Within a few weeks, University President Lee Bollinger will choose the next dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science after receiving the recommendations of a search committee. We’ve spoken with the four finalists, and we urge Bollinger and the search committee to select UCLA professor Paul Weiss.
Weiss is the director of the California NanoSystems Institute, a nanoscience research center based at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also an internationally recognized scientist who has spent years teaching undergraduates and collaborating with engineers around the world on cutting-edge research. He has the potential to be a transformative leader for SEAS, fueling an increase in interdisciplinary research, fostering a culture of entrepreneurship, and attracting venture capitalists and high-quality professors to the school.
Earlier this month, the search committee announced the finalists: Mary Boyce, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mechanical engineering department; Andrew Gellman, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s chemical engineering department; Donald Goldfarb, the current SEAS interim dean; and Weiss. In interviews with Spectator’s editorial board, all four candidates demonstrated that they would bring innovative ideas and a wealth of experience to SEAS. Gellman oversaw a $26 million overhaul of CMU’s chemical engineering facilities, an experience that would prove useful here, and Boyce said that she would create connections between the engineering school and other “pockets of excellence” at Columbia. Additionally, choosing the first female dean of SEAS would be an exciting, symbolic step forward for women in engineering.
Goldfarb presented a strong case for continuing as dean. He has taught at SEAS for more than 30 years, including a year-long stint as interim dean in the mid-1990s. He also built up the industrial engineering and operations research department, transforming it from a weak link into the school’s highest-ranked department during an 18-year tenure as chair. Considering Goldfarb’s long and successful history at Columbia, it should be no surprise that when then-dean Feniosky Peña-Mora lost the faculty’s trust in 2011, central administrators turned to Goldfarb to rebuild that trust, appointing him executive vice dean. By all accounts, Goldfarb has done so, first in that role and, since July, as interim dean.
But while no candidate can match Goldfarb’s three decades of experience at Columbia, Weiss has successfully navigated a similarly complex bureaucracy at the University of California. Since his appointment as director of the NanoSystems Institute in 2009, he has overseen 125 faculty members from more than 25 departments and reported to both the chancellor of UCLA and the president of the UC system. Furthermore, he has already developed an impressive familiarity with Columbia—unlike the other two external candidates, he pointed immediately to Manhattanville when asked how to solve the engineering school’s notorious space problem, and he cited the exact number of professors that the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering plans to hire. SEAS would no doubt experience growing pains as Weiss adjusts to the intricacies of Columbia’s bureaucracy, and after their experience with Peña-Mora, SEAS professors might distrust another outside hire. But Weiss’ outsider status is not an insurmountable barrier.
What begins to set Weiss apart from the other candidates is his penchant for interdisciplinary work. He oversees a research group at UCLA that includes chemists, physicists, biologists, materials scientists, electrical and mechanical engineers, and computer scientists. The work of the NanoSystems Institute, meanwhile, spans the sciences, engineering, medicine, art, law, public policy, and film. Weiss expressed enthusiasm about the data sciences institute and the planned Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and he said he would work to coordinate more interdisciplinary efforts as SEAS expands into Manhattanville.
Goldfarb, too, has a history of crossing disciplinary boundaries—he has taught chemical engineering, computer science, and industrial engineering and operations research. But he also indicated that, as dean, he would give his department heads almost total autonomy to choose their departments’ research focuses and specializations. While the SEAS faculty had an understandably poor response to Peña-Mora’s tendency to micromanage, we think it is important for the dean to play an active role in encouraging collaboration. The most pressing problems facing the world today demand interdisciplinary solutions, and Weiss’ ability to break down traditional academic boundaries would keep SEAS relevant and ahead of the curve on cutting-edge research.
Weiss also understands that Columbia has not done enough to promote innovation and entrepreneurship or to engage with the growing New York City tech scene. He said he would push to give all undergraduates access to laboratory experience, as he did for every honors chemistry student during the decade he taught freshman chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. Columbia has long earned significant patent royalties, but few student or faculty spinoffs have made a mark in the tech world. Weiss said that he would prioritize attracting more venture capitalists to Columbia, and considering his success in interdisciplinary work and his network of international connections, he is likely to succeed.
Although Weiss has not worked directly with undergraduates at UCLA, Penn State recognized him with its Excellence in Honors Teaching Award in 2004. He also expressed interest in implementing a pass/D/fail policy for engineering students, calling the disparity between the SEAS and CC policies one of the “odd differences” he has noticed between the two schools. He promised to study these disparities systematically and weed out those that don’t make sense. More generally, Weiss was in tune with the issues important to SEAS undergraduates. Like Goldfarb, he expressed a desire to strengthen study abroad options for engineers, which are generally limited because of the restrictive nature of the engineering curriculum. He also emphasized that he would balance the needs of undergraduates against the needs of the school’s growing master’s student population, ensuring that undergraduates have sufficient access to professors and upper-level courses.
Goldfarb would no doubt continue to be a strong dean, but we consider him the safe choice, someone who will keep SEAS moving along its current path but not push its faculty and students to new and greater heights. We have some reservations about recommending an outside candidate for SEAS dean, and we hope that Goldfarb would serve in a senior advisory role under Weiss, helping him navigate Columbia’s bureaucratic waters and providing invaluable input and institutional memory on issues ranging from globalization to online education. But Weiss’ bold, forward-looking vision makes him the best candidate for the school’s long-term growth, and we endorse him in the strongest terms.
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