John A. Brighton

Director, Division of Engineering
National Science Foundation
BSME ’59, MSME ’60, PhD ’63

For his outstanding contributions to engineering and higher education as a university administrator and national-level policymaker, the College of Engineering is proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to John A. Brighton.

Drafting the Future

“When I graduated from high school I was not prepared for college,” John Brighton says. “I went to work in Indianapolis, doing drawing work for cardboard box printing. It was sort of an apprentice thing. I also attended Lane Drafting College in downtown Indianapolis.”

Brighton attended classes at Purdue’s extension office, then located on Meridian Street in Indianapolis, while he was working as a draftsman, drawing water pumps and turbo superchargers. “I became interested in engineering because I was working around engineers,” he says. “At that time I had no idea of even finishing the baccalaureate program, but I wanted to know more about the process of these various devices that I was drawing.”

Brighton’s father was a member of a bomber squadron during World War II. “His plane disappeared on the way from Iceland to New England,” Brighton says, “and it was never found.” This meant that Brighton was eligible for the War Orphans Benefit. He used this to fund his growing interest in the engineering arts. He graduated with a BSME in 1959.
“I didn’t intend to go to graduate school until I got a fellowship offered to me my senior year,” Brighton says. “Then during my master’s degree work I became interested in the possibility of teaching.”

Stepping Into the Classroom

In Brighton’s time at Purdue, a full-time graduate assistantship consisted of teaching two sections a term of fluid mechanics.
“And I really enjoyed it,” Brighton says. “The first class I taught was a class of 75 students. I’d never taught before, I’d never had any instruction on how to teach, or anything along those lines. I probably spent about five hours preparing for my first class, thinking of every possible question I could be asked.”

“And so it was kind of scary,” Brighton says, “walking into a class of 75 students as an introverted engineer. I really did enjoy teaching; it felt like I was doing something that was important and valuable to people.”
Brighton would go on to receive his MSME in 1961 and a PhD in 1963.

After a two-year professorship at Carnegie-Mellon University and a twelve-year tenure at Penn State, Brighton was appointed Chair of Michigan State University’s Mechanical Engineering Department in 1977. Five years later, he moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology as the Director of the School of Mechanical Engineering.

Building Diversity

“One of the things I am most proud of at Georgia Tech is the buildup of the faculty from about twenty-nine faculty to about forty three by the time I left,” Brighton says, “and by the time I left we had six Presidential Young Investigator Awards” [an award presented by the National Science Foundation for outstanding research]. Under Brighton’s direction, the number of ME faculty appointments at Georgia Tech nearly doubled while the average undergraduate class size dropped from 100 to 40.

At the same time, graduate student enrollment doubled from 125 to 270, the school acquired 27,000 square feet of new laboratory and office space and established new research strengths. Brighton was particularly good as a campaigner, raising over $36 million in endowment funds.

Brighton returned to Penn State in 1988 as the Dean of Engineering. Again he spearheaded advances in research, faculty and graduate student recruitment, and university development. But he also made strong efforts to address student diversity; he established an External Advisory Committee for Minority Programs in Engineering and started Penn State’s Women in Engineering Program. His work as an administrator led to the university’s being ranked fourth in U.S. baccalaureate degrees granted to women.

Eventually, Brighton would serve as Executive Vice President and Provost of the university and as a University Professor and Chair of the Teaching and Learning Consortium for Penn State. From 2002 to 2003 he served as Provost of National-Louis University in Chicago.

In 2003 Brighton was appointed Assistant Director of Engineering of the National Science Foundation. He manages an annual budget of $540 million, and he is actively pursuing his interests in workforce diversity. “The issues facing the NSF Engineering Directorate are not so different from those at the university level,” Brighton says, “too few women and too few minorities studying in the engineering field. NSF has the leverage to make things happen by inviting people to propose ways they can have an impact on diversity with some support from us.”

2003- Director, NSF Division of Engineering
2002-03 Provost, Nation-Louis University
1999-2002 University Professor, Chair of Teaching and Learning Consortium, Penn State
1991-99 Executive Vice President and Provost, Penn State
1992 Rodney D Chipp Memorial Award
1988-91 Dean, College of Engineering, Penn State
1982-88 Director, School of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
1977-82 Chair, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Michigan State
1967-77 Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Penn State
1965-67 Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Penn State
1963-65 Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie-Mellon
1962 Technical Staff, Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, California
1960-62 Instructor of Mechanical Engineering, Purdue
1952-55 Design Draftsman, Schwitzer Corporation, Indianapolis, Indiana

BSME ’59, MSME ’60, PhD ’63, Purdue University