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Imagine and Achieve

Administrative group members, from left, front row, Linda Looft, Assistant VP, Government and Corporate Relations; Carol Simpson, Senior VP and Provost; Dennis Berkey, President and CEO; Dexter Bailey, VP, Development and Alumni Relations; second row, Jeff Solomon, VP, Finance and CFO; Chris Hardwick, VP, Marketing and Communications; John Miller, Associate VP, Physical Plant; Tracy Hassett, Associate VP, Human Resources; Tom Lynch, VP, Information Technology; Stephanie Pasha, Director of Operations;
third row, Kristin Tichenor, Associate VP, Enrollment Management; Steve Hebert, University VP; Stephen Flavin, Associate Provost and Dean, Corporate and Professional Education; Janet Richardson, VP, Student Affairs and Campus Life; D'Anne Hurd, General Counsel and VP, Business Development at Gateway Park.

Dennis Berkey began his tenure as WPI’s fifteenth president on July 1, 2004. We caught up with him shortly after Commencement 2006 to get his assessment of his first two years in office, and his views about what lies ahead for WPI.

How has your experience as WPI’s president been thus far, and what do you see as your administration’s chief accomplishments during its first two years?

I have thoroughly enjoyed this initial phase of my presidency. Much is written about how complex and difficult the job of a university president has become. What is often overlooked is the joy of daily interaction with excellent students, faculty, and staff. This is an outstanding community of talented, loyal, and highly productive individuals with whom Cathy and I are very pleased to be associated.

Of course, a new president is always greeted with a host of expectations and challenges, both foreseen and unexpected. The trustees had made clear their interest in securing strong leadership to take WPI to the next level, so to speak. Early conversations with faculty and staff revealed a number of widely shared ambitions and concerns that we began addressing right away in the seven presidential commissions. The Worcester community was eager to have WPI more actively engaged in civic affairs, and I was appointed to a number of boards and invited to address many groups and organizations.

Much of my time has been spent reorganizing and strengthening the senior administration, making several strong internal promotions, retaining other key leaders, and recruiting excellent professionals to important positions. We now have in place an outstanding team of talented professionals who have strengthened WPI’s financial operations and performance, dramatically increased applications for undergraduate admissions, and begun improving communications with WPI’s many constituencies, including our alumni.

We have also made significant progress in strengthening WPI’s academic programs. Our new WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park, scheduled to open in April, will provide marvelous facilities for research and graduate education in these fields. And WPI’s Bioengineering Institute is actively engaging entrepreneurs and companies with our research projects and faculty.

Two of the presidential commissions have made excellent progress mapping reforms that will greatly strengthen general education at WPI. Additionally, the WPI Little Theatre, which opened last November, provides a permanent and exclusive venue for our wonderful dramatic productions.

You have spoken about your interest in further developing the life sciences at WPI. Why is this important, and how will this be done?

Life science is the new economy for Massachusetts, and WPI—through our core strengths in engineering and science—can make great contributions to the economic development of our region and to improvements in the quality of life. We are thus investing in this area by building the new WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park, by adding relevant faculty, by deepening our collaborations with the University of Massachusetts Medical School in research and graduate education, and by strengthening our capabilities for technology transfer and commercialization.

Does this new emphasis on life sciences imply a shift from WPI’s traditional role in engineer­ing education?

Not at all. Part of a president’s responsibility is to look for new opportunities to apply an institution’s strengths and develop its potential. As I wrote in the previous issue of this magazine, the core of engineering and science at WPI remains strong, as will the administration’s support for it. Mechanical engineering continues to be our most popular major for undergraduates, including programs in aerospace engineering, robotics, and systems engineering. Our Metals Processing Institute is known worldwide for its innovations in powder metallurgy and its leadership and support for the entire metals processing industry. Faculty in chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and civil and environmental engineering are doing important, fundamental, novel work—exploring alternative energy sources, developing new imaging and diagnostic technologies, advancing highway design and traffic safety, the list goes on. I am very pleased to see not only the strength of the research and academic programs in such disciplines, but also the degree of interdisciplinary collaboration on campus and with other institutions.

The university has some strong forward momentum right now—from Gateway Park and Bartlett Center to faculty involvement in the commissions’ work to study critical issues at WPI. From your perspective, where is the university headed?

WPI’s historical commitment to lehr und kunst and the structure of the WPI Plan will continue to guide the institution’s evolution, adapted to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Young people preparing for careers in our increasingly technological world will benefit greatly from knowledge of science and technology, excellent communication and critical thinking skills, an appreciation for other cultures and for the values of the arts and humanities, and the ability to work cooperatively with individuals of differing talents and personalities. These are precisely the attributes instilled by the WPI Plan and our global studies program. Thus, our approach to reforming the undergraduate program will be one of evolution, not revolution.

We will, however, broaden the range of undergraduate majors to include programs within traditional fields, such as robotics; interdisciplinary programs within science and engineering, such as environmental engineering or bioinformatics; and programs outside of, but related to, the core of science and engineering, such as communications, scientific and technological writing, health science, architectural engineering, and entrepreneurship. This broadening will make WPI more attractive to a larger number of students, realizing that the number of American high school graduates interested in majoring in science and engineering is decreasing. Simply put, this form of education is superbly appropriate for smart young people preparing to make a difference in the world.

We are honing the first-year experience, which was one of the recommendations that resulted from the work of the presidential commissions. We are looking to reduce the use of traditional lectures, add broader, more integrative work to emphasize communication and critical thinking, increase the use of instructional technology, promote early involvement with projects, and broaden student involvement in the arts and humanities.

We will continue to increase our activities in research and graduate education, producing the scientific and technological innovations on which our economy and our health care system are so critically dependent. These interdisciplinary programs will reflect the nature of the problems to be solved.

The campus will become increasingly attractive with the addition of modern, apartment-style residence halls, expanded recreation and fitness facilities, and renovated and expanded library and academic facilities. One or more new academic buildings will no doubt appear, as a number of our programs, including Fire Protection Engineering and the MBA in the Management of Technology, continue to grow.

The overall vision for WPI will continue to emerge through ongoing discussions with the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees. But I see two overarching aspects that will guide us. One is the increasing importance of innovation as a central characteristic of our work together. The WPI Plan and the global studies program enable students to use their powers of imagination and creativity to recognize and solve important problems. But scientific knowledge and technological competence alone are no longer sufficient to keep our nation’s industries, or its graduates, competitive in the global marketplace. The critical differentiator will be the ability to imagine and achieve the novel approaches, methods, techniques, technologies, and products that go beyond the predictable and that meet real and future economic or social needs. The WPI experience is well positioned to foster this essential aspect of innovation.

The other imperative is to embrace entrepreneurship more fully as an explicit part of our mission. Already, a large percentage of WPI graduates go on to develop products and technologies, found companies, and assume leadership positions. We should ensure access for students and alumni to the resources and knowledge they will need, such as is currently provided by the WPI Venture Forum and the courses in entrepreneurship. WPI has a long and distinguished history of fostering and leading economic development, so an appreciation for entrepreneurship is not something new for WPI. We must ensure that it is a recognized and valued characteristic, shaped appropriately for present conditions and opportunities.

In your Commencement remarks, you urged students, specifically graduate students and doctoral degree recipients, to use their focused degrees as an opportunity to think broadly, rather than to limit themselves by the scope of their specialization. Is this concern another reason why you see WPI’s need to broaden its programs and mission?

Yes, you grasp it perfectly. The danger of specialization, especially for PhD candidates, is that the individual may see himself or herself as qualified to make meaningful contributions only within his or her narrow area of specialization, when just the opposite is true. For example, the revolution in biology over the past 30 years has attracted individuals with degrees from many fields outside the life sciences, including the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science. Similarly, WPI’s academic programs, although they center on science and technology, provide excellent preparation for students to succeed inside and outside science and engineering.

WPI is actively engaged in raising diversity awareness on campus. We are reaching out to students who might not previously have considered applying to WPI. How will the university continue this momentum and why are these efforts important?

We have started at the top by significantly diversifying the senior leadership team. That sets the tone and signals the depth of our commitment. We continue to make the recruitment of a diverse faculty, staff, and student body a high priority; we are making steady progress, although we have a long way to go.

The importance of having such diversity lies in the essence of what a university is—an institution dedicated to excellence in all aspects of human development. If we fail to welcome and support outstanding individuals, both women and men of all races and ethnicities, then we fail to take full advantage of the best talent available. We also fail to provide convincing role models for individuals undecided on whether WPI is a community welcoming and supportive of all worthy individuals.

You have mentioned strengthening relations with alumni as an important goal, and you have made some administrative changes in the area of alumni relations. What is your commitment and plan in this area?

Alumni comprise the university’s largest and most important constituency. They represent, and have experienced, much of WPI’s history, and many of our alumni have been actively engaged and deeply committed to advancing the university as trustees, donors, volunteers, and key supporters in many ways.

To serve our alumni more effectively, we have elevated the position of director of alumni relations to assistant vice president status and integrated the Office of Annual Giving under this new position. We are offering several new benefits to alumni, including new regional clubs, more frequent communications, and increased career development services. I hope that we can use our strong distance education capabilities to bring interesting programming from the campus to alumni worldwide. In my travels and in our events on campus I have greatly enjoyed meeting our alumni. I find them highly enthusiastic and supportive of WPI, and I look forward to meeting many more of them in the years ahead.

Why is WPI important, and what motivates you to meet the daunting challenge of leadership? Can you sum it up for us?

If you understand and appreciate the power of science and technology, and if you want to make a difference in the world, then there is no better place for your education than WPI. If you want to be part of this educational process as a faculty member, and if you want to do research that leads to truly important innovation in a highly collaborative environment, then WPI is an excellent place to make your career. If you are a citizen of Worcester, you know how important WPI is to the continuing economic development and quality of life in this marvelous city. All of us associated with WPI appreciate, and are motivated by, these qualities, and we relish the opportunity of working in such an important, collegial, and rewarding academic community.

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