Reflections of @UT_CAEE Chair

Being the chair of a large academic department is not easy.  On the best of days it is like herding cats.  On the worst of days it is like herding rabid cats while being blindfolded with one arm tied behind your back and the other carrying a large metal pole in a severe lightning storm.  Most days are somewhere in between.

The most significant reward for serving as chair is found in reflection.  What changes happened during my tenure?  Who benefitted from those changes?  What major challenges did I help to overcome?  Have I left the department in a better place?  Did I help to enhance the educations of students?  I have been doing a lot of reflection lately.

Did I make mistakes as department chair?  Of course I did, lots of them.  I wish that I had some “do overs.”  But I also learned from my mistakes, including recognition that to achieve positive things one has to stay focused on goals and continue to advance on them despite setbacks.  Eye on the ball.

A lot of positive changes were made during my four years as Chair of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).  Most of these were consistent with the five major goals that I scribbled on a sheet of engineering paper my first few days as Chair in the fall of 2013:

  1. Advance the CAEE strategic plan and vision (make it happen)
    The CAEE strategic plan and visions revolves around pillars of water, energy, rapid growth of cities, and (importantly) the interconnectedness of these pillars. We believe that innovation is found in the connections.
  2. Empower young faculty members
  3. Enhance the undergraduate experience
  4. Market, market, market!!!
  5. Break down the traditional silos that restrict civil engineering as a field

I rearranged these goals about a year into my service as Chair.  Specifically, I realized that to achieve any and all of the other goals required significant empowerment of younger faculty members.  So, the goals were rearranged with goal 2 in the middle and arrows pointed out to all other goals.  While perhaps not all that impressive to others, on the playing field of my brain this recognition was a stroke of genius.  Importantly, I returned to this set of goals frequently as my anchor.

By no means do I take sole credit for changes that addressed the five goals listed above.  Many others initiated, helped with, and led major initiatives to improve the CAEE community.  But I do take pride in defining the goals, shaping the landscape, encouraging others, and pushing where necessary, even when the boulder was weighty and the slope steep.  The positive accomplishments along the way were a community effort in the truest sense of the word.  It was not only about faculty, but boy did the younger faculty step to the plate.  The wonderful staff of CAEE helped to execute action items that played to these goals.  Students were given a voice and opportunities that they took to heart, helping to solidify major action items that have benefitted their educational experiences.  The CAEE External Advisory Committee weighed in with a strong and united voice on several key issues to help catalyze change, particularly on behalf of students.  And our alumni, particularly the 120 or so members of our Academy of Distinguished Alumni, answered the call, again largely on behalf of our CAEE students.

Listed below are some of the major changes that occurred in CAEE during my four years as Chair.  I elaborate on a few for no other reason than my excitement over what these mean for the future of CAEE.  I also crafted this statement with the intent of not referring to anyone by name, primarily for fear of omitting someone.  Those who helped advance CAEE over the past four years will hopefully take great pride in knowing where they fit in the list presented below.

  • New faculty. A total of 12 new faculty members joined CAEE during my four years as Chair, nearly ¼ of our total faculty.  Four of these were officially hired before I became Chair but started after I assumed the position.  In those cases much work was needed to sort out issues with lab renovations and more.  Eight faculty members were hired while I served as chair.  And all eight were the first choice of our faculty.  Eight for eight isn’t bad considering that many peer institutions compete for the same talent.  In their applications and interviews these faculty members had to discuss what they would bring to the department in terms of our strategic vision.  I am so very pleased with the young faculty members we have hired, particularly their passion for teaching and for working across disciplinary boundaries.
  • New Architectural Engineering (ARE) design studio. This is a major upgrade to the old studio, 50% larger with modern space, and all due to the generous donation of a devoted and successful alumnus of our Architectural Engineering program.
  • Additional renovations to ECJ Hall. These renovations include four new classrooms, a large multi-purpose classroom/meeting room, tutorial room, study lounge, offices for our ASCE and AEI student chapters.  Additional funds have been raised to renovate space for visiting scholars, post-docs, and graduate student offices.  These renovations were made possible by a number of generous and committed alumni of CAEE.
  • Master Schedule. A major accomplishment was the development and implementation of a first-ever master schedule for undergraduate courses in CAEE, thus allowing our students to better chart a course to graduate in four years.  Past attempts over two decades to develop such a master schedule had failed.  We now have one in place, implemented and taking root.  The CAEE External Advisory Committee, CAEE staff, and two faculty colleagues played a key role in making this happen for our students.
  • Environmental Engineering Program. A new undergraduate degree program in Environmental Engineering was proposed and pushed through a rigorous approval processes over a two year period.  The new degree program starts in fall 2017.  The number of applications for this program in its first year was extraordinary, and the first official class is significantly larger than planned.  The female/male ratio for applicants and admits is so large it will push the entire department to full gender equity within the next two or three years; the 900 undergraduate students in our program are currently 43% female.  This new program plays directly to the water pillar of the CAEE strategic vision.
  • Sustainable Systems Engineering. A new graduate program in Sustainable Systems Engineering will also start in fall 2017.  This program received over 130 applications in its first year and is highly selective (< 10% admitted).  The program plays directly to CAEE’s strategic vision and will provide a unique and holistic educational experience for students in the program.
  • Chair’s Challenges. Early in my tenure as Chair I implemented an annual Chair’s Challenge and scholarships for undergraduate students.  I am particularly proud of my last Chair’s Challenge, which involved design and construction of a sustainable, resilient, and healthy doghouse.  The 18 student teams who participated in this challenge surpassed by expectations (by a mile) and produced some amazing dog houses.  They also caused a buzz and got a large audience when they presented their dog houses in front of ECJ Hall during formal judging one afternoon.
  • Restructuring of Departmental Administration. The CAEE administration was reorganized to include separate associate chairs for Student Affairs and each undergraduate degree program (Architectural, Civil, and Environmental Engineering) to improve stewardship of each program.
  • Implementation of a Strategic Vision Implementation Committee (SVIC). Strategic plans and visions are only worthwhile if actions are taken to implement them.  The SVIC consists of primarily younger faculty members who are given a mandate to deliver actionable recommendations to advance the CAEE strategic vision to the Chair and full faculty.  The new graduate program in Sustainable Systems Engineering is an outcome of this committee’s work.
  • Marketing. A reorganization of staff responsibilities was made to allow for greater communication on the UT campus and to the outside world about activities and accomplishments of CAEE students, faculty and alumni. Target audiences include other faculty on the UT campus, prospective undergraduate and graduate students, prospective faculty members, alumni, peers, and the media.  To that end, our outstanding staff spent considerable effort revamping our department website, using social media (particularly twitter), enhancing our CAEE newsletters, and more.  Feedback on these efforts from many stakeholders suggests that it has been a significant success.

Some important additional outcomes during the past four years include:

  • Very successful ABET accreditation for our undergraduate programs in Architectural Engineering and Civil Engineering.
  • Continued top 4 rankings of our undergraduate and graduate programs in US News and World Report, including our highest ranking ever at #2 for our Civil Engineering graduate program in the USN&W Report 2017 rankings.
  • Successful completion of our 1st-ever graduate programs review.

There are more changes and outcomes, but those listed above are the ones that seem to dominate my reflections.  It was a wild ride at times, but I am proud of how our CAEE community banded together to advance what we do, who we are, and where we are headed.  I might even miss herding those cats.


2 thoughts on “Reflections of @UT_CAEE Chair

  1. Laura Klopfenstein Post author

    Thanks, Chuck. I consider that a very kind compliment coming from someone who has done wonderful things as leader of another great CAEE program at Drexel University. Keep up the great work! Rich

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