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John Orr

John Orr jokes that, after being named dean of undergraduate studies this spring, one of his first agenda items was to purchase some new suits.

Of course, when asked about the approach he will take to his new role at the university, his tone is much more serious. He talks about filling current needs, as well as addressing the longer-term vision. “How do we look to the future, recognizing that a university doesn’t make major changes overnight?” he says. “On the other hand, WPI is much more amenable to change than other schools.”

This summer, Orr parlayed his nearly 30 years of experience at WPI into a role that will help shape the future of the university’s undergraduate programs.

“For many years, WPI has been much broader than just engineering, and it will continue to broaden,” he says. “Our job is [educating students] who will be leaders, managers, innovators.”

In the lab, Orr has worked with a team of faculty to develop tech-nology that tracks and locates personnel indoors, such as firefighters inside a burning building. On campus, his experience as a professor has given him perspective on the fundamentals of a solid undergraduate education. During the undergraduate years, he explains, students gain a better understanding of themselves and the world around them; they gain the knowledge on which they will base a career, and, in essence, they grow up. “There is so much maturation that happens during these four years, inside and outside the classroom,” he says. “It’s a sacred responsibility for a residential university to work with students in this regard.”

In his new role he will collaborate with colleague Rick Vaz, the newly appointed dean of IGSD, on a variety of projects, such as exploring avenues to enhance the freshman- and sophomore-year experiences—a concern raised last year from the commissions that studied various aspects of the campus. “Rick and I will be working hand-in-hand and I’m really looking forward to that,” Orr says. “WPI is one of the leaders—if not the leader—in projects in undergraduate education, but there’s still room to integrate it more into the rest of the curriculum.”

Though moving to the administration side of academia, Orr will continue to advise projects; he says he looks forward to maintain­ing his involvement with the Silicon Valley project center. “The reason we’re all in education is the students and that sense of mutual fulfillment when students accomplish something,” he says. “I don’t expect to get too far away from that.”

—Charna Westervelt
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Last modified: Sep 28, 2006, 08:35 EDT
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