Rich Brown on the new endowed Dean’s Chair at the College of Engineering

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Dean Rich Brown is the inaugural holder of the H.E. Thomas Presidential Endowed Dean’s Chair in the College of Engineering, a chair made possible by a generous $4 million donation to the U. Who is H.E. Thomas and why did he create this endowed chair? You’ll learn about Mr. Thomas and how Dean Brown has led the U's College of Engineering to new heights in this episode of U Rising. Recorded on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Original music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Hello, I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. Today I am sharing some wonderful news. Last week, Rich Brown, dean of the university's College of Engineering, was installed as the inaugural holder of the H.E. Thomas Presidential Endowed Dean's Chair. Dean Brown is my guest today. We're going to talk about this well-deserved recognition, what it means to him and what it means for the university's College of Engineering. Welcome Dean Brown!

Rich Brown: Thank you, President Watkins, for your kind words. I feel so grateful for the generosity of Mr. Thomas and I thank you and the university for agreeing to establish this dean's chair in engineering. This distinction for the dean of engineering will have impact for me and for the college in perpetuity, through future generations of deans.

President Watkins: I have to say, Dean Brown, that the creation of an endowed chair is a wonderful gift from a donor to the university. It allows us to recognize exceptional faculty members and, in this case, it allows us to recognize an exceptional dean and an important deanship for the future of the university.

The chair is a result of a $4 million gift from H.E. “Ed” Thomas in appreciation for all that you have done, Dean Brown. I know that in this case, it is in fact, a personal gift. It's a recognition of you and what you've accomplished, and the ways that engineering transforms lives for the better and improves quality of life. So, I know listeners would love to learn a little bit more about Ed and his story. What can you tell us?

Rich Brown: Well, let me first tell you how I met Mr. Thomas. About 15 years ago, Ed had been at the Moran Eye Center meeting with his doctors, Alan Crandall and Michael Teske. He mentioned an idea he had for improving the efficiency of boats. They told him he should contact the engineering college and they gave him my number. This is a great example, by the way President Watkins, of your mantra One U. I put him in touch with some of our excellent faculty in mechanical engineering who provided the help he needed. Ed is an engineer at heart, a builder, an inventor, a problem solver and an entrepreneur.

As a teen, he worked at a gas station. Then he bought the gas station and expanded it into selling cars. Next he became involved with the large concrete project and ended up owning the cement ready-mix operation. That led him to starting his own construction company. And after that investing in land development. When we met, we immediately made a connection as he shared his ideas and I saw his passion for making the world better. Ed developed a deep-seated respect for engineering, for its ability to analyze and solve problems and its contributions to the economy. He was impressed by the upward trajectory of the college as we sought to look and act like the very best colleges of engineering. He attended a number of college functions and was caught up in the focus on excellence and everyone's efforts to improve people's quality of life. In accepting the endowed chair, I feel a profound sense of responsibility to live up to Ed's desire to advance engineering excellence at the University of Utah.

President Watkins: I thought one of the things that I enjoyed the most, I've not had the privilege of meeting Ed, but I loved being able to listen to his video message. And what was so compelling was his personal mantra of persistence, of never giving up when you face challenges, and really his own story as an incredible, visionary entrepreneur. And as you say, as an engineer, I know that Ed and I share something important, and that is the privilege and pleasure of being able to recognize you, Rich, for your accomplishments, for what you have done for engineering in Utah and the College of Engineering at the University of Utah.

During the time of your leadership, we've experienced remarkable growth in enrollment and in research and engineering is really transforming our state. And the College of Engineering is helping transform this campus. I believe that something like one in every five entering freshmen is now in the College of Engineering and it might even be more than that now. It's quite amazing. And I think our College of Engineering, I'm very proud to say, produces more engineers than any other institution. And we know that it not only produces a high volume of engineers, but a large number of very talented people that are changing Utah's economy. So, we're celebrating you Rich. Tell us a little bit about your history as dean and about what you're most proud of in terms of your accomplishments.

Rich Brown: Well, thank you, Ruth. I am proud to be an alum of the University of Utah. I got my own Ph.D. here, and then I spent 19 years on the faculty of the University of Michigan before I returned to the U as dean in 2004. I would say that the thing I'm most proud of here is the improvement in faculty performance and our college. According to our faculty activity reports, the number of peer-reviewed publications for our faculty has more than tripled during those 16 years. We've also had a major increase in externally funded research. We've gone from $30 million a year to last year $97 million of engineering-related research at the University of Utah. Our faculty have also been very active in disclosing inventions. Last year, we had 60 invention disclosures, which was second only to the College of Medicine, which has many more faculty than we have.

I am very pleased with the fact that we now have more than 700 Ph.D. students in the College of Engineering, which is about 30% of all of the PhD students at the U. But more important than the numbers is the impact that our faculty's research has had in addressing the world's technical, environmental and medical challenges. Never has that research been more relevant than in the past nine months, when more than a dozen of our faculty members have pivoted their research to focus on the detection, transmission and prevention of COVID-19, coronavirus. I'll mention, too, that our faculty since 2006 have spun out 84 companies. I'm also very pleased about what's happened in our student body. As you mentioned, it's really grown. We now have a head count of more than 6,000 students, and we've more than doubled the number of graduates to over 1,100 per year.

But as our student body has grown, the quality of our students has also increased significantly. And in addition, the demographics have really changed. Engineering is a pretty diverse place to begin with. We have faculty members from 39 different countries in the College of Engineering, But, since I came in 2004, the number of undergraduate women students has gone from 208 to 898. Now the student body has grown quite significantly over that time, but we've still gone from 10% women students to 20%, which is about the national average. And Students of Color have gone from 405 to 1,536, again a percentage change of 20% to 34%. And I'm pleased to say that based on the retention information that we have, our women students are retained at a higher rate than men and our Students of Color are retained in our undergraduate program at a higher rate than the Caucasian students. A couple of final points on diversity, our undergraduate underrepresented minority students have gone from 4% to 12% of our student body during a time when that percentage has gone the other direction across the nation. And we've also grown from five to 39 women faculty during that time. So, there've been a lot of changes in the College of Engineering, and it's been a very exciting time to be affiliated with it.

President Watkins: So, listeners, I think you can see why Dean Brown is deserving of this recognition. That is quite an amazing set of accomplishments. I want to just call out a couple of things that I have observed. Yesterday at my home address, I received a notice that came from the College of Engineering about Mary Hall's appointment, leading the School of Computing. Congratulations on that. That is a powerful and important statement of diversity in your leadership, which is great. And you highlighted some of our researchers that have pivoted their work to help us all better understand, hopefully detect and ultimately prevent COVID-19. So, thank you for the relevance of the work that you and your scholars do. And speaking of relevant work, how are you envisioning using strategically the resources that have been made available through this recognition that you've received?

Rich Brown: Well I should, I guess, read from Mr. Thomas's gift agreement. It says the expendable funds may be used at the discretion of the dean to advance the mission of the College of Engineering, to prepare students for leadership positions and professional practice in academia, industry and government, to improve the productivity, health, safety and enjoyment of human life, through leading edge research, and to stimulate and grow the economy by providing qualified engineering professionals and by transferring the technologies developed in the College of Engineering research to the private sector. That pretty much covers the mission of the college. But I say that in practical terms, Ed's generous donation will help ensure the college's financial vitality when there are budget challenges, such as this year with COVID, and it will enable the college to take advantage of emerging opportunities as they come up. Ed spent his career in the harsh world of entrepreneurism and he understands very well the value of having some discretionary resources.

President Watkins: I couldn't agree more. And all of us in leadership are so grateful to our donors for all they do for us. Those flexible funds that can be used for urgent needs are particularly valuable. And we certainly see it in a time like this. Now, I don't know everything about your personal story, Rich, or your time at Utah or your undergraduate years, but I wonder if a scholarship along the way made a big difference for you being able to pursue your education. I think Ed has helped us with scholarships, but it'd be interesting for listeners to be able to hear a little bit about your personal journey as well, and whether there was a scholarship provider that helped you along the way.

Rich Brown: Absolutely there was. I got my undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University and I had the great blessing of going through on a full-ride scholarship. It certainly did make a huge difference to me. And then I worked for the university and supported myself for my master's degree. And with a couple of friends started a small company and worked one summer and that helped to pay for the master's degree.

President Watkins: You know, for our listeners out there, I think you can see when you invest in a scholarship and supporting students, they turn out to be people like Dean Rich Brown. It's a pretty good investment for the long run. And we're thankful for everyone who helps us make that happen. And we're thankful for Ed Thomas's help supporting students as well. And I understand he has been an individual who is committed to scholarships.

Rich Brown: That's right. Ed is really a self-made entrepreneur who rose from a humble background through a lifetime of hard work, perseverance, and self-reliance, he started working at age seven, driving a tractor. His pay was 35 cents a day. While he did not have the opportunity of a university education, Ed was one of those exceptional individuals who achieved success in his career just through hard work innovation self-reliance and entrepreneurship. As you mentioned, President Watkins, his message to all of our students and alumni is never give up. In an effort to make the path to success easier for others, he is committed to providing educational opportunities for the next generation. In 2006, Ed created a need-based scholarship endowment with a preference for students from his hometown of Springville, Utah. And, of course, the discretionary investments in improving education that will be funded by the endowed dean's chair will benefit all of our students.

President Watkins: It's an amazing story. His personal story should inspire all of us, I think. What a remarkable success from really a challenging beginning. So, let's talk about engineering in our state and the importance of engineering to our state's economy, as well as how you work with industry in order to be sure that we're preparing engineers for what the needs are and how we continue to fuel the vibrancy that we've all really enjoyed in this past recent period in Utah.

Rich Brown: Well, the College of Engineering is probably a model for the university in being connected to local industry. In every department, we have an industrial advisory board that gives advice on what students need to make them better employees. We have an industrial advisory board at the college level. They give us feedback on our accreditation requirements and they have been great supporters in interaction with the Legislature, which as you know, President Watkins, has resulted in years of support to the engineering initiative. An example of that, that happened just this fall, is that in one of these industrial advisory board meetings, several of the companies told us that we really need to produce systems engineers. So, we're working across the college to put together a systems engineering certificate.

President Watkins: So, Rich, many of our listeners may not know what a system engineer is or does. So, give us a little background.

Rich Brown: So, as you know, most of engineering is divided into disciplines where people focus on, for example, electrical, mechanical, chemical, bio engineering, but in the aerospace industry in particular, there is a demand for engineers who look at very large systems that have millions of components that have to work together perfectly. So, for example, in space travel, in airplanes, in any kind of large military systems, they need people who have a great breadth of understanding of engineering disciplines and who can work across all these disciplines to make sure that there are no unforeseen interactions that cause catastrophes. Actually, they're in great demand in a number of areas because there are a lot of parts of life now that are very complicated and that will help provide the students that these companies need right now as they're growing in Utah.

One of the companies that led that discussion was Northrop Grumman, which has 155 openings today for engineers. And they tell us that there are hundreds more openings come in the next few years. The other major council that we have to advise us about industry is our Engineering National Advisory Council. There are many other examples of how we started programs at the request of local industry. For example, we have a very strong electrical power program now in ECE that was a result of requests and offers for help from local industry. We're an active participant in the Silicon Slopes organization.

And one final great example, I think, is our master of software development. As you know, there's a serious shortage of software engineers in the state of Utah. We have so many computer science-oriented companies here and they were begging for more graduates. So Sneha Kasera, who's now my associate dean, started a program for students who have a bachelor's degree, but not in computer science nor engineering. But if those students have a strong, analytical background they can come into this master's program and after 16 intensive months of working in a cohort, they graduate with a master of software development. And we have the first couple of classes who graduated now and I can tell you that most of the graduates are tripling their previous salaries after this investment and industry is delighted to hire these students who are helping to solve the workforce shortage that they have in Utah’s tech economy.

President Watkins: It is a great story. I think all of us Utahns owe you personally and the University of Utah's College of Engineering a big expression of gratitude. You are helping Utah's economy every day with what you do. The partnerships you've built with industry are really remarkable and they are sort of the gold standard for how universities can be effective in addressing big problems of society. And also in ensuring that there's a bridge to a career for our graduates. So, thank you for what you do. It is easy to see, listeners, that Dean Rich Brown is a trusted, respected leader at the University of Utah. His faculty, staff, his students, his colleagues, and his friends in the community all stand together in support and celebration of this great achievement. So, Rich, warmest, congratulations and we look forward to what happens next in the University of Utah’s College of Engineering.

Thank you for your time and for telling your story and also telling Mr. Thomas's story, which is compelling. Listeners, this is very fitting, it's our 50th episode! Thank you for tuning into the U Rising Podcast and I hope you will, for our next episode.