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Joseph B. Hughes: Leading Drexel's College of Engineering

August 1, 2012

Joseph Hughes

As Dean of the College of Engineering, Dr. Joseph B. Hughes aims to create a “culture of planning,” but one of the biggest decisions in his life arrived through serendipity.

After majoring in chemistry as an undergraduate at Cornell, Hughes had decided to study engineering in his home-state university, the University of Iowa. Accepted into the doctoral program but undecided about what discipline to pursue, he visited campus to interview with the various engineering and science departments.

“As it turns out, I parked my car right in front of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’m right here, I might as well go in and talk to them.’ ”

Hughes spoke to the head of the department, who convinced him not only of the exciting work being done in environmental engineering, but also that his chemistry background was ideal for the field. “I signed up and never looked back,” he says.

These days Hughes is spending more time looking forward.

“I don’t think we had a foot-wetting approach,” he said of his time at Drexel, where he has served as dean since January. “It’s more like jump in and learn how to swim. I’ve got a couple strokes figured out.”

DrexelNow spoke with Hughes about his first six months on the job and his vision for the school.

What’s been the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make in this role and at this new university?

Drexel is unique in several different facets. The undergraduate engineering program has a strong focus on design early in the curriculum, and the other factor is the co-op program. I had to understand that it’s different from other places I’ve been.

Another challenge is understanding the breadth of the university. I’ve never been at a complete university with a medical school, a college of design, a law school and more. Being able to interact with those entities is new to me. As a  dean, I’m trying to understand what their interests and activities are so that I can ensure that we’re working together in the best ways. The College of Engineering should collaborate extensively in research and education with these other units on campus.

What’s interesting is that engineering is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, units on campus, and there are new units that have come up over the past two or three decades, which in academic time is quick. As we evolve as a college, we have to infuse interdisciplinary work across the campus.

When you’re in the outside world and you mention Drexel, a lot of people think, “Oh, that’s an engineering program.” If there’s a challenge for me, it’s being able to say, “Yes, we have a very strong tradition in engineering, but Drexel is a complete university, and our objective at the College of Engineering is to integrate horizontally across the university. We  want to have the most impact an engineering program can.”

Since the school teaches innovation, does that make the College of Engineering a more innovative place?

Yes and no. Our research is very innovative and discoveries come out of our laboratories and computational facilities that have a really significant societal impact and innovation. But sometimes engineering education is not so innovative. It’s a challenge to keep up with the pace of change in the world of engineering—the rapid changes in computer engineering, for example. The discoveries come nationally and internationally very fast. We have to balance the curriculum so that students have the fundamentals but also integrate the new advances into the program. I think engineering programs around the country are really struggling, so that’s not unique to Drexel.

The faculty are always trying to do the best for students, and they don’t want to experiment on them in regard to the curriculum. In some ways, we know what works—what it
takes to turn a student into a professional engineer. But we want them to walk out the door with the skill set of what’s done in modern engineering – new software platforms, and classes in areas that are becoming more and more important like systems engineering.

How would you describe your vision?

On the undergraduate level, my vision is to put gasoline on an existing fire that’s been burning here at Drexel for a long time. That’s experiential learning. I want to integrate leadership skills into experiential learning so that our students graduate with the engineering skill set people expect from Drexel, and also so they are capable of running their own company, beginning a startup, or having a rapid ascent in a larger corporation because of their ability to lead.

On the graduate level, we want to see programs that have impact on large societal issues—health, energy, the environment. We want our growing research programs to bubble up information and have an impact on global challenges.

How does your own research fit into the mission of the school?

My research is part of a large community of people who are trying to understand processes of evolution, and in particular evolution in the environment. By understanding evolutionary processes, we can capture changes in environmental systems to better the environment. Starting with the industrial revolution, we’ve been running an uncontrolled experiment on the planet by producing chemical and nanomaterials that are causing changes in the DNA of organisms that are evolving.

A lot of my work has been related to hazardous chemicals—learning how microorganisms respond to them and how to engineer processes that exploit those abilities to get rid of chemicals.

Right now my research is in good shape financially, and I have the perfect cadre of students and postdocs. I haven’t met everybody at Drexel yet, but I’m very pleased to be reunited with Mira Olsen, a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, who was actually an assistant in my laboratory when I was at Rice University. I’ve had some conversations with people here who are very interested in bioinformatics. Nothing has taken off yet, but it probably will.

Of course, my first responsibility is to the College of Engineering as its new dean.

What other practical goals do you have in that role?

Looking at the College of Engineering, there isn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved with more money. That’s a very unique position to be in. I really want to ramp up our institutional advancement program to increase the financial resources of the College. We just hired the person who’s going to run that for us, John F. Dolan, and we’re really excited about him being here.

I also want to create a culture of planning. I always tell faculty and students there’s nothing about excellence that’s accidental. I have a planning committee working together, and we’re doing an assessment of where we are and what we need to do to move forward to better support our faculty, professional staff and students.

My basic evaluation is that we’re undervalued in the academic community. There’s a lot more here than people know about. I hope that in the years ahead we’re able to communicate the quality of Drexel—we need to brag a little bit more. We need to get the word out