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ISU's College of Engineering has its founding dean. What's next?

Future ISU College of Engineering founding dean Thomas Keyser, left, and ISU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Aondover Tarhule, left
Illinois State University
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Illinois State University
Future ISU College of Engineering founding dean Thomas Keyser, left, and ISU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Aondover Tarhule.

The last time Illinois State University started a college from the ground up was in 1971, when what is now known as the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts was established.

With the recent hire of Oregon Institute of Technology dean Thomas Keyser as thesoon-to-be founding dean of a new College of Engineering, ISU is now one step closer to adding the first new college in 52 years.

"Obviously naming the dean was one of the most important steps in getting this college going," ISU provost Aondover Tarhule said in a recent interview with WGLT. "It was as important as getting the approval from the (Illinois Board of Higher Education) and the (Board of Trustees)."

Keyser is tasked with setting — and driving — the vision for ISU's College of Engineering, which officials have said they want to be equity-focused, aimed at diversifying the field. A target date of Fall 2025 is set for the proposed college's first enrolled class; an estimated 130 students would be accepted into the program.

Keyser and Tarhule talked next steps, goals, deadlines and more in an interview with WGLT recently; the transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

WGLT: Given that you're building (the college) up, is this a dream job?

Keyser: It is a dream job. I really enjoy my current job and I wasn't looking for a change, but recruiters convinced me to take a look at Illinois State and what they were starting. When I looked, I was like, 'Wow. This is really worth investigating.'

This a luxury that most people don't get: I get to hire everybody, starting with the department chairs this summer. I've moved from a variety of different positions at different places and usually it's like, 'These are the people that you get and you work with them.' And they're always great, but you don't have the luxury of getting to feel how they're going to fit into the team.

WGLT: One of the things about any department is the strengths that each individual member brings — and the differences that set them apart from others. How do you ensure you're building the right chemistry, making the department as strong as it can be? Are there any traits you're looking for as you fill the department?

Keyser: There's going to be several. We'll look for some very driven individuals for those initial positions — and in every position. But one of the things I'm looking for is the commitment to hiring diverse faculty. There's a direct correlation between what your faculty composition is and the composition of the student body. One of the big things that was in every document I read while interviewing is that we want to be known for diversifying the workforce. One of the ways we'll measure that is when other universities come to visit us and see what we've done. I'm looking forward to that day.

WGLT: If it was easy, I would think that there would be some model that existed already that perhaps you'd be drawing from; ISU seems to be hoping to set the model. Do you expect any challenges in being the first to design a department, a program with this in mind, as well as academic rigor?

Keyser: There's always going to be challenges. I'm a big believer in meeting students where they are. When I first went to college, they didn't care if we graduated or not. They could always get more students. That's not where we are, as engineers and engineering educators, anymore. If students are interested in our college ... and they need to have some leveling courses, so be it.

I would prefer to do that with more opportunist type things — like short courses, things in the summer, things we can do online.

The other things we'll want for support is to have active student organizations, whether that be the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), or ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) or the Society of Black Engineers or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Those will also be some of the organizations that we'll go to to advertise for our faculty.

As engineers, we need to sell ourselves and believe in ourselves because are people that make a difference in other people's lives. So making the right environment, the right feel, instilling curiosity and all sorts of things in our students... is all sort of a new, sort of big package we're going to put together to make ourselves attractive.

Tarhule: We fully realize we are setting ourselves up here for something that is not easy to accomplish, but we think we have two advantages. One is that we're starting from the ground up. In many cases, people are taking an established department with established personnel and an established legacy of doing things and they're trying to reverse engineer that or graft on equity and diversity. We're starting from the ground up with an equity and diversity lens.

The second advantage I think we have is over the years, a body of work of effective practices has accumulated. One of the things we have done in this program was to intentionally and comprehensively comb the literature on what works. We actually had a workshop where we brought together deans and leaders of engineering colleges that have moved the needle on this point and we asked, 'What worked for you? What have you learned?' We feel, in that sense, we are not starting from ground zero — we are hopefully going to avoid or at least mitigate some of the mistakes that others have done before.

WGLT: One of the many aspects of equity is financial; is that going to be a part of the founding of this department — making sure that not only are recruitment efforts up to par, but access to this schooling is going to be available?

Tarhule: We are planning on dedicating just over $500,000 a year in scholarships to students to support them. This is internal university money. In a four-year period, we fully intend to spend over $2 million. A large chunk of that money will be dedicated to recruiting and supporting students from underserved populations. We are ... trying to give the students — and us, quite frankly — a leg up from the beginning.

WGLT: Are you still on track for that 2025 arrival of the first cohort?

Tarhule: Yes, but we do have a number of drop-dead milestones that if we don't meet, will prompt a revision to that expected starting date. The most important, I think, will be July 1, 2024. If we are not able to get the John Green building completely vacated and ready to hand over to the contractors for renovations, that might prompt us to rethink that date.

Another date ... is harder to put a specific deadline on. It's IBHE approval. IBHE has approved us to start the college, but they still need to approve the curriculum. That curriculum development is in process; we have a committee that is working with consultants. I expect it to go before the academic senate in February; our plan is that we take that to the Board of Trustees in May.

If we get their approval, we'd like to submit it to IBHE in July. It can take more than a year after submission to get approval. So, we've identified some of the critical matchup points that might trigger a revision and are watching those very carefully — but at this point, it seems good.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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