New Pitt Engineering dean focuses on building bridges, improving community

James "Jimmy" MartinJames “Jimmy” Martin, the new dean of the Swanson School of Engineering, is focused on strengthening connections in the University community.

Martin came to Pitt from Clemson University in South Carolina, where he was a professor and chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering as well as the founding director of Clemson’s Risk Engineering and Systems Analytics Center.

He also spent more than 20 years with Virginia Tech’s civil engineering faculty and five years as director of the Disaster Risk Management Institute, where he researched earthquake engineering and more.

The University Times asked Martin about his goals for his tenure at Pitt and his impressions of the University. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity

What are your impressions of Pittsburgh?

It's a tremendous area. … This is my ninth trip. Even though I started officially (on Aug. 15), I had eight trips up here, typically two to three days a week, to really reach out and get to know people, to get to know the city and feel the energy, feel the vibe. And every time, I've just been more attracted to the city and the school and the University.

What made you decide to come here?

I don't know if it was a conscious decision. Frankly, it was an alignment, more or less. I certainly was focused more on making a difference, not becoming a leader. ... I think the best leaders are focused on the difference they can make. In other words, I was focused more on what we can achieve than some particular role.

So, the biggest reason I came here is because I felt I could make a tremendous difference. All the ingredients are in place. And there's great energy and great alignment, because it's not just about me. In fact, it's not about me. It's about us, what we can create together.

So, when I came here, I felt a great connection with the people. And if you have great connections with people, and people are having a good time and working together, that's pretty special. People usually produce well. They usually are passionate, and so you maximize human potential that way. And that's how you get to be the best in the world. So, I saw the possibility of being the best in the world.

What are some of your goals for your first semester?

I think for the first semester, (my goals are) to really have some strategic conversations around community. I think we have had strong leadership over the years. My predecessor was a strong leader, and the school grew. I think now the next logical thought is what we can do to do more big initiatives, do big things together. And that requires community, and it requires community that extends beyond the college, beyond the school, I should say.

And so, to have some strategic conversations here in the school about community, having a strong sense of community, which is related to our purpose. So, I think, again, going back to maximizing our potential. The ideas and energy in all of us, even a fraction of that, is way more than the ideas and the energy of just a few of us. And we also make each other better when we're all better. So, you give more to the community and the community grows, and it helps you grow because you're a part of the community.

I think all of us should have in our personal lives and organizations, whether it's a department or school or university … a good strong sense of some transformative purpose.

And I want us to have some conversations around community and purpose. So that means the number one thing I’m going to do is listen. … In my first year, too, other than community, I want to emphasize again, the importance of bridging connections outside the school.

What, in your opinion, are some of the Swanson School of Engineering’s strengths and what are areas where you see room for improvement?

Well I think the fact that I haven't been here long gives me an advantage because I come in with a unique perspective. ... And I think the strengths of the school are the people for sure. And the quality of the people that we have, their hard work, and I feel, the uniqueness of Pitt, its history.

(The Swanson School) is located in a campus that is a comprehensive University with many points of excellence outside of our core discipline of engineering, and we can leverage that in ways that few other people can.  Right across the alleyway is Public Health. Right across O’Hara is Arts and Sciences. There are not a lot of places where you have a leading medical school, you’ve got a great college of science, you've got a good engineering program and great leadership.

Because when you talk about the strengths of the school, a lot of what the school wants to do involves movement at the university. And that inevitably is enabled and leveraged and accelerated by leadership. So, I was also impressed by the leadership potential that would allow the school to really accelerate even more. At the University, the (chancellor), the provost, the teams that they put together are very impressive, very progressive.

And the other thing I should say, other than the people — and when I say, “the people,” (I mean) our hard-working faculty, the staff, the students, who are incredible — there's this sense of connection; (they are) very friendly and very approachable. I think also, I've been around a lot of universities, but rarely have I seen such passionate supporters for a University and the school.

I think one of the early goals too is to connect us as a family so that we can see that we are part of one system. Not just what we have here on campus right now. And the success of any of us is the success of all of us.

How do you feel about being the first African-American dean of the Swanson School of Engineering?

I've been the first in a lot of places. I was the first civil engineering graduate. … I was the first in a lot of things that I did at Virginia Tech. ... It's something you get used to.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think the one thing I’ll say is that what's important for all of us to understand is there is a certain sense of energy and excitement because we're talking about a new dean. What I wanted them to focus on is this was not about getting a new dean. This was about having conversations that we don't always have.

And it was about coming together, figuring out what it is we can be. We need to continue that. We don't need to just do that when we're talking about having new leadership. We need to be doing that all the time. We're always becoming something. And we need to be aware of what it is. ... what our purpose is. So, my focus is to get people to understand the sense of enthusiasm and excitement. It's supposed to be the way it is all the time. Because we spent so much time looking at where we were. We need to be excited and passionate about what it is we do because we all … need to focus on making a true difference in this world, making it a better place.


Donovan Harrell, or 412-383-9905