The Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering David C. Munson Jr. – or just plain “Dave,” as he’s more generally known – is extolling the College’s various virtues, speaking at a luncheon from the elevated platform of a spiral staircase in the expansive atrium of the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Biomedical Engineering Building.
It’s a warmish Tuesday afternoon in late January, and Dave is hosting a group of underrepresented minority and other underserved high school students from around the country who have been offered Fall 2016 admission to the College but have yet to accept.
Dave raves about the University’s “amazing school spirit,” and the Michigan alumni who will be “your friends for life.”
“When you come here,” Dave tells them, “you join a family.”
If this is a sales pitch, it doesn’t feel that way. The head of the Michigan Engineering family is speaking from his heart.
Following the luncheon, Dave walks briskly back to his office on the second floor of the Robert H. Lurie Engineering Center.
“What you see here,” Dave says, referring to his office with a sweep of his long arm, “is a dean in his last year.” “Stuff” has piled up, and Dave says he plans to go through it when he leaves.
“Truthfully, that’s the reason I’m being asked to step down as dean – because my office is such a mess,” he jokes. “The University would like to reclaim its office.”
Dave works in an adjacent conference room – a relatively ordinary space just large enough for a table that might seat 10. And this is where he conducts the vast majority of the College’s business – developing the broad vision for myriad new programs and initiatives and delving into the most intimate details of building planning, fundraising, hiring practices and even outdoor sculpture design.
Associate Dean for Graduate Education Jennifer Linderman is already waiting for Dave in the small area just outside this inner sanctum. (Someone is almost always waiting, one after another after another. Much of Dave’s time is devoted to standing meetings, often several times each month, with his associate deans and cabinet; the Executive Committee; department chairs; directors of various offices, centers and other initiatives; and many others.)
This meeting’s agenda concerns the annual Graduate Student Forum, which this year will focus more specifically than usual on diversity, equity and inclusion – a University-wide emphasis. When Dave learns from a recent graduate student survey about a perceived lack of “visible support” for LGBT issues on campus, the news disquiets him – if only mostly below the surface.
“Visibility” rises and falls based on student leadership, Dave says.
“I think our student societies do a great job. And when they do well it couldn’t be better, because it’s ground up.” And whenever student groups are active, Dave attends their events, and provides support in other ways.
“I have a gay brother, so LGBT issues are important to me,” Dave says.
And historical perspective is in order.
“Whether people are unhappy or not, progress has been made. We’re leaders – but we need to do more, and we know that.”
Diversity is about numbers. Inclusion is the sense that everyone feels welcome – “a part of the family.” But equity is about opportunity. And though merit is a given, we need to look further.
“We ought to be recruiting based on what we think you can do, not just on what you have done – especially if you’ve not had all the advantages. We have an obligation to look at potential.”
A week earlier, during the Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Awards Celebration & Reception – which annually recognizes individuals and organizations in the North Campus student community whose leadership and service exemplify the spirit of King – Dave was in his element.
As one of the presenters, Dave quickly buttoned his coat before posing with award winners (most of whom Dave knew well) – often whispering smile-inducing comments just before photos were snapped. Toward the end of the evening, Dave and Christopher Kendall, former dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, were honored as longtime champions of inclusion and diversity. Dave was surprised and thrilled – though demonstrably uncomfortable with the attention.
Dave is an engineer, of course, but he’s a mathematician first – a grade school whiz who’d amaze his friends and later even his college cohorts with the speed and ease with which he’d calculate figures in his head out to several places. (“There wasn’t anything to it,” Dave says. “Everything just instantly came to me.”)
His thinking is disciplined and orderly, and up close it is often captivating to watch as he counts and gesticulates with his fingers and looks up and away as if arranging his thoughts before enunciating them. Others give the appearance of it, but here the conclusion is inescapable: Dave is in deep thought.
“Yeah…,” Dave might say, melodically elongating the word. “That’s actually a really great question….” And then he inevitably gives you a really great, comprehensive – which often means lengthy – answer.
Also, Dave is tall. Everyone notices that. Many comment on it. “People used to expect me to play basketball,” he shrugs, “but nobody cares anymore.”
Dave did play a little high school basketball, but he describes a childhood in Iowa and Ohio filled with rockets made from cardboard tubes and balsa wood that were “launched so high you couldn’t see them, so you’d track them with binoculars and you’d use your walkie-talkies and your recovery team would find the thing out in some farmland.”
When Dave was a high school junior his family moved to Delaware. He took his first course in electrical engineering in circuit analysis as a sophomore at the University of Delaware and was hooked – “just all mathematical modeling, and I loved that.” After pursuing a PhD at Princeton, he chose the University of Illinois over industry, figuring if he didn’t like teaching he could still probably get a job afterward at IBM or Bell Labs.
Turned out Dave liked teaching – a lot. And Dave and his wife, Nancy – whom he met as an undergraduate at Delaware – made many good friends at Illinois, where Dave spent more than two decades as a top scholar and faculty member.
But Dave eventually needed a new challenge. And when the job as chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at Michigan was offered, he was eager to accept.
But first he had to get Nancy on board. Though unfamiliar with Ann Arbor, Nancy was excited about doing something different. And once she visited the church they still attend, they “never looked back.” Soon their only question was, “Why did it take us so long to get here?”
Dave immediately was taken with the “absolutely crazy, over-the-top” spirit on campus, and with the unwavering enthusiasm and support of the alumni. He also understood it: Michigan was nearly unparalleled in its excellence at every college, school and department throughout the University.
Two years later, Stephen Director, who had recruited him, sheepishly told Dave he was stepping down as dean. Dave said that’s fine: “I love this place!”
Dave also loved his situation at EECS, but after he was repeatedly asked to pursue the dean’s post, he developed a list of potential initiatives that included a comprehensive entrepreneurship program, a multidisciplinary design curriculum and an enhanced set of international learning opportunities.
Once appointed, Dave “twisted the arms of some really great self-starters” to take the lead in each area. In entrepreneurship it was Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering (CLaSP) Professor Thomas Zurbuchen, who formed a task force to study what was possible. Dave loved every single recommendation – and asked Zurbuchen, who was later named associate dean for entrepreneurial programs and then senior counselor to the provost on entrepreneurship, to implement them.
He repeated the process in multidisciplinary design, where EECS and CLaSP Professor Brian Gilchrist took the reins. And with international programs, Dave put James Holloway – then associate dean for undergraduate education and now vice provost for global and engaged education – in charge. Dave also relied heavily on former astronaut Tony England as his associate dean for academic affairs; on Jack Hu, who at that time was associate dean for research and graduate education; and later on Alec Gallimore, associate dean for academic affairs, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, an Arthur F. Thurmau Professor, a professor of aerospace engineering and Munson’s successor as dean.
While Dave is quick to recognize the work of others in nearly every aspect of the College’s affairs, its growth – another prime initiative – seems a particular source of pride, and Dave takes a large share of credit for it.
Dave believed the College needed to grow if it were to become a major player in important new research areas, such as robotics, autonomous vehicles, computer science and biomedicine. “And because whether it’s rankings or anything else, we want to be the best. There was no way we were going to compete with MIT if we’re way smaller.”
Many were resistant, citing space and other concerns. But Dave made a back-of-the envelope calculation – “it literally was a scrap of paper; it wasn’t even a full sheet” – and determined it was possible to take tenure track faculty from 315 to 360 within a several year period.
“I wanted to go toe to toe – and I made no bones about it – with MIT and Illinois and Georgia Tech, and I wanted to create both the image and the reality that if you’re looking at the top engineering schools in the U.S. you’ve got MIT on the east coast, Berkeley and Stanford on the west coast, and the rest of the country belongs to Michigan,” Dave says. “I tried to sell that to the alumni and to everyone else.”
And it worked. The number of tenure track faculty today is 405, with a three-year projection of at least 425 – and Dave continues to encourage department chairs to be entrepreneurial in their hiring practices, and to seek out future academic leaders.
Late one afternoon, students stream into Dave’s conference room during his regularly scheduled office hours. A senior Dave knows well provides an update on her work with the Elementary Engineering Partnership at an Ann Arbor STEAM school. A PhD student seeks assurance and advice about an upcoming job interview. A freshman struggling with his workload asks about shifting his major to data science. (“That’s a lot of math,” Dave warns. “You like math?”) A fifth year student about to graduate with a master’s degree “just wanted to come by, meet you and say thanks. I’ve really enjoyed my time here.” And a sophomore seeks advice on an early-stage software venture (which Dave gladly provides, in detail).
It’s early evening now – though still not nearly the end of a typically long day – and Dave is at his conference room table, working on email, as usual. Dave mentions his “wacky” sense of humor – he’s well known among students for his Halloween costumes, his chest-bumping at graduation ceremonies and his holiday rap videos. And over the years he’s been lucky enough to get to know some students really well.
But a fun-loving spirit and sense of humor – wacky or otherwise – is no balm when “something really bad happens.”
A traffic accident. A suicide. A memorial service. The parents of a foreign graduate student who died have never been to Ann Arbor and want see it, for closure. A freshman dies of cancer two months after classes begin. Parents who start a scholarship fund, “and then we see those parents every year. They’re a very loyal part of the Michigan family, even though their kid never got to graduate.”
Dave’s eyes fill with tears. “Those tragedies are way harder than anything,” he says.
Dave misses spending classroom time with students every week, but his relationships with alumni seem to meet a similar need.
“They’re not turning in homework and exams, but they’re showing you their companies and their successes, and you get to see what they’ve done with what they learned here.”
Engaging with alumni is a big part of the job, and Dave has grown very fond of it. One of his most pleasant surprises, in fact, has been how close he and Nancy have become with so many of them – “friends for life,” he says.
They’ve grown to know each other’s families – their trials as well as their joys – and they’ve stayed overnight at their homes.
“You find yourself sitting up late at night, talking about things that matter a lot more than money.”
And this intimacy has developed “partly because we all share something in common. We love the University of Michigan.” Love it so much that they willingly help in tangible ways to achieve their shared goals – more dynamic faculty and students, free-flowing ideas and an environment that supports both – by participating in leadership discussions, getting involved with on-the-ground activities and establishing thoughtful funds they know will have an impact long after they’re gone.
There’s plenty of travel, but some of the most meaningful relationship-building opportunities take place right here on campus – and Game Day visits to the Big House are a nice bonus.
“This job probably wouldn’t be as much fun if I didn’t enjoy college sports so much,” Dave admits.
As for fun, when Dave first arrived on campus he says he felt it was “a little too uptight. A little too constrained.”
Dave grew up in a musical family – he’s played various instruments, he sings, and he’s had experience in community theater – and he had long cultivated an arts agenda relative to the sciences. The first time he visited North Campus, he thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Engineering and arts all in one place? Did someone design this for me?”
Christopher Kendall already had formed an organization called Arts on Earth with Bryan Rogers (the deceased former dean of the Stamps School of Art and Design) and Doug Kelbaugh (former dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning), and when Dave arrived he joined them – and these three would be among the closest friends Dave would make. Together they and staff member Theresa Reid took the collaboration to another level with ArtsEngine – which later spawned the nationwide Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru).
“I just love to go over to Walgreen (the Charles R. Walgreen Drama Center) and see the dancers walking around in their puffy socks, and the musical theater students sitting outside practicing their vocals,” Dave says. “I really wanted – and I still want – to see even more of a mix between engineering and the arts, because I think it creates an environment that’s good for everybody.”
On February 18, 2016 the Michigan Board of Regents approved Alec Gallimore’s appointment as the new Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. Several days before the official announcement, Dave and Alec were enjoying a chummy one-on-one discussion in Dave’s conference room, mostly catching up on the lives of mutual friends and talking about Dave’s recent meeting in D.C. with other engineering deans around the country.
“So there was buzz about the search?” Alec asks.
“Two questions, that’s all I heard,” Dave laughs. “Who’s the new dean? And what are you going to be doing?”
Dave has several hobbies he hasn’t had much time for since becoming dean – music, photography, woodworking, gardening. He spends some occasional time Up North, where Nancy inevitably complains, “You’re on email too much!”
Dave recognizes he’s not able to shut it off, and he knows that’s probably not a good thing. So when his final day as dean comes, he’ll be ready. But until then, he is “very focused on what I have to get done before I leave office.”
The morning after Alec was announced as the new dean, Dave hosted a staff brunch, where he delivered his final State of the College address.
“Let’s see, not too much going on,” Dave deadpanned. “Oh yeah – a new dean,” he smiled, to much laughter.
“Alec’s a good friend of mine,” Dave told those assembled. “I have no concerns at all. He’s a highly accomplished researcher, a wonderful teacher and an experienced administrator.”
And in response to those who’ve asked if there will be changes: “I hope there are changes. And I look forward to seeing what they’ll be.”
After his presentation, Dave took questions.
What will he do next? (“Are you going to Disneyland?”) Dave said he plans to take the one-year administrative leave he is due – “which may just be a kind way of saying, ‘Please get out of here for a while’” – but he has no plans to retire.
“I want to thank you for your service,” said a woman in the back. Dave stood quietly, humbled by the applause.
“I appreciate all of you so much,” Dave finally said. “Now get back to work!”
Which is precisely what Dave did next.