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Homecoming at Home: A Conversation with the Dean

From the Dean

Homecoming at Home: A Conversation with the Dean

December 2, 2020 | 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM Central Time

On December 2, Dean Rashid Bashir and Associate Dean for Advancement, Dale Wright, celebrated Homecoming at Home with alumni and members of our campus community with a discussion on topics such as the state of the college, advances in our research, innovations in education, how we're addressing local and global challenges associated with COVID-19, and so much more. Enjoy this selection of Q&A from the event.

Dale Wright: In the last two years you have served as dean of The Grainger College of Engineering, what would you say has been your proudest moment or two?

Rashid Bashir: That's a great question. I'm just tremendously proud to have this honor to be the dean of this great college, so that's one. I think my proudest moment was probably when I started. The naming of our college was certainly a major milestone. And in this last year especially, how our campus responded, and I know many in our college have contributed greatly, to COVID-19. That's just been really inspiring. How our faculty stepped up in such a short time frame to create the Rapid Vent, the emergency ventilator, the PPE devices, did all of the background work for the Safer Illinois app, and supported the saliva test. I think the COVID response is really a very proud moment for our campus and for me.  I think another important milestone for our college is we created this IDEA Institute, which is the institute for diversity, equity, and inclusion. It's a very new model of scholarship and research in diversity and diversity challenges in engineering. We set this up about a year ago with Professor Lynford Goddard serving as the director and he's doing a tremendous job. We also had two other sort of big wins, which were the result of many years of relationship. One is a large center with Foxconn Interconnect Technology that was a $100 million effort around automation of environments and manufacturing. And the other is a partnership between our Healthcare Engineering Systems Center, OSF, and Jump ARCHES, which brings engineering, clinical, and social and behavioral disparities of health together in this new center.  So I think we've actually had multiple really proud moments and I'm just so excited about everything that's happened and what we will do in the future.

Dale: Building out on one of those themes you talked about the formation of the IDEA Institute. So I actually would like to go to a question posed by one of our honored guests who's joined us this afternoon, Kay.

Kay: Employers are always looking for graduates of diverse backgrounds. What can The Grainger College of Engineering do to reach further down into the age groups and now wait until students graduate high school to get them into engineering? I think we need to be going much younger.

Rashid: You're absolutely right, we do not do enough with going down to K through 5, for example. We do have some efforts with high school, including our SpHERES program in bioengineering, The Young Scholar in physics, and a  program called POETS, which are all focused on traditionally underrepresented students. There is also an initiative to get computer science included in high school curriculums across the state. But going back to your question... We have been talking with leadership from the IDEA institute on the possibility of adopting certain middle schools or even elementary schools, because you're right, students, including girls, make the decision on whether or not to pursue STEM much earlier on. The efforts in that area are currently very ad hoc. The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology has been doing some work to get nanotechnology in front of K through 5 by working with different authors to write books on career choices, for example. And now they're working on one for bioengineering as well. We need think about doing something really different.

Dale: I will add, too, that we have a program called the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering program that's our public engagement outreach of the college. There's also a program we have through a National Science Foundation grant that Lynford Goddard is leading. It's initially a $1.2 million investment, with a goal that they create STEM clubs across the state of Illinois, particularly at the middle school level. We'll get more teachers comfortable leading those STEMS clubs, and work on ways to have U of I students partnering with them to build their confidence level up. Another program is in Chicago, called the Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering Program (ChiS&E), where we have a partnership with a local organization that introduces cohorts of students and their families from kindergarten on up to engineering. And then we partner at the middle school with getting them into high school. 

Rashid: I'll also mention another outreach that I didn't think of before -- Engineering Open House. Each year we welcome between 10 and 15,000 students from across the region, many as young as third and fourth grade coming with their parents. This is a really great event that exposes elementary, middle school, and high school students to all sorts of great engineering projects. 

Dale: Thanks, Dean. Next we have a question from another alum, Aran.

Aran: Has the college seen a benefit from the national leadership role that's emerged during COVID-19, especially with related to rapid event and the high volume saliva testing. Is there a way that we've seen increased interest, money, potential?

Rashid: That's a great question. I've actually asked my team to look into quantifying the impact we are seeing from our role in the COVID space. But I absolutely hear this from all of my colleagues at the Big 10 plus deans meetings and nationally -- everyone knows about what our campus has done. Deans from across the country have mentioned the fact that our campus is a model of how to open a large campus and keep everyone safe, so we're certainly getting a lot of good publicity from that. I believe this will really help us with our rankings. As you know, some of our rankings for the departments and college are based on perception, which is based on other peers ranking our reputation. I think this is all going to help that reputation. 

Dale: Alright, next question. Many of us have been thinking about this, particularly since many of us have been working remotely since March. Thinking about our facilities... Prior to COVID we were continuing to try and improve our facilities to support the overall educational and research experience on our campus.  How do you think we're meeting our current needs and what do you see us trying to do in the future as we come out of COVID? 

Rashid: Let me just say a few things about this. Prior to COVID we were already working on some construction projects. Within the last year and a half we opened a newly-renovated Everitt Lab to serve as the new home of bioengineering. Within the next year we are also hoping to finish the Sydney Lu Mechanical Engineering Building as well as Civil and Environmental Engineering hydro-systems lab extension. We also have our Campus Instructional Facility which is going to be a big facility on the corner of Wright and Springfield. There's also an expansion project we're continuing on Talbot Lab for Aero and NPRE. So all that is great and we are continuing those projects. But I think there is still one area that we need to fill and that's in the student activities space. We do not have space for student activities, such as registered student organizations or student clubs, for students to gather and be able to do design projects (both or curricular and non-curricular use). Right now, students are scattered across multiple buildings, so that will definitely be a priority we talk about in the future. One thing the COVID experience has taught us is that the post-COVID user facilities have to be evaluated. Looking at IBM and Microsoft who have both said between 50 and 75% of their employees will never come back to a physical building. We certainly need to make things more efficient from a teaching perspective, but we also need to look at our job functions and which can be done remotely, allowing for us to use current space more efficiently -- maybe shift some of the administrative spaces to research or student spaces. 

Dale: Looking a bit broader, I know we have received this question a lot. How has COVID-19 impacted the college's budget? 

Rashid: Clearly the world has gone through a difficult time and we as a college and university are also facing budget challenges. The cost of safely reopening  the campus this year was significantly higher than past years, and we had to manage that. Take the campus testing for example, we had to spend that money to welcome students back, and the college of course pays a share of that. Also, because of COVID travel and visa restrictions our international enrollment was lower this year than previous year. That's happening at all of our peer institutions. So we're seeing a drop in revenue because of international student decline. So bottom line, our budget was impacted by about 10%, and that's significant. We are working with our departments and our academic units to work though this budget shortfall. As we plan for next year, we expect a similar decrease in revenue. While we hope that a vaccine will be available and a certain level of normalcy will return, we expect state funding to decrease. This year state funding was maintained, but that won't be the case next year. The state has been tremendously supportive in recent years, but these are just the realities of what we'll have to deal with. Our attitude is to face it as a challenge and find ways to innovate, improve efficiency, and, if we can, look for new sources of revenue. 

Dale: Thank you dean for your honesty there. Now in an effort to end on a higher note, what's one thing that you're really looking forward to as we head into 2021?

Rashid: As a college, I think we are in a really great position. We had a tremendous hiring season this past spring where we brought on 30+ new faculty, primarily in the computer science department and computing as that's an area we wanted to grow. So now our faculty number is really where we want it to be. And there is room for us to grow our enrollment some.  So we're in a great position from that perspective. We're going to slow down our hiring this year, which was already our plan anyway. Additionally, this past year we hit $1 billion in research proposal submissions for the first time ever. That's 18% higher than the year before in terms of proposals. So I'm excited about our research enterprise and that it's poised to grow, which will impact our ability to attract the best talent here, including faculty, staff, and students, in the future. This has been a tough year for all of us, but the only way to get through is for us to keep working together and innovate our way out of this. So I'm actually very much looking forward to this year, especially as vaccines are hopefully rolled out sooner than later.