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Science & Technology

Q&A: Sharon Walker, Dean of the College of Engineering

October 10, 2018

College of Engineering Dean Sharon Walker, PhD.

College of Engineering (CoE) Dean Sharon Walker, PhD, who is jointly named distinguished professor, started this fall term. The Yale University-trained chemical and environmental engineer, Fulbright Scholar and water quality systems expert comes to Drexel from her role as interim dean at the Bourns College of Engineering, University of California Riverside (UCR).

Earlier this month, the College of Engineering published a lengthy Q&A with Walker. That conversation has been condensed and edited for a wider University audience. Read on to see what Walker has to say about her plans for the College of Engineering.

Q: What drew you to Drexel? 

A: 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 University’s 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, but there is 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.

Q: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

Q: 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’s what I’d like to emphasize — I am an advocate for the faculty, the students, the staff and for each other.

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.

A: 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 and 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 education — and to address this changing environment, we’ve got to evolve faster.

Q: Do you have any plans for growing CoE enrollment?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

Q: What is your view on the challenge of faculty retention?

A: Everybody — students, faculty, staff — 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.

Q: Is there anything else you’d want to Drexel community to know about you?

A: I’m excited to be here. I’m looking forward to getting to know every single member of the CoE community. 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).

This story was published in the fall 2018 issue of Drexel Quarterly.

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