When speaking with F.E. Richart, Jr. Collegiate Professor James K. Wight about civil engineering, the first thing that becomes apparent is that he loves his work.
Having been at the University of Michigan for over forty years, Wight has taught all of the reinforced and prestressed concrete design courses. His deep love for sharing his knowledge with students and fellow researchers, both abroad and locally, is also immediately evident. This passion has not only translated into widespread respect in the field, but into numerous awards and honors. This year, he has a new one to add to his CV, as he has recently been elected an Honorary Member of the American Concrete Institute (ACI).
Wight joins the ranks of just under 260 fellow members to be elected since the honor’s inception in 1926, with the Institute’s bylaws stating that “An Honorary Member shall be a person of eminence in the field of the Institute’s interest or one who has performed extraordinary meritorious service to the Institute.”
The ACI cited Wight’s career in “improving the design and safety of reinforced concrete buildings through outstanding leadership in research, teaching and professional service” as reasons for his election. Wight has been involved with the ACI as an active member since 1973, the same year that he began teaching at the University of Michigan. Named a Fellow of the Institute in 1984, Wight is the former president of the ACI, former member of the ACI Board of Direction, and former Chair of the ACI Technical Activities Committee; ACI Committee 318, Structural Concrete Building Code; ACI Subcommittee 318-E, Section and Member Strength; and Joint ACI-ASCE Committee 352, Joints and Connections in Monolithic Concrete Structures. He is also Past President of the Greater Michigan Chapter of the ACI.
Wight’s path to this honor began as he came of age during the 1960s. He cites the interstate highway system project as a major source of inspiration to pursue a career in civil engineering. He even worked for the State Highway Department here in his home state of Michigan for a few summers, although he notes that he eventually became more interested in bridges and the structural side of civil engineering.
Despite his abiding passion for engineering, Wight never planned on going into academia, until his professors during his undergraduate education at Michigan State University (MSU) encouraged him to persist on at MSU and get his master’s degree.
“One of my wishes when I was a bit younger was to be a teacher, and then it became clear: ‘maybe if you get a PhD you could teach at the college level,’ so that was the motivation to continue all the way through and get a PhD,” says Wight.
This dedication to teaching led Wight to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to pursue his PhD in civil engineering, and it was there that he first became interested in earthquake-resistant design and experimental research. Modestly, Wight attributes much of his success to luck and timing: “There hadn’t been a lot of research done for earthquake-resistant design, for reinforced concrete buildings. It was, if you wish, quite a new research area in the 70s, so the field was wide open and I was able to do a lot of large-scale experiments,” says Wight.
He notes that the 1970s were also a great time for experimental research, and this ethos has been apparent throughout his career. Last year Wight wrote a perspective for the CEE website, in which he detailed how doing experimental research with former CEE doctoral student Thai Dam exposed a previously-unknown flaw in the ACI Building Code.
“Right now there seems to be coming a great emphasis on analytical research, but back in the 70s when I graduated, experimental research was very, very important,” notes Wight, “because for earthquake-resistant design we needed to come up with reinforcing schemes in a reinforced concrete structure that could hold the building together during an earthquake. It’s not going to stay elastic, it’s probably going to take some damage, and so coming up with the appropriate reinforcement details to have it hold together and basically save people’s lives during an earthquake was very important.
“I’ve always been a strong believer in experimental research, because sometimes you find things out by actually breaking things that you didn’t know previously. And I don’t know if you can always find some of these unknown gems analytically, because analytical models are based on previous experiments and observed behavior. So this is trying to find something that hadn’t been known before.”
Wight’s curiosity and search for “these unknown gems” has led him around the world. Working in earthquake-resistant design early in his career and having an officemate at the University of Illinois who was from Japan, Wight knew that he wanted to work in Japan. He spent his first sabbatical at the Building Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan, where they constructed and conducted a simulated earthquake test on a seven-story reinforced concrete building.
“Even though I was relatively young at that time, I was the lead US participant in that research project,” says Wight. “It was really focused on the US and Japanese efforts on reinforced concrete buildings to resist earthquakes. It was a fortunate thing and I always had felt that, growing up in the midwest, I didn’t have that much international exposure, so being able to do a sabbatical leave overseas and get involved with different researchers was a big opportunity for me at that time.”
It wouldn’t be his last opportunity: Wight took semester-long leaves at the University of Toronto and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, and has been involved with several international, post-earthquake investigations, including Mexico City; Vina del Mar, Chile; Armenia; Cairo, Egypt; Kobe, Japan; and India. He has delivered seminars across the United States and in various South American countries, and in his tenure as ACI President, he also gave presentations in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Wight notes that, in his work with the ACI, he and his fellow engineers “gather(ed) research results not only from around the country but from around the world. By summarizing that research and getting to understand it, we started writing design provisions for designing reinforced concrete buildings.” As Wight worked with the ACI over the years, he broadened his focus from earthquake-resistant design to more general design requirements and provisions for reinforced concrete.
As accomplished as Wight is as a researcher, he clearly never lost his passion for teaching and is thankful for his international experience in shaping his pedagogy: “Being able to be near the cutting edge of research internationally has helped me to be a better teacher. I’m able to bring back new and different ideas that are being developed in other countries for design aspects and analysis aspects,” he says.
Upon retiring in 2019, he noted that his greatest pride in his career has been the numerous graduate students he has worked with who have gone on to work in academia or industry. Given that he has received the ASCE Student Chapter Teacher of the Year Award eight times, his students clearly enjoy working with him as well.
In addition to his various teaching awards, Wight has received a number of professional service awards, including several from the ACI. Wight’s honorary membership, reserved for engineers truly at the pinnacle of the field, is a further testament to his long-standing dedication to civil engineering.
“Jim is the perfect model of the outstanding leader, teacher and researcher that the ACI seeks to recognize,” said Donald Malloure Department Chair Jerome Lynch. “I personally have been inspired by his commitment to being a true innovator working at the vanguard of research and education. His work has resulted in countless contributions to ensuring societal prosperity and safety through structural design — we are all absolutely thrilled to congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.”