourself in service to others.” Jefferson had brilliant gifts for architecture, institutions, and society, as well as for democratic leadership. Churchill led a nation through extreme peril with absolute resolve. Kennedy profoundly inspired a generation of Americans.

What do you consider to be your greatest personal and professional achievements?

My greatest personal satisfaction has come in my teaching, in my work with faculty to develop programs and shape institutions, and in my family life. The achievements map pretty well onto this, which is my great good fortune.

What is your favorite place on campus?

The Campus Center. Everyone belongs, staff and faculty as well as students, and it is such a happy place.

What do you enjoy doing in your time away from the office?

I like to read, to do gardening, and to spend time with my family. The work of the university has so many different human aspects, though, that it satisfies many of my personal interests. So Cathy and I look forward to a rich engagement with the WPI community, including travel to meet alumni and supporters.

To learn more about Dr. Berkey and to read his message to the WPI community, visit the Office of the President web site.

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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 14:54 EST
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