Dean Sharon Walker Takes Helm at College of Engineering

This month, Drexel University proudly welcomes College of Engineering Dean Sharon Walker, PhD, who opens a new chapter in leadership, advocacy, and education for faculty, staff, and students.

Sharon Walker
Dean Sharon Walker

Walker—jointly named distinguished professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Education (CAEE)—is a Yale University-trained chemical and environmental engineer, Fulbright Scholar, water quality systems expert, and principal investigator on grants from such agencies as the NSF and the USDA. Walker comes to Drexel from her role as interim dean at the Bourns College of Engineering, University of California Riverside (UCR).

In a phone conversation with the College of Engineering during the waning days of summer, Dr. Walker answered a series of questions about her goals and plans for the year ahead and beyond. Below are her responses.

You have spent much of your academic career in schools of engineering. What do you think makes a good one?

I think the foundation must be a high-quality engineering education. We have to teach our students to be technologically sound and capable engineers. But I think there’s so much that a good engineering school must do, such as teaching students to be independent critical thinkers, collaborative workers, leaders. These are the intangibles, the skills that we have to help our students develop whether through co-op or interspersed in the curriculum. We need to help our students develop those truly important soft skills: the ability to communicate and the ability to lead. As interim dean at UCR, I had the opportunity to meet with many industry leaders, and they emphasize their desire to hire technologically sound leaders with strong communications skills. To be able to help educate and guide a student to that point is really the obligation of a good engineering school.

As those who are generating knowledge at a research institution, we also have an obligation to ensure that it’s not just esoteric knowledge but, indeed, that it’s grounded in meeting the needs of humanity. There are many approaches to engineering research, and many are doing work along a spectrum from the fundamental to the applied … and I can appreciate that. But ultimately the goal, I believe, is for engineers to be dedicated to knowledge that moves us toward solving the problems we face as a global community. That’s one of the things I admire so much about Drexel – that it has this historic priority on translating our research to the needs of the local community, to industries, and so on.

What drew you to Drexel?

I have known of Drexel for as long as I can remember. I’ve had colleagues and friends who’ve been students here and are proud alumni. And I’ve known of the Drexel co-op programs for years.

Additionally, there are some really great leaders in my discipline whom I’ve known over the years and who have been, for example, part of the Association for Environmental and Engineering Science Professors. So, when there’s a critical mass of excellent colleagues from one institution, you take note.

I also participated in the Executive Leadership in Academic Technology and Engineering (ELATE) program a few years ago. It allowed me to meet women from all over the country, and there was always a handful of really talented participants from Drexel. That goes back to the critical mass of impressive talent I observed from Drexel that I just referred to.

Hence, it was pretty natural for me to take this nomination very seriously. As I went through the interview process and did some in-depth homework, well, then it just became a really clear choice. Not only are there so many talented people here, there are an enormous number of opportunities to grow and build, and there is a great culture where I felt that I could fit in and contribute. I’m just so thrilled and honored to have been chosen for this role.

Bourns seems a very different place from Drexel’s CoE

It’s interesting, because I actually think they’re more sister institutions than people realize. For many years, Bourns and CoE have had neck-in-neck rankings. Our size is not so different. The tenure-track faculty at Drexel is the same as when I took the helm at UCR; I since grew the faculty at UCR, but the general size of the faculty is similar. Research expenditures at these two institutions are similar, as well. The expenditures at Drexel are at levels comparable to UCR a few years ago.

Where we differ is in the student size. At UCR, we actually have a smaller undergraduate population than Drexel and a larger PhD student population.

The other place where I see some difference is that Riverside is one of the Land Grant universities (NB: universities across the country that receive funds through the Morrill Act, enacted to promote education in agriculture, science, military science and engineering). We have an obligation to engage with the community and educate the community in very meaningful and applied ways. This is in-line with the mission as articulated by President Fry, so I find that piece a very natural complement as well.

And then finally, we’re both tuition-driven institutions. I am comfortable working in an environment that is reliant on tuition dollars.

Where there is some divergence is the public vs. the private aspect. Also, the demographics are really different – at UCR we have a great number of first-generation students, and close to half of our students are Pell Grant eligible. Riverside has only approximately 15% white students in the Bourns College of Engineering. So much of our student population is underrepresented that we have a designation as a Hispanic-serving institution. So, the profile of the student is the biggest difference with Drexel.

But overall, when you compare the mission, the funding, and the size, you can see that UCR and Drexel are not so different from each other and are really sister colleges.

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

Listen, learn, and leverage: listen to people and what they need; learn about the approaches for that campus, the policies and traditions; and leverage everybody’s strengths to do what you need to do in moving the college forward. There will be a period of time, especially at the beginning, when I’m going to be learning and asking a lot of questions. But there are capable people in their roles for me to learn from. Fundamentally, my approach is to empower people. Together you develop guiding principles, communicate them, and then off they go to do wonderful things.  

Additionally, I admit to also being a little casual at times because I’m a Californian.

What are the strengths and the weaknesses of CoE as you see them?

Out of the gate, I am going on a listening tour of the faculty, staff, and students to be able to identify the strengths and weakness of the community. You all know your strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. I am not trying to take an easy way out here in not answering this question. I have some ideas, but until I get to campus and complete this “listening tour,” I’m not comfortable articulating anything further. I’m looking forward to engaging the college community and learning more about the strengths we can build on and the weaknesses we can address.

Describe the primary role of a dean of college.

You mean, what does a dean actually do? I get asked this a lot. The job includes some legal and academic authority, along with oversight of academic programs, faculty, and staff. So, it may seem an administrative and a managerial role. However, I also see the dean as an advocate. It’s my job to know what we’re good at, what we need to do to be better, and to do what it takes to work within the system to make that happen.

That may come in the form of fundraising, in leveraging programs and activities, negotiating with senior leadership, or in developing processes that will move things forward. A sign of a good dean is that things are running smoothly and you don’t actually have to see him or her that often. You’ve got the resources you need and everyone is happy. Usually when things get to me is when there is some sort of challenge.

But, overall, I see myself as an advocate. That’s what I’d like to emphasize – I am an advocate for the faculty, the students, the staff, and for each other.

What do you believe is required to educate a 21st century engineer?

I think we have to revisit what it really means to be an engineer in this century, because the rules of the game are changing faster than anybody is able to canonize them. We have to acknowledge that our students’ careers are going to change rapidly. I think the curriculum obviously must be grounded in fundamental principles, but we do a disservice to our students if we don’t teach them a broader array of tools and a capacity to lead in this changing environment. We want a student who is versatile, creative, and prepared for change. To do that, we have to revisit what we do with the students in the classroom, in the lab, in and out of co-op.

Now, what does that look like? I don’t have the answer yet. That’s what all the talented people on the CoE faculty are going to help me figure out, along with industry leaders. But the profile of the average student years from now is going to look very different from what it is now. We change very slowly in higher ed – and to address this changing environment, we’ve got to evolve faster.

How about the historic fundamentals?

I think this changing environment is the greatest justifier for teaching fundamentals. Sometimes we get too “boutique” in the way we teach things. If you get too far into the current vogue application, we lose the ability to make sure our students know how those fundamentals can be reinvented and redirected. So, what I’m suggesting is even more strongly advocating for the traditional engineer. But on top of that, there are these other values and skills that are being infused throughout the entire curriculum.

What is your opinion on Responsibility-Centered Management (RCM), and can you define it as you see it?

I actually really like it, but the devil’s in the details. RCM is the name of an approach where the funds go back to where the action is happening. The action is happening in our classrooms, and so the funds are allocated based on our enrollment numbers. The million-dollar question is, how much is returning for each type of student and each type of course? How are decisions made on dividing it and does the algorithm account for the unequal cost of educating engineers versus students from other disciplines?  Additionally, how do we value the important parts of the university that don’t bring in revenue? Each campus handles this differently. How RCM is manifested is in the distribution of funds, and this is an important balance to ensure the institutional mission is met. I know Drexel is trying to sort out these details.

What I’d like to emphasize is that the intent of this RCM approach is really good. It empowers management at the local level to make decisions that are informed by the local level. It gives us a lot of flexibility and freedom to come up with the vision of where we want to go, and have the resources directed towards it.

It reminds me a little of that movie, Oliver – “Please sir, may I have some more,” which would suggest a dean’s role in “begging” for funds from the provost. Rather, in the RCM model you can tie your goals and dreams to the financing model and at least you know what you’ll have to work with. I know that I’d like more, but this is my portion. With RCM, you can make predictions and estimations of costs and revenues and make long-term plans. This can be a bit of a culture shift. At UCR, we’re only maybe a year ahead of you with that same model. But so far in my role as interim dean, it has given me the flexibility to invest in what is meaningful.

CoE doesn’t really have students coming from other colleges to take courses, so we won’t capture extra funds. How can we make our courses more appealing to non-engineers?

That’s hard. We can offer a few non-major electives that might get some attention. At Davis, they have some general education courses that have been really popular, for instance – courses in coffee, wine, and beer. You learn all about the chemistry, processing, and production of major “popular” consumables. These are really fun classes that are basic and applied concepts on topics that students love. Maybe there are some fun courses that people would like to take along those lines at Drexel.

However, I’d actually like to have a more thoughtful conversation with at least the deans of the College of Arts and Sciences around what it means to train a citizen of the world now. Every student needs to have some technology-based courses. So maybe it’s not in the curriculum now, but I also think we should have a conversation at the university level on whether we are training our students to be informed citizens of the world. And I would argue there are engineering elements that belong in that broader, general curriculum.

People need to learn to do more with technology than function with their iPhones and other devices. They also need to be working with people in policy and ethics and political science, and we should make sure those conversations happen for all of our students. Let’s make sure the students understand the fundamentals of the technology on which their entire lives will be based.

Do you have any plans for growing CoE enrollment?

Once at Drexel, I’ll be speaking to central campus enrollment management officers, but also to talk to the departments to see what their goals are. We want to make sure we have the faculty and the classrooms to do it right.  

I’m conscious of what makes Drexel special -- the students’ relationships with their faculty. Yes, you can solve some things by throwing money at them, but I want to really have a thoughtful discussion with the faculty on what the enrollments are that meet our needs and that reflect our pedagogical values. I don’t come in with any expectation of growing or shrinking the enrollment. I’m coming in to learn what’s right for Drexel.

You initiated several successful projects at UCR on diversity and faculty enrichment. Do you have any projects in mind for CoE?

I think it’s critical that if we have a diverse student body, we also have to have a diverse faculty. I define diversity in the broadest sense – faculty and students from all genders, from all over the world, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all religious groups, etc... I think Philadelphia is the perfect place to continue to build a truly diverse and inclusive engineering school. What that is going to look like is too early for me to say. But there’s no question that I believe in an inclusive environment and I intend to build on that at Drexel.

What is your view on the challenge of faculty retention?

Everybody—students, faculty, staff, everybody—deserves to have a respectful and productive working and learning environment. We all have come to expect clean water, clean air, shelter and other basic necessities of life - and I think a respectful working and learning environment is just as necessary. That’s a very important guiding principle in how I do things.

So, in addressing the issues of retention, people need to feel that they are valued and respected and supported. And I think if we work towards the core of why that might not be the case and we can address those concerns, we will go a long way towards figuring this out. There are always going to be people you lose for reasons outside of your control - although it’s hard to imagine a better place than Philadelphia for a faculty member in terms of personal and professional opportunities. I plan on doing some thoughtful investigation into why people depart and, just more broadly, of how the work environments are at Drexel. And once we address those, then I think we’ll make a better working environment for everyone. We’ll also be able to be pre-emptive.

Concerns with adequate lab spaces are also an issue.

The funding world for research is going more and more towards shared and collaborative funding and projects. So, I don’t see why space can’t be similarly managed. There ought to be ways to do that with labs, as well. I don’t want people to circle the wagons and plant their flags and say, This space is mine. We have to think about the best use of it all. I will be respectful. But I’m also not afraid to ask questions and get them to justify why they need what they say they need. Sometimes people get put into space only because it was available when they came to the university. So, by taking this more global look at how we’re using space, we can actually find something that works. I take great pride in having solved a lot of those problems at UCR and leaving our faculty really happy. And I didn’t grow the college footprint.

Will you be teaching?

No. I hope to recruit a couple of grad students and grow my lab slowly. But my priority is getting settled into my dean role, and over time get to know the students. I do hope to be invited as a guest lecturer. I just taught a bunch of freshman mechanical engineers at UCR on force balances for a colleague while he was traveling. It was super fun for me getting back with the students. Those kinds of occasional appearances would be lots of fun, and for now I’ll just have to make time to get to know the students in other ways. Sadly, there’s too much to do in the dean role to commit to the classroom.

On a lighter note, what are you reading these days?

I wish I could answer. I love reading. I love non-fiction and fiction. I love reading very broadly. But to ask me when I’ve last finished a book, no. I can’t answer. I have a pile of books I have started on planes when I’m traveling and never finished.  Once I get home, it’s hard to find time to finish all of them. I can say that I’m an avid lover of NPR, and I’m happiest when I finish my week with an episode of “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” I also love podcasts of all sorts. I used to sit down and read newspapers cover to cover, but with children that doesn’t happen much anymore.

Any hobbies you’d like to mention?

The reality is, my hobbies are my children. Whether it’s driving them to or watching them in their dance classes or their soccer games, the greatest joy I have is being their mother. I also love to travel, and I love good food. I guess you could say I’m a foodie. I think I travel to eat, but I do love to travel. I’ve never been to a place that I haven’t been fascinated with – domestic and international.

How about your family?

I have four young children. My husband and I are very excited about bringing them to Philly and having them grow up here. There is so much to offer in this area in terms of culture, education, and overall well-being.

In closing, what is your primary message to the CoE community?

I’m excited. I’m looking forward to getting to know every single member of this community. I’m excited to embrace what makes each one of them special and to be their advocate. I really am looking forward to being part of the community, and I’m very honored to have been selected … but I may need their help learning about Philadelphia sports (I’ve traditionally been a college sports fan).