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  March 31, 2003

Engineering Dean Has Converted
Challenges Into Opportunities

Five years ago, enrollment in the School of Engineering had significantl y declined. There were no endowed chairs and only two women on the 90-member faculty. The school's four buildings were overcrowded and rundown.

But when Amir Faghri, then head of the mechanical engineering department, was appointed dean after a nationwide search, it did not take him long to develop an ambitious, multi-faceted plan for becoming the Northeast's leading public engineering school.

Image: Amir Faghri

Amir Faghri, dean of the School of Engineering, outside the Castleman Building.

Photo by Peter Morenus

"The school lacked vision for the future," explains Faghri. "There were no strategies or outreach tools in place. We, in the engineering profession and the University, had not done a good job of outreach in this state and had not developed major relationships with industry."

So he established seven goals or, as he prefers to call them, "challenges."

He set to work cultivating friends in industry and government, and his achievements in this area may be among his greatest accomplishments.

"The most important and dramatic changes Amir Faghri brought to our school result from his vision and ability to look beyond Storrs and build strong ties to corporate Connecticut," says Theodore Bergman, professor and head of the mechanical engineering department.

"It is the dean's ability to work closely with leaders in both the private and government sectors that created a brand new appreciation for the school and the University," he says. "Its effects have trickled down to many critical areas, including recruitment of talented students, new research projects for the faculty, and support for major cutting-edge research initiatives, such as fuel cells and homeland security."

Another key benefit of increased industrial relations is endowment funding - one of the dean's highest priorities. In just five years, the school has established 11 chaired professorships with a $1 million endowment each, and six additional named professorshi ps endowed at $500,000 or more.

Another facet of Faghri's plan focused on increasing student enrollment. The number of engineering graduates in the state had dropped by 50 percent from 1987 to 1997, yet a critical shortage of engineers existed worldwide. To reverse the downward spiral, Faghri developed several educational outreach programs.

The school became home base for the annual Connecticut Invention Convention, a gadget-design competition for elementary and secondary students. The Engineering 2000 program was created to introduce high school students to engineering concepts and careers; and the da Vinci Project was devised to bring science and math teachers to the Storrs campus for a week, where they learn to integrate engineering concepts into their classrooms.

A second tactic for boosting enrollment was tripling the number of scholarships. With the help of public and private funding, the school now offers more than 300 each year.

More subtle approaches have also proven effective, according to Bergman. "We now have corporate friends at the very highest levels in Fortune 50 companies - some are alumni, some are not - who enthusiastically pick up the phone and recruit students to join the School of Engineering.

"They have become diplomats for the school," he says.

The recruiting efforts are reaping big rewards. Overall enrollment has increased 45 percent, and freshmen enrollment has doubled since Faghri became dean.

While the number of students has improved, so has the quality. In past years, just one or two high school valedictorians would enroll in engineering programs. Last year, 30 applied and 15 enrolled. Faghri is more than just a little proud of that accomplishment.

"We have students who scored 1600 on their SATs. They could go to any university in the country, but they chose us," he says.

Other improvements within the school are in the area of faculty diversity and recruitment. Even as the budget was being cut, Faghri was able to increase the number of full-time tenure track positions from 89 to 106 and the number of women on the faculty from two to nine.

Little had been done in the past to recognize outstanding faculty and staff, but Faghri has sought to change that.

His office established annual awards. Up to six faculty members at a time are designated as "Distinguished Professor" and receive $10,000 a year for three years; and each year, two junior faculty members and a faculty member who is an outstanding teacher are chosen to receive a cash award and a professional development grant. In addition, a staff member, a master's student, and a doctoral student each receive a cash award for their outstanding contributions.

"In every organization you need to recognize the excellence of your people and promote the quality of their strengths," he says. "That is key. They become role models for the rest of the faculty and staff."

The school also lacked an aggressive marketing strategy and outreach plan. Marketing, in Faghri's opinion, is vital, because of the competition from other state universities and the eight Ivy League schools all located within a couple of hundred miles of Storrs.

As part of its outreach activities, the school has sought contact with alumni, not merely for financial support, but as an intellectual resource. This is paying off too. In the last five years, the number of donations to the school's alumni fund has increased by more than 400 percent and, in terms of dollars, by more than 500 percent.

Faghri also concentrated on securing the financial and institutional support needed for major renovations to the school's four existing buildings and the addition of more than 140,000 square feet of space in three new buildings.

The newest among them is the Information Technology Engineering Building, which in a matter of weeks will become home to the Electrical & Computer Engineering and Computer Science & Engineering departments. The Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center is housed on the Depot Campus in a new facility made possible by a U.S. Department of Commerce grant. And the Booth Engineering Center for Advanced Technologies and the Engineering Computing Services units are now housed in a new facility connected to the library.

Looking back, Faghri says he has enjoyed his first term with the strong support and involvement of his faculty. "We mapped out an ambitious future for our school, and we have converted all those challenges into opportunities for growth and change," he states.

His vision for a second term is no less ambitious. He hopes to double private funding and externally-funded research grants and contracts, establish three new federally-funded centers of excellence, double the number of master's and doctoral students, and become ranked among the top three public engineering graduate programs in the Northeast.

"I am committed to raising the profile of UConn nationally and internationally," he says, "and all of our initiatives are undertaken with this goal in mind."

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