Captain of a Winning Team

Author: Kathy Mayer
Leadership in education, higher rankings, increased research in areas of global impact, and a more diverse school are among the top quests for Ragu Balakrishnan, the new head of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Up at 5 a.m., responding to e-mails from home, then bicycling — rain or shine — to the office by 8 a.m. set the pace for Balakrishnan’s invigorating day guiding the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, a job he held as interim head for 15 months before being named head in May.

V. Ragu Balakrishnan

“Coming to work is not work. It’s a pleasure,” he says. He oversees — all by consensus — a school of 81 faculty, 40 staff, 880 undergraduates and 660 graduate students.

“I don’t tell people to do what I want. As an administrator, I am serving and leading through service,” Balakrishnan says. “Everybody is important. Everybody does something essential to our success.”

As interim head, he launched a welcome day for new students. He also hosts annual faculty retreats to assess “where we are and what we need to do to enhance our reputation. We identify core values, discuss priorities and talk things through. We are all part of a joint mission.”

That mission has been fine-tuned into a new strategic plan with hefty goals that include leadership and excellence in education, field-defining research and a positive impact on society.

Raising Rankings, Research Opportunities

Within a few years, Balakrishnan wants ECE to be ranked in the top five schools, up from the top ten. “I want us to be mentioned in the first breath,” he says. “It’s not a popularity contest, but will be based on true metrics — our impact.”

“We now have a critical mass and can go after more problems of global importance. We can leverage this growth for an explosion in productivity.”
– Ragu Balakrishnan

He’s also eyeing giant strides in research. “We’ve had enormous growth in faculty and our PhD programs. We now have a critical mass and can go after more problems of global importance,” he says. “We can leverage this growth for an explosion in productivity.”

While there will always be opportunities for faculty to conduct research individually or in small teams, Balakrishnan foresees more multidisciplinary efforts similar to three projects involving ECE faculty. These are the $105 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for earthquake studies at Purdue’s NEEScomm Center, the $18 million NSF grant for the Network for Computational Nanotechnology, and the $15 million Homeland Security grant for Visual Analytics for Command, Control and Interoperability Environments, dubbed VACCINE.

With that comes the challenge of boosting graduate student funding. “We have a lot of mouths to feed, so that is a priority.”

Balakrishnan is committed to making the school more diverse by increasing the number of underrepresented minorities and women, and says that curriculum changes will increase time for team projects, problem solving and interaction. His desire is that students leave with a lifelong appreciation for Purdue, for learning, and with “skills that make them complete people.”

As the leading diplomat for the school, Balakrishnan stays in touch with the school’s large community of alumni and friends. He considers spending time with alumni a “hidden pleasure” of the job, and has found that “the Purdue ECE name opens access. It’s both exhilarating and humbling to carry the weight of Purdue University.”

Well Prepared to Lead

Growing up in India, Balakrishnan says the overriding message was to be outstanding academically. “A huge premium is placed on academic success. I paid attention to it and did fairly well,” he says. So well, in fact, that when he earned his undergraduate degree in 1985 from the Indian Institute of Technology, he also received the prestigious President of India Gold Medal. Getting accepted to the institute was itself a feat; he competed against 100,000 students for the 2,000 entrance spots.

“Its fun to let your mind dwell on a clue, often subconsciously. Its a great feeling when the answer pops out.”

Nicknamed “Ragu” by his mother, “a common name in India,” he says, he shares with her a love of people. His father, who died about a decade ago, was a chemistry graduate who managed a paper company. Balakrishnan has one sibling, a sister who lives in England and works in computer systems.

In 1985, Ragu left India for graduate study at Stanford University. He arrived on a sunny California day. “It was 60 degrees, but it was the coldest I’d ever been in my life,” he recalls.

He earned a master’s degree in statistics and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1992, did postdoctoral work, then joined the Purdue faculty in 1994. His research interests have included applying numerical techniques, especially those based on convex optimization, in engineering applications.

His goal 16 years ago was to “put my head down and work hard to be a successful faculty member — I had no interest to be in administration.” When offered, he did accept administrative roles, though, finding them “a nice way to contribute something to the department.”

Of his Purdue and school posts as director of graduate admissions, associate head for education, associate dean of engineering for research, and now ECE head, he says, “I feel like I’ve grown up here.”