The new dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Craig H. Benson, has been at the University of Virginia since July, but already has begun initiatives to transform the school.
He is placing special emphasis on areas in which the Engineering School is already strong and where the school has potential to enhance quality of life. He also is developing new areas in which the school can be an international leader; this month, he announced a multi-million dollar investment in cyber-physical systems research, for which the school will hire eight new cross-disciplinary faculty members.
Benson came to UVA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he chaired the civil and environmental engineering and geological engineering departments. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, he is known for his research and ability to strategically grow faculty, develop cross- and multi-disciplinary collaborations and curricula, and grow enrollment.
He spoke recently with UVA Today science writer Fariss Samarrai about his plans for the Engineering School.
Q. You’ve been in your position for three months. What have you been able to do so far?
A. First, I believe in listening to people, and that is what I’ve spent a lot of time doing. I want to hear candidly what faculty, staff, students, alumni and corporate partners have to say. Likewise, I’ve been sharing my thoughts about what I believe we can achieve and how we can excel together.
As a new leader, I bring a new lens, a different perspective on our strengths and areas for growth. For example, the school has a strong faculty and loyal staff, and an exceptional undergraduate program. We have opportunities to grow our faculty, strengthen our graduate program and emphasize cross-disciplinary collaboration.
We’ve all been sharing passions, concerns and issues. This is an opportunity to transform the school and take it in a new direction using the input we have been sharing.
Part of this is clearly identifying what we’re good at and investing in those activities for the future. Already we are very strong in cyber-physical systems research, an area that explores the possibilities and risks involved with the ever-increasing connected technologies in our lives. These are systems that interact with and help control the environment, an area with enormous potential for advancing and benefiting society.
As a result, we’ve begun a multi-million dollar initiative to drive innovation in cyber-physical systems research at UVA. We will, in the coming months, hire eight new top-level faculty members who will join our cadre of more than a dozen leaders in this field. With this we are launching a cross-disciplinary lab to strengthen connections between cyber-engineering and physical-engineering research.
This is an example of how we already are forging ahead, building on existing strengths and innovating across the disciplines.
Q. How else will you re-direct the school?
A. We need more leadership development, and we must provide our leaders with the opportunities and resources to lead and be successful – autonomy and responsibility.
To accomplish this, I am making the leadership less centralized and am empowering the department chairs. I want them to be administrators and leaders. They now have their own budgets, and it is their job to determine the direction of their departments, build consensus and work closely with colleagues across the departments to maximize impact from our resources.
Also, we want to empower our faculty by building a greater sense of ownership in the school and University, and help people to better define their destiny. We can take action to become who we want to be, rather than who we were.
We also have remodeled our fundraising strategy. Previously, fundraising was done out of the dean’s office at the school level. Now our chairs will engage directly with our advancement officers, and our officers will engage our alums from a close understanding of the values and possibilities of our programs.
Q. What challenges are you facing as you move forward?
A. In the next five years we will grow from about 150 faculty members to approximately 175. During that time, we will have to replace retiring faculty members and others who leave. This will require a significant hiring effort. It will be a challenge, competing with other institutions to attract top scholars, but we can be highly successful through strategic hiring that emphasizes excellence and focusing on building strengths in thematic areas where we can differentiate our school from others.
We can no longer work within silos and hire people only within those silos, which is a vertical form of thinking. We must develop hiring strategies that are horizontal, crossing the departments, to build areas of strength where UVA truly stands out and has impact. We must leverage those strengths to tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges, today and in the future.
We will accomplish this by engaging with the great faculty in other schools at the University, such as the School of Medicine, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the McIntire School of Commerce, the Darden School of Business, and the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. This will create new opportunities beyond what we already are doing.
Q. You have been an academic engineer throughout your career. What has kept you doing this, as opposed to working in industry?
A. What I’ve enjoyed is that I’m in college, and I’ve never left! In academia we get to educate young people at the frontiers of knowledge and inspire them to become successful critical thinkers and innovators. We are educating through research and helping to create future leaders who will go into the world and inspire and create new knowledge. This is very rewarding work that I truly find exhilarating.
Q. How will the School of Engineering look in five to 10 years?
A. By then, people will point to UVA Engineering as an important intellectual leader in emerging technological areas that are critical to our society. I have spent my career building world-class, cross-disciplinary groups at other institutions. We will use those same concepts as we work together as faculty, leaders and thinkers to make UVA Engineering exceptionally well-regarded in the areas in which we excel.
Q. What were the key things that made you want this job?
A. UVA is a world-class university with strong and serious leadership. It is well-managed and financially sound. The University also is investing in the STEM fields and has a long-term strategy for excellence involving multi-disciplinary research through entities such as the Data Science Institute. The deans and the institutes are collaborating, and there is unique opportunity to build, shape, and grow the Engineering School – to take it to new a level of recognition and accomplishment.
Also, Charlottesville is fantastic, with much to do, a good airport and picturesque mountains. And the historic Grounds of the University are beautiful. It’s a great area with a great quality of life.