Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 28, 1996

Holder named dean of engineering school

In a move that surprised some members of the University community, Provost James Maher on March 14 named Gerald Holder as dean of the School of Engineering without conducting a search.

Holder, who has been associate dean of engineering since July 1995, will replace H. K. Chang, who is leaving Pitt to become vice chancellor and president of City University of Hong Kong. Holder will take over as dean May 1.

Although engineering faculty knew for more than a month that Maher was considering appointing a dean without a search, the move was a surprise outside of the school because Pitt normally conducts a search to replace a dean. However, there is no written policy that mandates a search.

Maher said he took the action because he was concerned that the positive momentum in the school would be lost if an interim dean was appointed and a search launched. The last search took a year and a half.

According to Maher, bypassing a search in the engineering school was a "one of a kind" decision and not meant to establish a precedent.

The provost also said his action was unrelated to recent comments by trustees that the University seems to conduct too many searches. Trustee James Roddey at a recent Faculty Assembly meeting called Pitt "search crazy." Board of Trustees Chair J. Wray Connolly has said that the University probably conducts searches in some cases where they aren't necessary.

However, neither Roddey nor Connolly claimed that searches are unnecessary for deans.

At Senate Council's March 18 meeting, Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said he discussed the decision with Maher and supports it. Nordenberg said that progress within the School of Engineering has been identified as a University priority. The School of Engineering has had a succession of deans over the past three years. Charles Sorber left the post in 1993 to become president of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. Larry Shuman then served as interim dean until Chang's arrival in September 1994.

Holder was among the finalists for the position in the last search. Holder noted that another search so soon would not turn up very many new candidates.

"If we had to go through another search for another year and a half," Holder said, "I think people [in the school] would feel like we've been in a transition period for five years. That is my interpretation of the logic behind it [his appointment]." According to Holder, Maher discussed the subject with the school's faculty about a month before announcing the move. Holder feels he has a good relationship with most faculty members and that they have been "very, very supportive" of his appointment. "I lot of people have called with their congratulations," he said.

As a member of the School of Engineering faculty since 1979 and associate dean for the past eight months, Holder has a good idea of the problems facing the school and the direction he believes it should follow. Among the paths that Holder wants the school to continue down is bioengineering. Chang, a bioengineer by training, made bioengineering one of his priorities as dean. In fact, Holder feels that was Chang's primary accomplishment during his brief tenure.

Because of Chang's efforts, the school is in the running for a $3 million- $6 million grant from The Whitaker Foundation of Washington, D. C., to develop a bioengineering education program.

Approximately 30 institutions submitted applications for the grant. Seven, including Pitt, have been selected for site visits by foundation representatives. No date has been set for a visit, but Holder guesses it will occur in late summer or early fall.

"I am a big supporter of bioengineering," Holder said. "I was chair of chemical engineering and I had a role in the development of bioengineering in the School of Engineering. There was a lot of bioengineering activity that was developed in the department while I was chair." Holder's overall goal is to improve the School of Engineering's national stature. The National Research Council ranks most of the school's programs in the 45th to 55th percentile among engineering schools around the country. Holder said he would like to see the school at least enter the top third.

To improve its ranking, according to Holder, the School of Engineering needs to become known in certain areas. In recent years, it has been developing niches for itself in various fields and Holder thinks that needs to continue.

Bioengineering has been a natural niche for the school because of its proximity to the medical school and the fact that several of its faculty members hold joint appointments in medicine. Other niches Holder wants to see develop include research in manufacturing, environment and materials, and an undergraduate computer degree program. The undergraduate computer program is scheduled to begin in the fall.

While budgetary problems already have resulted in some schools cutting programs and personnel, Holder said no reductions are planned in engineering personnel or programs. If the school's budget is cut and reductions have to be made, he said, they would come mostly through attrition in faculty ranks.

The school's budget plan submitted to the Provost's office lists seven priorities for engineering: computer engineering, bioengineering, undergraduate retention and recruitment, distance learning and continuing education, development, minority affairs and research.

"Those are the seven highest priorities in the school," Holder said. "They are all to be consider No. 1 priorities and, in my opinion, the ranking isn't that critical. But it is a ranking." Another area in which Holder would like to see improvement is enrollment. The School of Engineering currently has about 1,300 undergraduate students and 800 graduate students. The enrollment is down about 25 percent from the recent past. Holder would like to see the school's undergraduate enrollment increase to 1,500 – 1,800 students and the graduate program pick up more full-time students. At present, about half the graduate students are full-time and half part-time.

"We need to develop new programs at the freshman level that make engineering more attractive to students," Holder said. "We need honors programs for students and mentoring for freshman students. Those are programs that will be supported in our plans for next year." Although he does not feel there is a big morale problem at the school, Holder said he thinks there is "some lack of contentment." He wants to counter that by giving young faculty plenty of opportunities to succeed in their work and a clear idea of what is expected of them.

"When we're talking about morale, I think we're actually talking about the transition," Holder said. "Every time you have a transition it creates a little anxiety on the part of the faculty and I think that manifested itself a little bit in this most recent transition because it occurred so quickly. "I guess it is not so much morale as anxiety," he continued. "Hopefully, I'll be here for a long enough period time to actually implement some changes in the program and see some things to fruition." Holder came to Pitt from Columbia University. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Michigan and earned his Bachelor of Science, Master's of Science and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry from Kalamazoo College.

–Mike Sajna and Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply