The shiny robot’s arrival at the celebration for incoming president Gregory Washington offered a glimpse into the university’s future — and into the science- and technology-focused landscape of higher education in the region.
In the span of two weeks, two of the largest schools in the Washington region — George Mason and the University of Maryland at College Park — named engineering deans to lead their campuses. Before being chosen for the top job at GMU, Washington led the engineering school at the University of California at Irvine. And the new president at U-Md., Darryll J. Pines, has been at the helm of the engineering school there since 2009.
“It’s not a coincidence. It’s happening by design,” Washington said in an interview. “People are recognizing that individuals with an understanding of science and technology are critical to this region’s long-term success.”
The decision to tap engineers for top campus roles underscores a trend that has been unfolding for about a decade, said John L. Anderson, president of the National Academy of Engineering, an organization for engineers. Universities have spent the last several years broadening their engineering curriculums to emphasize skills outside of the discipline, including communication and leadership.
“People thought of engineers as the pocket-protector people who couldn’t be social,” said Craig H. Benson, dean of the University of Virginia’s engineering school. “That’s really changed.”
More than 14 percent of presidents at doctorate-granting universities, such as U-Md. and George Mason, have engineering degrees, according to the most recent data from the American Council on Education, a higher-education association.
The appointments at George Mason and U-Md. came weeks after Lance Collins, the dean of Cornell University’s engineering school, was selected by Virginia Tech to serve as the inaugural vice president and executive director of its Innovation Campus. The Northern Virginia graduate campus will educate students destined for jobs at the new Amazon headquarters in Arlington and at other local tech companies, Collins said.
And in January, Howard University announced it would use a $10 million gift, the largest in its roughly 150-year history, to expand a science and technology scholars program that was started to increase the presence of minorities in those fields.
As the number of tech jobs in the Washington region continues to grow, government leaders and university officials have announced plans to train a high-tech workforce. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) recently disclosed plans to help public universities produce 31,000 more degrees in computer science and related fields during the next two decades to help meet growing demand as the state prepares for Amazon.
“I do think this is an indication of the importance of engineering in the region,” Collins said about the recent appointments at George Mason and U-Md. “All these schools are recognizing a national trend.”
U-Va.’s Benson pointed to Fortune 100 companies — including Apple, General Motors and Microsoft — that are led by people with engineering degrees.
“They tend to be trained as engineers, so they’re very much problem-oriented,” Benson said.
Pines, the newly chosen U-Md. president, said that philosophy is reflected in his work and that of Mason’s Washington.
“We have both spent decades training a generation of engineers,” Pines said in a statement. “We challenge them to be passionate about problem-solving and ready to work as a team — important traits we must bring to our new roles.”
Pines will ascend to the top job at U-Md. after controversy beset the campus during the past two years. After the deaths of two students in 2018 — football player Jordan McNair, who suffered heat stroke during a team workout, and freshman Olivia Shea Paregol, who died amid an adenovirus outbreak — school leaders have struggled to earn back the community’s trust, students said.
More recently, faculty in the Anthropology Department complained of a mold infestation that some professors said sparked health problems. But Paul Shackel, who chairs the department, said he is generally optimistic about Pines’s selection.
“He’s been on campus for a long time, and he knows a lot of the issues on campus. He’s also very aware of what we’ve been going through here in anthropology with the mold situation,” Shackel said. “Even though he’s from engineering, I think, on the whole, we feel like we will get support.”
Washington’s appointment garnered excitement outside the world of engineering. Keith Renshaw, who chairs the Psychology Department at GMU, said he was excited to have a president who has experience as a faculty member. Linda Apple Monson, director of the School of Music, said she asked Washington how he felt about the arts programs on campus and “his response engendered a real support.”
Connor Nelson, a GMU student studying government and international politics, said he does not think Washington’s leadership will “degrade any of the social sciences.”
“My hope is that, maybe, Washington brings more school spirit,” Nelson said. “I want a leader who considers that an important element of the school.”
Jendaya Williamson, a sophomore psychology student, said she has high hopes for Washington.
“He’s our first black president, which is cool,” she said. People of color constitute about half of the student body at George Mason.
All three of the recently appointed campus leaders — Collins, Pines and Washington — are black.
But just 8 percent of college and university presidents are African American, a figure that has grown by only 3 percentage points since 1986, data from the American Council on Education show.
“There are only a handful of African Americans that have reached this level. It’s a tight network,” Collins said. “I believe that a diverse workforce is the most productive and creative. It’s been a centerpiece of my work at Cornell, as one of the most diverse engineering colleges around.”
The incoming leaders said they also hope to forge a sense of camaraderie among the biggest institutions in the regions.
“Our friendship extends beyond these positions, and so we will find ways to collaborate and work together to benefit not just our institutions, but to benefit the region,” Washington said.