At the conclusion of the fall 2011 semester, Dr. Kot Unrug retired from his position as professor and director of the rock mechanics laboratories in the Department of Mining Engineering. As an Emeritus professor, Dr. Unrug will continue to work on research projects as well as with industry.
Born in Poland, communist rule forced Dr. Unrug’s family from the farm they had owned for generations in 1945. Worse, they were stigmatized as “enemies of the people”—a designation that would pose challenges for Dr. Unrug as he pursued higher education. When he applied to the university’s geology program, he encountered a problem no aptitude test could solve. “I was one of five top students—out of 300—who passed the entrance exam…but they didn’t accept me into the program because of my social origin,” he recalls. “They said they didn’t have available space, but it was the black mark next to my name that kept me out.”
Turned away from geology, Dr. Unrug discovered that the mining engineering program had available space. Armed with his exam results, he applied and was accepted. Thus began an education in mining engineering, a subject about which Dr. Unrug knew very little when he began. Dr. Unrug reflects that the juxtaposition of circumstances in post-World War II Poland bode well for someone beginning a career in mining engineering. “Large investments were made in mining enterprises after the war. The university I was at was quite influential in that process, advising on the investments. I learned at that time the importance of the ties between industry and academia. Work in academia is usually specialized, but I was exposed to the broader issues across the whole industry early in my career. I was able to see the different dimensions of particular issues, which is much deeper than what is given in a textbook.”
In 1977, Dr. Unrug and his family defected from Poland, which he describes as “taking a vacation and never coming back.” They spent a year in Vienna, Austria, and eventually came to the United States just before Christmas in 1978. The next month, Dr. Unrug served as a visiting professor at the University of Kentucky. Six months later, he was hired as a professor of mining engineering.
The growth and transformation of the Department of Mining Engineering has coincided with Dr. Unrug’s tenure. “Since I came here, mining has come to exist as its own department when it was once just a section of civil engineering. We only had three professors and zero resources,” he says. “With commitment and time, we built slowly and now are one of the primary mining engineering programs in the country. That would not have happened without the commitment of people in the industry and the creation of the Mining Engineer Foundation. Both had a monumental impact because they allowed us to have a material base for our work.” The mining profession has a long tradition of commitment and experienced elders supporting younger learners. Learning the rules of professional conduct is part of that tradition and Dr. Unrug has incorporated that emphasis into his classrooms.
Dr. Unrug’s philosophy of teaching eschews easy answers and lack of rigor. He firmly believes learning through repetition and developing intellectual tools sharp enough to solve complex problems are far more valuable than simply understanding information. He explains, “The human mind can get and retain concepts, but procedures will evaporate. So I enforce comprehension of the conceptual basis of whatever we are studying. Programs and formulas are of secondary importance, because you wouldn’t want an engineer operating from formulas recalled from memory. It would be dangerous! The most important theories should be known by heart, because when you have those entrenched in your mind, you have the ability to understand new information as it arrives.”
For Dr. Unrug, retirement hardly means inactivity. He plans to continue working on research projects with Dr. Kyle Perry, who will take over as director of the rock mechanics laboratories, and enjoy time off for scuba diving, golf, sailing and skiing. “My principle is to play hard or work hard,” he smiles. “Don’t do anything in between!”
More than likely, Dr. Unrug will also take time to reflect on his career as a professor and the many mining engineering students on whom he had an opportunity to put his stamp of influence over the past three decades. “The best reward of teaching is when you see the students you’ve taught doing well in life,” he summarizes. “That’s better than any of the other metrics we use.”