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New Engineering Dean Outlines Vision

October 1, 2010

New Engineering Dean Outlines Vision

E. Daniel Hirleman recently took the helm as dean of UC Merced’s School of
Engineering. Hirleman was previously the head of Purdue University’s School of Mechanical Engineering. The following is an interview with Hirleman about his vision for the school and what he hopes to accomplish.

What is your vision for the School of Engineering?

I see a School of Engineering that continues its remarkable trajectory toward having an impact of the quality and scale worthy of the top programs in the world. We will be known for signature initiatives and discoveries that help people and change the world, starting with the San Joaquin Valley. And we’ll be known for students and graduates who make a difference.

UC Merced and its schools must continue developing a distinctive identity. It does not make sense to become clones of the other UC campuses — we have our own unique set of responsibilities and opportunities. We have been blessed with a supportive geographic region and UC system, plus the chance to build academic programs and a sustainable campus from the ground up. We were able to splice an interdisciplinary mentality into our DNA, and we’ll continue building something great.

How do you plan to help make the vision a reality?

First, by helping recruit and retain great faculty who share the UC Merced vision. The school needs to aggressively add faculty to reach critical mass, and then provide them with an environment that encourages world-class teaching, curriculum, research and outreach, and that’s where I can make my most long-lasting impact.

We need to continue attracting and supporting those students who can thrive here, and define and articulate clearly the differentiators of a UC Merced experience. We’ll find those students who could go anywhere in the world to study but who will know UC Merced is the best fit for them.

To bring in more highly productive faculty and exceptional students — and to continue growing our own — will require substantial resources. In my previous position, I was responsible for a $140 million capital campaign, and I understand that the UC Merced margin of excellence can only come from private and other external sources beyond the state appropriation. So I’ll spend quite a bit of time on development.

What attracted you to UC Merced?

I found it exciting to have the chance to participate in the second phase of building a program and a campus. As far as engineering education goes, UC Merced is the only full-scale experiment being carried out in the 21st century. We have a solid foundation and a unique niche.

I was very impressed by the interdisciplinary strength of UC Merced. We are very strategically positioned with respect to sustainability, both in our physical plant and our teaching and research. I chair the advisory board of Engineers for a Sustainable World, so that was a great fit with my personal interests. My own research involves biosensors for food safety and cell characterization, both of which align with ongoing interdisciplinary work at UC Merced and with needs of the region.

Finally, I am a builder by nature. And it was clear that the school must aggressively build on the excellent foundation that founding Dean Jeff Wright and the current faculty created. I’m really thrilled to take on the challenge.

What centers or institutes would you like to see developed?

I’m intrigued by the potential for signature initiatives that would connect all the schools and integrate all three parts of our academic mission. While I have a lot to learn in my first few months on the job, I already have a list of potential focus areas to explore, and more will be added as I get to know the faculty better.

One area is sustainability, which is closely related to the UC Merced Energy Research Institute and Sierra Nevada Research Institute, and I want to keep leveraging what we have there. Another is high-speed rail, which may be a singular strategic opportunity for Merced. It’s one we can lead; it has teaching, research and economic development facets; and it will require partnerships with community colleges, California State University campuses and other UCs.

And I think we have a chance to connect psychology and engineering in ways that make engineered systems much more helpful to people. Finally, a medical school and the new hospital provide a great opportunity for adding to the excellent ongoing health-related work.

What kind of collaborations would you like to see?

Ones that are faculty-inspired and that involve multiple dimensions of our strategic plan. These will provide the most impact and the best chance to leverage the resources we need.

What qualities make someone a successful dean?

First, the dean must be respected by the faculty as a scholar in his or her own right. A dean must be a statesperson, willing to spend considerable time and effort for the common good. They must not take anything personally, but at the same time must remember that many people they interact with do take things personally — in other words, a dean needs adaptively thick skin. It’s important to be able to articulate the shared faculty vision in a way that generates enthusiasm, and then communicate that vision to all our stakeholders. And finally, the dean must be able to generate the needed resources from inside and outside the academy.

Do you plan to keep researching while dean? If so, what kind of research do you plan to do?

Definitely, and UC Merced will provide an excellent environment for that. I’ll continue my USDA-funded work on optical sensors for bacteria detection for food safety, and I hope to launch related collaborations with faculty in Engineering and Natural Sciences on cytomics for biodiversity quantification, high-throughput screening and stem cells. I’m part of a National Institutes of Health biosecurity grant that was just funded to study label-free light scattering sensor networks for early detection of bio-threats. And I will continue National Science Foundation-funded work on educating global engineers and on our cyber-community, which should involve collaboration with faculty in Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. 

What are your top priorities this semester?

I’ll meet with all engineering faculty and prepare for that by reading what they consider their best paper or scholarly contribution from the last couple of years, so I can understand their work. I want to get to know the school’s undergraduate and graduate students and understand their aspirations. Meeting with all the engineering staff is important, and also understanding the ways we do things in UC. I had my first External Advisory Board meeting this week in Silicon Valley, and I’ll be enlisting the proactive support of industry stakeholders. I need to comprehend our budget and remain an optimist. And finally, I will get out in the community and develop a feel for how the region views us and can partner in our mission.