Personal History: Five Years Later

Upon first arriving at McMaster University, I entered a Faculty that had high aspirations. While globally recognized for our education and research, we had not, however, consistently benchmarked ourselves against other exemplars of demonstrated excellence.

Therefore, my first step, five years ago, was to identify benchmark data and other evidence, and use it to create a sense of urgency for change.

It became clear that we would have to improve the ways we thought of our future and the work that we expected of ourselves. This required that we collaborate better within the Faculty, with colleagues in our university, as well as with others outside our institution.

Naturally, the second step was to form a guiding coalition of academic and other leaders who saw value in leading change. 

To engage with our faculty and staff, I began visiting departments and units regularly. During those meetings, we candidly discussed our aspirations and possibilities, and sometimes passionately.

These interactions led to a strategic vision, the centerpiece of which we call Innovation from Excellence.

This vision has six pillars, namely, to improve equity, diversity and inclusion to build a creative and vibrant community, enhance student success by offering even greater support through enhanced curricular options and extra-curricular activities, enhance research and innovation by ensuring opportunities for collaboration, discovery, and entrepreneurship are embedded into the student experience and our research culture, commit to the professional development of students by educating the whole engineer, attract top students, enhance our community by recognizing that we must find more ways to meet and engage with each other. 

I am sometimes asked about early resistance to change. While present, it diminished in intensity, I believe due to the evidence-based approach that we used. Very candid and transparent conversations about where we were and where we wanted to be also helped.

Hence, collaboration has become a mantra.  Now, whenever I see a “my way or the highway” hierarchical approach by an academic leader or a unit, I try to close it with a firm word. To improve, we must be collaborative.

Clarification of our objectives and better mentoring has led to change.

For instance, the Faculty Development Academy (now renamed the Fireball Academy) offers mandatory diversity awareness sessions during selection committee training. This training has resulted in the certification of nearly 200 faculty, staff members and students to serve on selection committees. As they serve, they look for a demonstrated ability that a faculty candidate, or a candidate for an administrative position, is able to work effectively with individuals from diverse communities and cultures. 

Thus, we have improved gender diversity throughout our Faculty. In 2016-17, the fraction of women assistant professors at McMaster Engineering rose to 40.7% compared with 26.2% for Ontario and 22.8% Canada wide.

Also with an eye towards improving gender diversity, this year’s, the 2018 cohort, includes 27.1% women B.Eng. students.

Focused recruiting has also resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of students entering first-year Engineering who arrive with an incoming average above 90%. In 2017, our Engineering 1 admission average was 91.7%, closing in on our medium-term goal of 93%. 

We are even more vested in our students’ success. Our academic advisors use data to actively monitor the academic standing of first-year engineering students and initiate timely interventions when these are required. Hence, the first-to-second year retention has increased from 77.5% in 2012 to 95.3% in 2018.

This retention is among the best in class, not only in Canada but worldwide. We have exceeded the 94% first-to-second year retention benchmark that we set for ourselves. Our new goal is to reach 96-97% retention by 2023.

To improve the recruitment of domestic graduate students, we now work with the Canadian Graduate Engineering Consortium. Consequently, domestic graduate applications have shown quick improvement, with a 57% increase in Master’s and a 211% increase in doctoral applicants.

Moreover, Engineering faculty members mentored 76 doctoral students to completion last year, a significant improvement from the 48 Ph.D. graduates in 2012.

We are committed to improving the communications skills of graduate students. The Fireball Academy trains approximately 200 new teaching assistants yearly through a new mandatory five-hour workshop.

Engineering graduate programs run three-minute thesis (3MT) or three-minute pitch (3MP) competitions. Many of these pitches were on display at the Big Ideas Pitch Night event.

Regarding the full student experience, our big accomplishment was the opening and operation of the Gerald Hatch Centre for Engineering Experiential Learning. The 28,000-square-foot building has become an important innovation playground for teams, club, societies, and others where undergraduate students collaborate, inspire and learn from each another. 

We have significantly increased the scale and scope of entrepreneurship co-op opportunities undertaken by engineering students at The Forge, the McMaster campus linked accelerator, from 3 during 2016 to 31 in 2017. 

Our reputation is improving as we begin to reap the fruits from Innovation from Excellence.

The Faculty’s civil engineering program is ranked 30th in the world, and the metallurgical engineering and transportation science and technology programs are ranked within the top 50 according to the ShanghaiRanking’s Global Ranking of Academic Subjects.

Computer science & engineering is rated within the top 51-75 and water resources, telecommunications, and electrical & electronic engineering made the top 101-150.

Among the 16 McMaster Engineering programs that appeared on the list, for the first time this year biomedical engineering was also included. Previously ranked tenth by Maclean’s when I arrived, the McMaster’s engineering program is now ranked sixth in the nation based on program reputation and research reputation.

Research awards to the Faculty, in stasis (and decline) in 2013, are now growing rapidly. We hire in clusters, carefully curate teams of faculty members in whom we invest based on their interests in growing the doctoral program, addressing emerging technologies and working with the private sector. 

Consequently, our research awards have grown in number and size to a total of over $42 million, significantly improving the resources that we now have in place to support our scholarship and our students.

The average research funds available on a yearly basis to a tenured and tenure-track faculty member, of which there are about 145, equal about $292,000. Our goal is to grow this research intensity to $325,000 within three years, which will be more or less best in class in Canada.

Being steward of McMaster Engineering has been a singular and exceptional opportunity that has brought fulfillment and joy. These gifts arrived because of the exceptional, committed, talented, creative, enthusiastic, friendly and collegial people who surround me.

In other words, the secret sauce of McMaster Engineering is #Community.


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