Practice is Perfect for WPI Professor

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass.- Robert C. Labonté of Shrewsbury, Mass., a WPI graduate who has been a visiting associate professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department since 1992, has been named the first Professor of Practice at WPI.

Created last spring, the professorship does not fit into the traditional tenure track mode, according to Provost John F. Carney III. It was set up, he explains, to attract distinguished professionals, exemplified by Labonté, to the university to teach and to share their expertise.

"Similar term professorships have worked well at other universities, including Vanderbilt," says Carney. "This new professorship provides WPI with a mechanism to tap the experience of successful professionals. You could say it's a talent bridge to connect proven leaders in industry and government with academia."

In the future, he says, there may be as many as six Professors of Practice on campus with funding coming partially from the Provost's Office and partially from the departments requesting these professorships.

In announcing Labonté's appointment, ECE Department Head John A. Orr said, "In his previous position of visiting associate professor, Bob has demonstrated the quality and breadth of his contributions in undergraduate teaching, project advising, and committee and service work. He epitomizes the meaning of the title 'Professor of Practice,' with his ability to bring the EE profession into the classroom, and he is the ideal person to initiate this new WPI faculty rank." ECE Professor Alexander E. Emanuel, a strong proponent of the new Professorship of Practice, says that Labonté not only has the professional expertise necessary for the post, he is first and foremost truly committed to the nurturing of his students.

"Bob's goal is to pass the torch on to his students," says Emanuel. "He wants to teach them how to get the most out of their WPI education so they will be able to enjoy success in their chosen professions-as he did before them."

According to ECE Professor Richard F. Vaz '79, the professorship is consistent with WPI's Two Towers educational missions. For example, it will provide students with the type of insight, perspective and practical concerns traditionally rare in technological education. Labonté, he comments, is the perfect "poster child" for the professorship. "Bob will be an excellent model for students and faculty alike," he says. "I'm particularly pleased that this post provides a way for his many contributions to WPI to be recognized." Labonté has had a long and distinguished career. From 1955 to 1959 he was a member of the technical staff in MIT's Laboratory Division. In 1959, he joined the Bedford-based MITRE Corp. when it was formed out of MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. He retired from MITRE in 1993. During his last assignment, he conducted research and development associated with the implementation of provably secure computer access controls and equipment for sensitive U.S. government systems.

Between 1989 and 1991, he directed work on a variety of government applications of artificial intelligence. "This included several expert systems for diagnosis of elements in NASA's Space Shuttle systems," he reports. In the 1970s, among other activities, Labonté led work on the development of a processing and communications system for scheduling and managing the assets of NASA's space flight tracking and data systems. The system is still in use at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Earlier, he was a member of the United States contingent at NATO headquarters in Paris, France, which was responsible for the design and acquisition of an Air Defense system for NATO Europe-another system that continues in operation to this day. Labonté received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from WPI. Despite his rewarding and visible career, he says he had little hesitation after retiring from the corporate ranks to head back to his alma mater.

To date, he has taught, among other courses, EE3601, Principles of Electrical Engineering and EE4305, Aerospace Navigation Systems. In addition, he developed EE3305, Aerospace Avionics Systems, to encompass a broader range of avionics topic so important to aeronautics majors. He is a member of the ECE Undergraduate Program Committee and the ECE Projects Committee and advises up to five Major Qualifying Projects each year.

A member of Skull, the senior honor society, Labonté serves as director of WPI's Space Experimentation Program and chairs the Publications Committee.

At this point in time, WPI's first Professor of Practice says he can think of no other place he'd rather be than at WPI working with students. "Students," he says, "are the architects of the future."