Conversation with Leah Jamieson, Dean of Engineering, 2006-2017

Writer Amy Raley recently caught up with outgoing dean Leah Jamieson to ask about her 11 years guiding Purdue's College of Engineering. Jamieson steps down as dean in June of this year.
Leah Jamieson

Q After more than a decade in your role, how was serving as dean different from what you might have expected?

A The first surprise was the pace of decision-making. I was floored by the sheer number of decisions that had to be made every day — some of them small, but some really big — and nearly all with incomplete information. But often in engineering you make decisions with incomplete information, and you have to weigh a variety of factors — technical, human, economic, environmental, aesthetic, and more. There is risk-taking every day.

Another dimension that I don’t think I could have articulated 10 or 11 years ago is the time spent thinking about and talking about leadership. Since being dean, I’m often asked by student groups to talk about leadership, so I’ve become more intentional in thinking about it. Interestingly, among many models of leadership, the one that has been by far the most useful to me was built by a Purdue electrical engineering PhD alum.

Frank Greene, who passed away in 2009, was an African-American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley who stayed connected with his major professor and with Purdue, meeting with EPICS students and some of the undergrad classes in ECE. He called his leadership model the VRE method, for vision, relationships, and execution. It’s simple, but it captures everything; for me, there’s nothing missing. I live naturally in the "V" space — imagining, planning, and creating a vision. As we developed the College’s strategic plan, relationships became more and more important, and it became everyone’s strategic plan. Over time, the emphasis transitioned to execution, then to the College’s strategic expansion. Growth at the scale of the expansion had not been on anyone’s horizon at the beginning — not part of “the plan” — but it opened up new opportunities and meant that the most recent years wove together execution and continual vision and planning.

Q What is most different for students, staff, and faculty of the College since you’ve become dean?

A For students, our “Engineer of 2020” initiative links technical skills with professional skills and characteristics, and has redefined who and what a Purdue engineer is. All Purdue Engineering students learn that while engineering is grounded in the technical, what makes a truly great engineer includes communication skills, teamwork, leadership, and the ability to work across disciplines and across cultures, as well as to integrate technological, economic, and societal perspectives.

A related impact students have felt, in large part because of the Engineer of 2020 initiative, is the significant growth in experiential education. During the past 10 years, student participation in EPICS has tripled and the number of Engineering students studying abroad has quadrupled. There has also been a significant rise in the number of undergrads doing research and in student entrepreneurs.

For staff, we have had a strong emphasis as a College on building a culture that values and appreciates staff. This has taken shape through our “Staff of 2020” initiative and the “Staff-Inspired Transformation” competition that sought out staff insight to help the College improve. Five staff teams are up and running, creating new opportunities in leadership development, mentoring, networking, and presentation skills for staff, as well as working across academic units to improve the transition-to-major process for our students.

For faculty, by the sheer hiring of so many new faculty — more than 150 faculty hired in the past five years, and net growth of almost 120 since 2006 — there are new opportunities for all of our faculty to collaborate, to expand current research areas, or move into new areas. The preeminent teams’ pitch-based strategy for hiring faculty was intentionally focused on building faculty teams, with an emphasis on collaborative research. Faculty teams could raise their hands and say, “I want to compete to be among the best,” and 68 teams composed of more than 400 faculty from 38 departments did so over the three years of the competition.

For all of us, transformations in space — the Grissom Hall reinvention, Wang Hall, the new MRI facility, and projects underway in the EE and the Railway buildings and Hampton Hall, the Lilly Endowment grant-enabled Zucrow expansion, Flex Lab, and the Bechtel Innovation Design Center — are tackling questions about how our space supports the ways we teach, learn, work, and do research today. These new and transformed spaces are having an impact on all of us: students, faculty, and staff.

Q With your 2009-14 strategic plan, the vision for the College was to be known for its impact on the world and goals of graduates in a global context; research of global significance; and empowering our people, enriching our culture. What achievements are most exemplary in demonstrating its success?

A I would list these:

  • The Engineer of 2020 and expansion of experiential education.
  • Purdue’s ever-growing role in pre-university engineering education and outreach, including INSPIRE, EPICS K-12, Electric Vehicle Grand Prix activities with Indiana high schools, Indiana Space Grant Consortium’s Space Day, and Women in Engineering and Minority Engineering pre-university programs.
  • Our partnerships in Colombia.
  • The now University-wide Purdue Systems Collaboratory.
  • The framework that’s been built for having an important impact in next-generation manufacturing.
  • The growth of our research of global significance through investments in preeminent teams, cluster hires, research facilities, research communities, and pre- and post-award support for faculty. And, always, faculty hiring.

Explicitly in empowering our people and enriching our culture, I would cite the new faculty learning communities, the Celebration of Faculty Careers, the Staff of 2020, and Staff-Inspired Transformation. There is an ever-growing commitment to celebrating the successes of people, which is a core attribute of the College. We celebrate our people, our students, our faculty and staff, and our alums. I think that’s a core value of the college.

Diversity is also a core value, and we’ve continued to make progress, but never as fast as we would have liked. But our strategic plan always prioritized it and kept us focused on it. The expansion created some opportunities, and with the Purdue Research Foundation’s challenge match, we have more than $3 million in 27 new scholarships that are explicitly focused on diversity.

Q How would you like your leadership as dean to be remembered?

A I think I would like it to be remembered for creating opportunities. That’s at the heart of the strategic plan and our strategic growth. We created opportunities and, I hope, created a culture and ecosystem where people felt they could run with ideas as fast as they could.

And always, always that people are valued — that great things come from the people. Last spring, as part of my five-year review, I was given a transcription of comments submitted to the provost. One said, “The dean needs a new speechwriter. In one speech, I heard her use the phrase ‘extraordinary people’ half a dozen times.” It made me smile. I should have reminded people that this was the title of our strategic plan — “Extraordinary People, Global Impact”!

I would like to be characterized as a dean who had an enormous respect for, and who deliberately celebrated, extraordinary people, and who challenged us all to be expansive in thinking about what success looks like.

Q What’s next for you?

A This is easy. I’m a faculty member. I’ll do a six-month sabbatical and six-month leave to think about where I want to put my attention for the next few years. I’ll study what has changed in the fields I’ve known and loved, and what new directions I might be able to explore. I plan to do some writing because that’s often how I organize my thoughts. I’ll travel and talk with people whose thinking always leads me to look at things in new ways. And over the course of the year, I’ll renew some old collaborations and start shaping some new ones.