In Memoriam: William R. Grogan '46, Dean Emeritus of Undergraduate Studies and a Founder of the WPI Plan
William R. Grogan '46, dean emeritus of undergraduate studies at WPI, died May 12, 2015, at the age of 90. A longtime professor of electrical engineering, Grogan was a bold innovator and a visionary leader who in the late 1960s helped design the WPI Plan, the Institute's renowned project-based approach to undergraduate technological education. He also led the massive, multi-year, campuswide effort to implement this radical overhaul of the Institute's curriculum, and then helped steer the Plan and the undergraduate program through a series of evolutionary changes over the course of subsequent decades.
"Bill Grogan stands tall as a giant in the legendary history of WPI," Phil Ryan '65, chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees, said. "Some claim his vision and leadership saved WPI. He clearly redefined how scientists and engineers should be educated to meet the global challenges and favorably impact the lives of people throughout the world.
"More than that, to me and to so many others, Bill genuinely cared about everyone as individuals. He was a friend, a mentor, and an advisor who always took a personal interest in you, your talents, your shortcomings, and your aspirations. He knew when you needed a pat on the back or a boot somewhat lower, and he was capable of both. Bill significantly influenced the trajectory of my life, personally and professionally, and I will forever be indebted to him. He was my dear friend. I will miss him, but I will never forget him."
The son of William and Irene Grogan, Grogan was born in 1924 in Lee, Mass., where he excelled academically (his high school yearbook dubbed him "the presiding genius of the place") and landed a job as a sports reporter for the Berkshire Evening Eagle while still a student. The job afforded him the opportunity to meet a number of well-known journalists of the day—including Edward R. Murrow—who would file stories from the Eagle newsroom when they vacationed in the Berkshires.
Setting his sights on a career as a writer, Grogan was accepted to the Columbia School of Journalism. But with World War II under way, he took the advice of a family friend and applied, instead, to WPI, which had been temporarily transformed into a school for officers under the U.S. Navy's wartime V-12 training program.
As a member of the WPI Class of 1946, Grogan was active as a student leader, serving as vice president and president of his class; editor of the student newspaper, Tech News; photography editor for the yearbook, The Peddler; and a member of many clubs and honor societies, including the senior honorary society Skull. He was also active in his fraternity, Phi Kappa Theta (then Theta Kappa Phi).
Under the accelerated V-12 program, Grogan received his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering in 1945 and went on to attend Midshipman School at Columbia University, earning a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was then assigned to the Navy's West Coast Sound School in San Diego, where he learned about underwater acoustics and sonar. As the war entered its final months, and as U.S. servicemen lived in constant dread that the Allies would mount a costly invasion of Japan, he sailed for the Pacific Theater with the crew of Patrol Craft Escort PCE-857.
After he returned from the war, Grogan was invited to join the electrical engineering faculty at his alma mater as an assistant professor. He also began work toward his master's degree at WPI, which he earned in 1949, the same year he was promoted to associate professor. After the Korean War erupted in 1950, Grogan was recalled to active duty and served as electronics officer, and later operations officer, on the destroyer U.S.S. Stoddard. While visiting ports of call along the Atlantic coast of Europe and throughout the Mediterranean, he developed an appreciation for the geopolitical and economic ties that were emerging among nations in the postwar world, an understanding that would later help shape his interest in globalizing engineering education.
Grogan's second overseas tour with the Navy also left him with a trove of colorful stories about his service and his interactions with local citizens in ports of call along the Mediterranean. He told the writers of a new WPI history about a morning in Italy when he unexpectedly found himself in command of the ship. Though he did not have permission to do so, he decided to invite the local citizens aboard for tours and he served ice cream to the children. For that, he earned glowing coverage in the local papers and a commendation from the admiral of the Sixth Fleet. “The lesson I took away from that one,” he said, “was that if you’re going to violate regulations, make sure you win.”
"Bill was a marvelous raconteur," notes Lance Schachterle, professor of literature and co-director of WPI's Liberal Arts and Engineering Program. "Colleagues and friends always enjoyed his genial wit, vivid language, and narrative grace."
Back on campus once again, Grogan developed a reputation as a master teacher who was devoted to keeping his own knowledge of electrical engineering current by consulting for the U.S. Navy, Bell Labs, and General Electric. His work for GE's R&D labs resulted in a number of patents, including one for a novel seawater battery for torpedoes. It was also around this time that he met Mae Jeanne Sperl of New York City. They were married in January 1966.
Grogan's acumen as a teacher and advisor earned him a number of accolades from students in his first two decades as a WPI faculty member. The staff of the Peddler twice dedicated the yearbook to him, and the student body named him "Man of the Year" in 1967. In 1969 Grogan, who was promoted to full professor in 1962, became only the second faculty member to receive the Board of Trustees' Award for Outstanding Teaching.
He was also an educational innovator. Believing that students retain knowledge better when they can apply what they learn, he solicited problems from local companies and gave students in his classes the chance to attack them through small, real-world projects. It was a time when a small group of young WPI faculty members were also out trying new approaches to teaching and meeting informally to discuss educational innovation.
Still, Grogan was largely disappointed by what he saw around him at WPI. While it had been founded in 1865 on the forward-looking notion of balancing theory with application, the Institute had become, just over a century later, a traditional engineering college with an inflexible, uninspired curriculum that differed little from that of other engineering schools. The fact that WPI's academic department heads, who were largely in control of the curriculum, seemed content with the status quo provided little hope that things would change.
Grogan was on the verge of accepting a job with the Navy Department in Washington, D.C., when a call from WPI's 10th president, Harry P. Storke, changed his mind and his life. Storke was a retired Army lieutenant general and a 1926 West Point graduate who had most recently commanded NATO's land forces in southern Europe. Like Grogan, he was frustrated by the lack of urgency he sensed in WPI's academic leadership. He was also acutely aware that without change WPI would struggle to compete for the best students.
Storke asked Grogan to chair a committee charged with studying the undergraduate curriculum and recommending changes. "I thought it over," Grogan recalled a decade ago. "If I go to Washington, I thought, I could make a lot more money. But if I stay here, maybe I can change things."
Under the leadership of Grogan, the study committee successfully won faculty approval for offering elective courses in the freshman year, making mathematics a degree program, introducing optional minors in English, history, and humanities and technology, and eliminating the requirement that all students, regardless of their major, take freshman drawing.
Later, Grogan would recall that vote as a breakthrough that set the stage for bigger changes. "After that, the olive was out of the neck of the bottle," he told the WPI Journal in 1997. "If we could make that seemingly minor change in programming (but one with enormous philosophical implications), anything seemed possible."
In June of 1968, Storke announced that he would retire the following year. Still hoping to catalyze the change he knew WPI needed to survive, he appointed a new faculty committee, the Faculty Planning Group, and asked its members to map out options for the Institute's future. Under the leadership of chemical engineering professor William Shipman, the group set out to identify every practical alternative path for the Institute. Its first report detailed 12 options, ranging from no change at all to turning WPI into a high-quality graduate school. After soliciting the input of the community, the group began narrowing down the list of options in a second report. Then the members disbanded. Knowing they would need the support of the faculty to succeed in their mission, they asked that the group be reconstituted as a faculty-elected committee.
Grogan was among the faculty members elected to the new Faculty Planning Committee. He joined a cadre of other "Young Turks" who were deeply interested in education and in crafting a new approach to education that placed the responsibility for learning in the hands of students and gave them powerful ways to gain practical experience. Drawing on a wide range of models, including the tutorial system used at Cambridge and Oxford universities in England, they created a unique curriculum in which the major degree requirements were projects: one in the humanities and arts, one in the major field, and one that required students to step outside of their major to develop solutions to societal issues and problems.
The program, dubbed the WPI Plan, was brought to the faculty on May 29, 1970. It passed, just barely, by the required two-thirds majority. Shortly afterward, George Hazzard, who had become WPI's 11th president a year earlier, asked Grogan to be WPI's first dean of undergraduate studies; in accepting, he became the first WPI dean who had not previously served as an academic department head. In an essay for WPI's alumni magazine, Transformations, in 2006, Grogan wrote that Hazzard gave him a three-word job description: "Implement the Plan."
Behind that simple directive lay a monumental challenge. In essence, the Institute replaced virtually every major facet of its undergraduate program: from two 14-week semesters to four seven-week terms; from a proscribed curriculum with few electives to no required courses and projects as the primary requirements for graduation; from a traditional grading system to one with just two grades—and no failing grade. What's more, it was an all-or-nothing proposition. The school could not afford to run two parallel programs. In just a few years, everything would change, and there was no turning back.
The changeover was managed by the General Implementation Committee, a group of faculty members, administrators, and students chaired by Grogan. By all accounts, Grogan was a fair, diplomatic, and decisive leader who was adept at inspiring others to work together to achieve complex and daunting challenges. "Bill Grogan was the orchestrator," Joseph Mielinski '63, former projects administrator, told the WPI Journal in 1997. "It was Bill's wisdom that kept things in balance and that let us keep everything in perspective."
The committee met weekly for 15 years, managing a long and constantly changing list of details, small and large. They had to figure out how to find and manage student projects, how to help the faculty redesign courses to work in seven weeks, and how to run the senior-year Competency Examinations that were meant to determine if students were qualified to graduate. Working with President Hazzard, Grogan also played a major role in winning significant external support for the Plan's implementation, including a $1.2 million award from the National Science Foundation, which Grogan managed as project director.
Along with the NSF award, came a high-level advisory panel, led by Harvard University sociologist David Riesman, which met twice a year, for seven years, to oversee WPI's progress. In a 1989 letter, Riesman, who once called Grogan the "Harry Truman of higher education," recalled the misgivings the committee had about the ability of the WPI faculty to maintain the innovative spirit that had kindled the Plan as the Plan founders moved on and other faculty members less invested in the program came on board.
"What was left out of account in such surmises was Bill Grogan," Riesman wrote. "At first glance, he seems a most unlikely sage of liberal education. He is genial, ruddy, generous, never sarcastic, amiable—everyone calls him 'Bill' almost instantly. Yet in my judgment the fact that the Plan not only survives but is stronger than ever is Bill Grogan's doing."
In fact, the Plan did survive, despite internal and external pressures that threatened to weaken it, and even as it evolved, losing some elements (the all-or-nothing Competency Examination) and gaining others, most notably the global projects program through which students can now travel to more than 40 locations on six continents to complete their required projects.
Remembering how his own eyes had been opened during his Navy service, Grogan strongly advocated for providing students with off-campus project experiences, and played a central role in establishing the Institute's first residential project center, in Washington, D.C., its first overseas center, in London, and the on-campus administrative infrastructure that permitted the program to grow and mature. He recognized early on that the global project experiences could be not only valuable professionally, but life-changing. "They tackle issues that would daunt undergraduates confined to the classroom," he told the WPI Journal in 1989, when the global program had grown to 13 off-campus centers and programs. "These are experiences that tend to broaden a student's intellectual and social horizons."
Grogan took pleasure in watching students blossom through global project work. Whenever he was able, he took the opportunity to serve as a project advisor at overseas sites. He continued to do so long after he retired in 1990.
"Bill Grogan was one of my heroes, and I’m fortunate to have had him as a mentor and friend throughout my career at WPI," said Rick Vaz '79, dean of WPI's Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division. "Bill’s visionary work on the WPI Plan helped devise a program that was three decades ahead of its time, but perhaps more important, his skills of persuasion and leadership led to something remarkable: the complete transformation of a campus culture and curriculum into something truly new and innovative. The entire university—and about 22,000 graduates of the WPI Plan—owe Bill an enormous debt of gratitude."
His commitment to and involvement with his fraternity, locally and nationally, was also a constant through the years. He participated in the 1959 merger of Theta Kappa Phi with Phi Kappa to form Phi Kappa Theta and served for a time as president of the national fraternity. He also served for decades as faculty advisor to the WPI chapter, and was a frequent presence at the "Kap" house at 26 Institute Road. In 2013, Phi Kappa Theta won the top award in every category in which the chapter was eligible (13 in all) at a recognition banquet sponsored by the national fraternity. The national organization has also bestowed a number of awards on the WPI chapter, including, on more than one occasion, the prestigious Founder's Cup.
The WPI fraternity members and alumni used the occasion to honor Grogan as the fraternity's Man of Achievement. "We're very grateful for the ongoing support Dean Grogan has provided Phi Kappa Theta for more than six decades," said Nicholas Pelletier '09, former president of the Aquinas Association, the alumni board that advises the chapter. "His vision, encouragement, and guidance are unparalleled and he continues to be a major force for the fraternity."
"Bill was the true embodiment of Phi Kappa Theta's national motto: 'Give, expecting nothing thereof,'" said Phill Blake '14, Phi Kappa Theta member and former president of the WPI Student Government Association. "His legacy of leadership, mentoring, and general good fellowship will be a permanent hallmark of WPI history."
Grogan's contributions to technological education also brought him numerous honors. The American Society for Engineering Education presented him with three of its most prestigious honors: the Chester F. Carlson Award for innovation in engineering education; the William E. Wickenden Award for the best contribution to engineering education (for a paper he wrote about the Plan); and the Sterling Olmsted Award (from the society's Liberal Education Division). He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and received IEEE's Major Educational Innovation Award. He served as a director of Bay State Savings Bank from 1973 to 2000.
WPI also honored Grogan on numerous occasions. In addition to the trustees' award for teaching, he received the WPI Alumni Association's Robert Goddard '08 Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement and the first Trustees' Award for Outstanding Service. In 1990, the year Grogan retired as dean of undergraduate studies and the year the Institute observed its 125th anniversary, Grogan received an honorary doctorate in engineering and the alumni association established the William R. Grogan Award for the Support of the Mission of WPI; 16 years later, the association presented the award to Grogan. When the Campus Center opened in 2001, the student life wing was named in Grogan's honor, thanks to the generosity of one of his former students, trustee Ronald L. Zarrella '71.
During his inauguration in 2005, WPI's 15th president, Dennis Berkey, presented Grogan with the WPI Presidential Medal. It was inscribed, simply, "WPI Visionary." In 2009, in recognition of his service to WPI and his generosity to his alma mater, Grogan was the honoree at the annual dinner of the Presidential Founders, the society made up of donors whose lifetime giving equals or exceeds John Boynton's founding gift of $100,000. Most recently, at Homecoming in 2012, the alumni association presented Grogan with its Goat’s Head Award for Lifetime Commitment to WPI.
In his 2006 Transformations essay, Grogan wrote, "We at WPI have gained an enviable position through the structure of our educational program. Our challenge now lies in developing the resources and collective self-confidence to again move ahead with a new vision for the future."
That the Institute today seems poised and well prepared to do just that is, in no small measure, a tribute to the inspired leadership and uncommon wisdom that Bill Grogan bestowed upon his alma mater. Mildred McClary Tymeson, concluding her centennial history of WPI, Two Towers, credited WPI's success to the ongoing supply of "enough people who cared." For more than seven decades, Bill Grogan stood first in line among that special group of caring individuals.
Grogan leaves his sister, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) McNamara of Great Barrington, Mass.; his nephews, Danny Grogan of Tampa, Fla., Michael Grogan of East Hampton, Mass., and Tom McNamara of Vallejo, Calif.; and his niece, Kathy McNamara of Worcester. He was predeceased by his wife, Mae, and his brother, Ed.
Calling hours are Sunday, May 17, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Athy Memorial Home, 111 Lancaster Street in Worcester. A funeral Mass will take place on Monday, May 18, at 10 a.m. at Immaculate Conception Church at 353 Grove Street in Worcester, with burial to follow in St. John's Cemetery, 260 Cambridge Street, in Worcester. A reception will be held in Higgins House on the WPI campus starting at approximately 12:30 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, please consider making a memorial contribution to the Dean Emeritus William R. Grogan '46 Endowed Global Project Scholarship Fund at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (www.wpi.edu/+give), Attn: Gift Recording, 100 Institute Road, Worcester MA 01609.