Soon, that will change.
“I have informed the President, Provost, and members of my senior staff of my intention to resign my position as Dean of the College of Engineering effective June 30, 2012,” he wrote in a memo to College of Engineering faculty and staff. “At this time, I’ve not finalized my future plans,” he added.
While he expressed a great deal of pride in his experiences at UK, calling them “the most satisfying of my professional career,” Dean Lester has made the difficult decision that it is time for a new dean “to build upon the very real strengths of the college.” (Memo to faculty and staff)
Over the past 21 years, Dean Lester has identified, directed and developed those “very real strengths” which include a significant increase in enrollment, upgrades to the composition of the faculty and student body and enhancements to the facilities.
While Dean Lester modestly claims these improvements “would have happened in any event, no matter who occupied the position,” others who have worked side-by-side, or have had the opportunity to know him, would disagree with the dean’s humility.
Dean Lester sat down with us recently to discuss his role as dean over the past 21 years and what he sees in the future for the College of Engineering.
Building Strong Foundations
“When he arrived as dean, there was no discernable engineering quadrangle, and now there is a vibrant mini-campus. The quality and number of students have increased significantly.” – Dr. Kumble R. Subbaswamy, UK Provost
Dr. Kumble R. Subbaswamy, UK Provost, credits Dean Lester for the development of a distinct campus footprint for engineering and computer science, as well as revitalizing the composition of the student body. “When he arrived as dean, there was no discernable engineering quadrangle, and now there is a vibrant mini-campus. The quality and number of students have increased significantly,” he said.
Dean Lester attributes the increase in enrollment, in part, to the college stepping up its recruitment and marketing efforts in recent years, ramping up an aggressive fundraising program for scholarships and targeting prospective students who will be successful.
“We look for bright students. There is no doubt about that,” said Dean Lester. “But you don’t have to be a genius to get through engineering, and most of the faculty will tell you that the dean is a perfect example of that,” he said laughing. “But you have to be tenacious, you have to be persistent and you have to be willing to work hard.”
Dean Lester also attributes enrollment success to the efforts of generous alumni in creating the scholarship pool necessary to attract top students. “Engineering draws the best students. That’s just the nature of engineering,” he said. But it also takes competitive scholarships to help entice those students to UK. “We’ve been very fortunate that our alumni have been so generous towards undergrad scholarships,” he said. “In the last couple of years we have gone from about $800,000 in private scholarship support for our students to a little over $1 million this next year for undergraduate scholarships.”
As evidence of the success of these efforts, one out of six of all UK freshmen entering in the fall of 2010 enrolled in the College of Engineering; one of three incoming freshmen with an ACT score of 31 or higher were College of Engineering students; one of four of all incoming freshmen who received Singletary Scholarships were College of Engineering students; and there has been a 40% increase in the number of incoming freshmen in the college since 2008.
“The impact Dean Lester has had on the College of Engineering will be felt long after all of us are gone. The facilities that he was able to build, along with the growth in both the size and quality of our programs, have positioned the college for greatness in the future.” – Dr. Richard Sweigard, Associate Dean for Administration and Academic Affairs
Despite all the successes, Dean Lester would like to see more progress in the recruitment, enrollment and retention of under-represented groups – specifically women and minorities. “That has proven to be a tough nut to crack,” he said. “Not only for us here at UK, but nationally. The marketplace out there is very competitive in terms of recruiting top students in those cohorts. We put a lot of emphasis on that and I think eventually we’ll determine how to be more successful in that.”
Another area where Dean Lester hopes there will be improvement is an increase in the number of electrical engineering and computer science students. “Surprisingly, we still have difficulty attracting electrical engineering and computer science students nationally. Right now, the main recruitment target for companies is electrical engineering and computer science. We just do not graduate a sufficient number of students in those disciplines.”
“The impact Dean Lester has had on the College of Engineering,” said Dr. Richard Sweigard, Associate Dean for Administration and Academic Affairs, “will be felt long after all of us are gone. The facilities that he was able to build, along with the growth in both the size and quality of our programs, have positioned the college for greatness in the future.”
Improved Student Quality Demands Quality Instruction
Perhaps the most significant legacy Dean Lester will leave behind will be the composition of the faculty, which has changed dramatically under his guidance.
Approximately two-thirds of the engineering faculty has been hired since 1990, creating an exciting combination of innovation and energy to go along with a long-established commitment to teaching, research and service.
One of the most obvious differences in the faculty now is how it has grown over the past 21 years.
Dean Lester points to one event in particular which changed the identity and scope of the College of Engineering. “We received 14 funded positions by the virtue of passage of House Bill 1 in 1997 under the direction of then Governor Paul Patton (BSME ʼ59),” said Dean Lester, “The creation of the Research Challenge Trust Fund allowed us to expand computer science, electrical engineering, materials science, chemical engineering and create the Center for Manufacturing.”
Another hallmark of Dean Lester’s leadership is the continued commitment to faculty excellence.
The current College of Engineering faculty has received more CAREER Awards from the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies than engineering and science faculty in all other academic colleges in the state of Kentucky combined. More than 33 percent of the College of Engineering’s full time professors are also Fellows of one or more professional societies.
When asked about his philosophy of hiring excellent faculty, Dean Lester said he first starts by looking for faculty with an interest in teaching. “If you are not interested in teaching,” he said, “you should be looking at labs or research institutions, not a university. Our tenure track faculty are engaged in teaching, both undergraduate and graduate courses.”
“We also look for the promise that they are going to be able to do scholarly research on their own,” he said, “and that they are going to be able to publish their research, that they are going to be able to mentor graduate students because that really is the most intimate form of teaching, and they’re going to have the ability and motivation to go after external funding.”
An opportunity to collaborate with other top scholars is also an important draw for engineering faculty.
“UK is a very stimulating place for faculty members who have interests that transcend disciplines,” he said, “because we have such a wide variety of disciplines across campus – from the medical center to agriculture to law to arts and sciences to business – faculty members find almost a bewildering array of colleagues to collaborate with.”
While he enables the process by authorizing position searches and finding adequate resources, Dean Lester relies on the department chairs to sell the University of Kentucky as an exciting and rewarding place for faculty. He also feels the community of Lexington, with its overall quality of life, is an “enormous asset” in keeping a talented faculty happy.
While all those factors play a part to attract and retain talented faculty, Dean Lester feels that the “collegiality within the departments is the primary reason we are able to keep good people here.”
It is a thought that is echoed by Dr. Bruce Walcott, Associate Dean for New Economy Initiatives and Innovations. “Dean Lester’s leadership style is one of enabling and encouragement, which has resulted in a collegial environment where our students and faculty thrive,” he said.
Top Students and Faculty Require Top Facilities
Over the past quarter of a century, the College of Engineering has seen an explosion of new construction – dedicating the Mining and Minerals Resource Building, The Advanced Science and Technology Commercialization Center Building, the Charles Barnhart Building, the Robotics Building, the Oliver H. Raymond Building, the F. Paul Anderson Tower extension, the Ralph G. Anderson Building and the new Davis Marksbury Building, as well as Crounse Hall, the Crisp Building and the Fred Paxton Research Wing on the Paducah campus.
Dr. Walcott attributes the advancement of the college’s core mission of teaching, research and service to Dean Lester’s vision and commitment to these infrastructure improvements. “Having modern research and teaching laboratories, as well as intelligent classrooms and office space, allows our faculty to be more productive and effective in what they do.”
The college’s newest edifice, the Davis Marksbury Building, places engineering and computer science at UK at a high-tech hub—a center of innovation, creativity and discovery that will be crucial to helping Kentucky create a thriving, knowledge-based economy. “It is not only a symbol of technology, but is a practical statement of the institution as well,” Dean Lester said.
Even before state funded buildings were required to be “high performance,” the Davis Marksbury Building was designed to be UK’s first to receive certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.
“Given the College of Engineering’s role as a leader in advancing environmental-related research in efficient energy production, air and water purification and other ‘green’ engineering endeavors, it is extremely appropriate that the first LEED certified building on UK’s campus be dedicated to engineering and computer science,” Dean Lester said at the building’s groundbreaking ceremony.
Although the building’s rooftop photovoltaic collectors that convert sunlight into electrical power to help serve the building and provide research opportunities are “not practical in Kentucky cost-wise,” said Dean Lester, the Davis Marksbury Building, “is a symbol by the institution that solar and other alternative sources of energy are going to have a major role to play in energy production. It demonstrates a commitment of the university and the college for sustainable solutions, not only for research buildings, but to construction and to life in general.”
Despite the rather large investment in capital improvements, “we still have substantial infrastructure requirements that we need to develop,” said Dean Lester. “In fact, they will never abate because the way technology moves, as quickly as it moves, an engineering school with a large breadth of disciplines like we have is always running to stay in place, if not trying to catch up a little bit.”
An example of future capital investment needs will be the expansion/completion of the “Digital Village.”
The Hardymon and Marksbury buildings currently comprise one-half of the future “quad” that will house high-tech research and teaching facilities, as well as offices for the faculty who will conduct that high-tech research and provide the classroom instruction.
“I’ve been amazed at the value that we’re deriving in our buildings,” said Dean Lester. “We’ve probably derived more benefit per dollar than any other unit on campus.”
“Overall, I think we have the size and quality of laboratories,” said Dean Lester “that provides our students and faculty an opportunity to be educated in a contemporary fashion and to do contemporary research.”
Commitment to Diversity
The latest iteration of the College of Engineering’s strategic plan calls, “to increase the number of faculty, professional staff and students from groups that have been historically under-represented in engineering and computer science and provide an environment in which all members of the college family can gain an awareness of the richness that gender, ethnic and racial inclusion can bring to the creative enterprise.”
To that end, and as a “practical response to what is going on the in the United States,” Dean Lester recently proposed a reorganization of his administrative staff to help create a more diverse student and faculty population.
One newly proposed position is director of minority engineering programs.
Traditionally, Hispanics and African-Americans “have not enjoyed a substantial representation in engineering,” Dean Lester said. Hiring faculty of color is difficult because the short supply of Ph.D. graduates compared to the demand by other universities makes it a “tough market.” “We’ve been very fortunate in our success there,” he says, but it is obvious he would like to do more.
The other new position is director of women engineering programs.
“When I arrived, we had only one, perhaps two female faculty on staff,” he said. “We are pretty well off in terms of our percentage of female faculty actually at 12 or 13 percent,” he said. “But when you realize you are virtually excluding half of the population base of the United States or Kentucky from engineering, for whatever reason, it’s very frightening from the point of view of the future of this country in terms of marshalling its intellectual capital we need to attack big problems that we have to solve technically and scientifically. Fundamentally, it is an issue of survival of the discipline and a situation where we have to do this because of the society in which we live and serve.” He added, “Women in engineering are necessary, and in fact, needed.”
Dean Lester intends to become much more personally involved in the recruitment of minorities and women. “The dean has to demonstrate a commitment to diversity if the faculty and staff are going to take it seriously,” he said. “In any leadership position, people look at your actions. Actions speak more loudly than words. It is just something I feel needs to have a hands-on involvement of the dean out of necessity of driving diversity in engineering. It is an issue of survival of the discipline.”
The college has seen a lot of changes in the past 21 years. It has witnessed a growing, gifted student body and accomplished faculty; record gains in fundraising that have led to increased numbers of endowed professorships and undergraduate scholarship resources; an impressive array of state-of-the-art research and instructional facilities; and an integral role in the university’s Top-20 aspirations.
These advancements and developments can be directly attributed to the vision and leadership of Dean Lester.
“For the last 21 years, Dean Lester has led with passion, integrity and a strategic focus on moving the college toward a brighter future with an uncharacteristic fervor for helping the people of Kentucky. Dean Lester’s devotion has sealed his legacy of outstanding performance, ethical leadership and devotion to the College of Engineering, the University of Kentucky and the Commonwealth.” – UK President Dr. Lee Todd
“Under his leadership,” said Provost Subbaswamy, “the College of Engineering has involved itself in enhancing the technology human resource pipeline in Kentucky as well by working with high schools. Dean Lester leaves a vibrant, healthy college poised to achieve even greater heights. The University of Kentucky owes him a great debt of gratitude.”
In an open letter to the campus regarding Dean Lester’s retirement, UK President Dr. Lee Todd wrote, “For the last 21 years, Dean Lester has led with passion, integrity and a strategic focus on moving the college toward a brighter future with an uncharacteristic fervor for helping the people of Kentucky. Dean Lester’s devotion has sealed his legacy of outstanding performance, ethical leadership and devotion to the College of Engineering, the University of Kentucky and the Commonwealth. On behalf of the University of Kentucky, I want to thank Dean Lester for his service and wish him the best of luck in all of his future endeavors.”