Penn Engineering’s New Dean

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This summer, the School of Engineering and Applied Science will get a new leader for the first time in 17 years. Effective July 1, Vijay Kumar, currently the UPS Foundation Professor with appointments in three of the school’s six departments, will succeed Eduardo Glandt GCh’75 Gr’77 as dean.

Kumar, who joined the faculty in 1987, has in recent years earned an international reputation for his cutting-edge work on unmanned aerial vehicles [“Drone’s Day Scenarios,” Nov|Dec 2012]. He has also held several administrative posts. He directed the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory from 1998 to 2004; was deputy dean for research between 2000 and 2004; served as chair of the mechanical engineering and applied mechanics (MEAM) department from 2005 to 2008; and was deputy dean for education from 2008 to 2012.

His predecessor leaves a big legacy. Glandt quite literally transformed Penn Engineering, dramatically expanding the school’s functional capacity with the construction of three major buildings, whose architectural sophistication is on par with the leading-edge research they facilitate [“A Big Step for Small Science,” Nov|Dec 2013].

“My legacy will be living in those buildings,” the affable Kumar joked in March, during a conversation with the Gazette about his priorities for the school.

Unsurprisingly for a scholar who has made his mark in robotics, Kumar sees Penn Engineering first and foremost as a place to make things. He’s fond of a maxim attributed to the Hungarian aerospace engineer Theodore von Karman: “Scientists discover the world as it is; engineers create the world that never has been.”

“Most students select engineering because they want to create, they want to build,” Kumar said. “And I say create and build in the biggest sense. You might be creating new materials, you might be creating new computer programs—it’s still this idea that you want to synthesize things.”

So one of the questions that will drive his deanship, he added, is “How do you make it really easy for students to come and create and build things right from the day they enter?”

Part of the challenge will be to continue adapting the school’s mission to a fast-moving field.

“Engineering is not only important in our lives, it has also expanded in ways that we didn’t anticipate even 10 years ago,” Kumar noted, citing as one example the unexpected metamorphosis of North American manufacturing.

“Going back to the 1980s through the turn of the century, in the US we started deemphasizing this whole idea of how you make things,” he observed. “But manufacturing has come back in a big way. And not only that, the way we approach manufacturing is also very different. So that’s something we need to do.

“But historically, schools that do manufacturing have been the big state schools, not the smaller Ivy League schools,” he added. “So we have to think about what our position is in that setting, and how do we leverage the strengths that are uniquely Penn’s to push that agenda.

“I joined Penn 25 or so years ago, and it was very hard to teach tools,” he reflected. “You could teach the science, you could teach the applied science, you might be able to teach some techniques—but not the tools,” which tended to be hard to acquire and demanded more space than an urban campus could easily offer.

But with the shift from traditional assembly lines to methods like “additive manufacturing”—in other words, from bending and soldering metal to 3D printing—that calculus has changed. Kumar named MEAM, as well as Electrical and Systems Engineering, as two departments that have excelled at putting tools in students’ hands. He aims to extend and deepen that attitude across the school.

He also singled out computer and information science as an area full of “opportunities that press for more investments in a department that’s already great.” He cited challenges relating to digital security, privacy, and mastering giant data sets as points of emphasis.

Kumar is also a convincing proponent of the interdisciplinary ethos that is more or less a job requirement for Penn deans these days. He offered the master’s program in Integrated Product Design—a partnership between Engineering, Wharton, and Penn Design [“Gazetteer,” Mar|Apr 2014]—as one model for achieving his overarching goal of expanding the school’s intellectual and technological footprint on campus.

“Through my lens as an engineer, engineering is the quintessential integrating activity,” he said. “So all roads should go through engineering.” —T.P.

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