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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Wei to resign as engineering dean

James Wei has seen great changes in the engineering school at Princeton in his 10 years as dean.

Most notable, he said, has been a shift from an isolated, "inward-looking" approach to research and teaching to a more consultative style that emphasizes collaborations with other disciplines and with industry.

"The purpose of engineering is really to make useful things for people," said Wei. "We have moved considerably further toward the idea of soliciting the opinion of people and asking what is it they want, instead of just making our stuff and seeing if people want it. This is a big change, not only in our research but in our teaching."

"So we are becoming more open to the outside world, more collaborative," he said. "We are now far more imbedded in a bigger context."

In an interview reflecting on his tenure as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science , Wei said he hopes that trend will continue under his successor. He has announced that he will resign from his administrative post at the end of the academic year in June to return to full-time teaching and research. He originally intended to resign when his second five-year term ended last June, but stayed on an additional year at the request of former President Harold T. Shapiro.

"Jim Wei has been an inspired and very effective leader of the engineering school," said President Shirley M. Tilghman. "Under his direction, the school has greatly strengthened its faculty, facilities and educational programs. At the same time, Jim has been instrumental in the success that the engineering departments have had in reaching beyond their traditional disciplines to create exciting new opportunities for both research and teaching."

On the research side, the growing number of projects in biotechnology have brought engineering faculty members together with colleagues from molecular biology and chemistry. Faculty members in the new financial engineering department work closely with those in the economics department. Materials and environment are two other areas of increasing collaborations with science and liberal arts.

Regarding teaching, the engineering school has a greater number of classes geared toward non-engineering majors; currently, 40 percent of all undergraduates take at least one engineering course. There are also more classes taught by successful practitioners, such as entrepreneur and former congressman Ed Zschau and former chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp. Norman Augustine.

During his time as dean, Wei also oversaw the addition of several new facilities, including the recently completed Friend Engineering Center. The number of faculty members also grew, strengthening several key areas such as biotechnology, materials, nanotechnology and computer science. All these changes, said Wei, have helped the engineering school in recruiting the best students and faculty members.

"I am most proud of the quality of the students we have been able to attract and the honors they have received and the quality of the faculty and the honors they have received," said Wei.

Engineering students make up one-fifth of the undergraduates at Princeton, but their representation among the recipients of top academic honors is even greater, Wei noted. Engineering students have been valedictorians in four of the last 10 years.

The school is now positioned to make even greater progress, Wei said. "I hope the next dean will be much more successful in increasing the momentum of change," he said.

In particular, he said that although all of the departments within the school are among the top 10 in national rankings, they have the potential to move forward and make the overall school among the top five in the nation. "The past is only a prelude," he said.

Wei will take a sabbatical next year to finish a textbook that grew out of a course called "Molecular Structure and Property," which he has taught for several years. He will also continue his research, which focuses on using knowledge about the structure of molecules to predict the properties of materials made from those molecules.

A search committee has been established and has begun weekly meetings to look for a successor. The committee has spent its time so far assessing the school's current situation and defining the qualities it is looking for in a new dean, said committee chair Sigurd Wagner, professor of electrical engineering.

Wagner echoed Wei's view of engineering as an outward-reaching discipline and said that the committee is determined to find someone who can not only lead a first-rate enterprise in teaching and research, but also guide the school in building connections to real-world engineering. Wagner said it is impossible to predict how long the search will take. "We are driven by the person, not a time limit," he said.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601

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