A Room with a View
It doesn’t take long for Dean Dennis Depew to get emotional as he glances out his office window on the fourth floor of Knoy Hall. The activity of faculty and students coming and going from the building on the sidewalks below are clear reminders of why he chose to serve as dean of the College of Technology. That passion for people has been a hallmark of his career and it provided a strong platform for his nine years at the helm of the college.
The accomplishments of his tenure are well documented: oversight of a major capital campaign, two strategic plans and the building of a new facility at the airport, growth in funded research and graduate education, and a steady commitment to providing undergraduate education that is hands-on, personal, and in tune with the demands of industry and the needs of our world.
But as he counts down his final days as dean, his pride rests more in the relationships he developed and in how people will remember him as a person than the things he accomplished. “When I leave this office, I hope people will remember that I had integrity, that I was passionate about what I believed in and was willing to work hard at it… that I loved Purdue and that I loved the College of Technology,” Depew says. “People may not have always agreed with the decisions I made, but I hope they know that I cared. Those are the things that are long lasting.”
Ironically, his current office – room 471 – has played a key role in his career progression at Purdue. Depew defended his doctoral dissertation there when it was a conference room. It was where he interviewed for an assistant professor position in industrial technology, and it was where the area committee met to approve his academic promotions.
Tells us a bit more about the history of your office.
The story goes that this was originally slated to be the dean’s office when the building was built. But George McNelly, who is a humble guy, worried that faculty might think that this was ostentatious and maybe inappropriate. He converted it to a conference room. I knew in 2002 that I was a tenant, that I wouldn’t be in here forever. Every day that I come into this office, I am reminded that we still live in a country where you can dream big dreams if you are willing to work hard.
When did you first get the idea that you wanted to be an administrator?
I had been a faculty member of the department, a graduate student in the department. There were three or four things that I thought were important objectives that we ought to accomplish: We didn’t have an advisory board, we were not an accredited program, moving the department more toward graduate education. There were things that I was passionate about. I wanted to be part of the conversation of making those things happen. I realized one way you are able to do that is having a voice as an administrator.
What prompted you to leave Purdue and move on to Western Carolina University?
There comes a time when you need a new canvas, to do something different. Part of the reason for going was I felt a bit of a calling. That’s always been important to me. If you can match your skill set and what makes your heart happy with someone’s greatest need, that’s a calling. They really wanted us there.
What brought you back to Purdue?
The College of Technology is the place. It’s the center of the universe as far as I’m concerned. Even people away from Purdue would say that. A big draw was the capital campaign. The things the college was looking for and what Martin Jischke was looking for at the time played well into what my strengths were: fundraising, external outreach with alumni, friends and corporations, growing our graduate programs, trying to expand our research footprint, strategic planning. So there was a good match.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as you started the position?
One of the biggest challenges was recruiting the leadership team, department heads, faculty. Developing the strategic plan. We had never done that before at this college; we had never done that before at this university. Ramping up very quickly to launch into the capital campaign. Those were the challenges, but fun challenges. They were time consuming and required a lot of work.
Since the first strategic plan is complete and the capital campaign is over, what have been the goals for the college?
The goals have been to stay on the same trajectory: learning, discovery and engagement. That hasn’t changed. I think what has changed is the priorities for how you fund that. Continuing to find revenue sources, since the future growth of the general fund may not be sufficient to support the mission of the college. You still have to continue to recruit outstanding faculty and staff. That has to be a major focus. And thinking about recruiting undergraduate students and graduate students in a different way.
How do you define success?
If you could pursue something in life that makes you happy, that you really enjoy doing, and at the same time you are able to provide for your family, that’s success. Wake up every morning, go to work at something you’re passionate about, that’s success.
How important has it been to have strong mentors and family support in your life and career?
I’ve always recognized the fact that few great accomplishments in life you do alone. You have a team around you that has helped you do the heavy lifting. The support for me begins at home, with Donna, my wife, who is my best friend. I couldn’t do this job without her support. She’s been my greatest cheerleader through the good and bad. A supportive family that keeps me balanced. It has helped me stay grounded and true to convictions. On the professional level, I’ve had a lot of great mentors in my career. Not all administrators; some of my most important mentors were faculty mentors who helped mentor me along the way to be a good faculty member. That’s what I wanted to be all along, a good teacher-scholar. I lost my dad too early in life, my last year as a PhD student. My dad meant the world to me. He didn’t go to college, but he had a lot of wisdom. My dad was a very, very wise man. When he passed away, it left a big void. Over the years he has been given back to me in many ways, in different forms. I’ve been blessed with many great mentors… who could be there to share words of wisdom that were unbiased and not self-motivated. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.
How have you transitioned to serve as a mentor to others?
We all have obligations to encourage, nuture and support, to provide advice when you have the opportunity. I like to think that I’ve been a good mentor to department heads, faculty, associate deans, and even others on campus. I don’t think that’s been a difficult transition. If you’ve been mentored well, it’s easier to become a mentor. My approach to mentoring for other administrators has been to provide opportunity, empower people, give them the latitude to make decisions, give them responsibility, hold them accountable. And understand that from time to time people are going to make mistakes. It’s part of being human. When people make mistakes, find ways to correct them and learn from them. Try to build a support structure under young leaders, help them grow and develop to the next level.
How have you been able to make the difficult decisions as a leader?
Most people would tell you I’m not a knee-jerk reaction type of person. I like to be reflective and analytical. I like to look at things and get feedback and advice and counsel. Analyze situations before you go do something. Our decisions have consequences. Listen as much as you can, gather as much information as you can before making decisions, if you have the timeframe to do that. Sometimes we don’t have that time. One of the characterisitcs that is requisite for someone in the dean’s job is you are really bombarded with a lot of information. Being able to sift through that and synthesize it in a way that you respond to that which is important and trust that others are going to deal with what they need to respond to.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen at the college during your tenure?
A big one would be faculty and staff. There has been a big change in the face of the faculty. One reason is retirement, people move on. Half the faculty in place right now have joined us in the last nine years. The faculty dynamics have changed. Certainly a big change has been a focus on graduate education and applied research. Certainly a better understanding as a college of the importance of external funding, grants and contracts or gifts and donations from alumni and friends.
What challenges does the college face in addressing change?
The theme of our strategic plan is Changing Today. Improving Tomorrow. It can be difficult to set a plan in place in a world where new challenges arise daily and the technology needed to address those challenges is also in constant flux… not to mention the limitations placed on us by an unstable economy. The college has always been faced with change, the nature of our work demands it.
Describe the influence the college can have on our students as they begin their careers?
I am confident that we provide a foundation where our students can leave here and make a difference. I don’t say that in order to pat ourselves on the back, but to recognize the reality that our faculty and staff are influencing lives and that the mission of our college – our work – is important. I know it is what brings me to the office each morning, it’s what makes me bleed black and gold.
What are the big challenges our graduates will face and how are they prepared to face them?
The world is ready for leaders who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Our students are trained for hard work. They will be leaders who are nimble and responsive. Leaders who can easily adapt to new technologies to the global marketplace. Each one of our graduates will be confronted with constant change and will be challenged to be innovative. With growing global competition and technological advances, the products our graduates work with are not the same ones their grandparents were familiar with. Our graduates will be successful when they learn to see change as an opportunity and not a liability.
Talk a bit more about the global component?
Thirty years ago we didn’t talk about globalization. The students who graduate today are going to work on a global level. We are also interconnecting with other universities, other societies, business. You can’t ignore China, India, South America. Students leave today, they are going to be working in a global marketplace, whether it’s transporation, telecommunications, healthcare. I think that’s exciting, but that presents some interesting challenges for us down the road, too.
How has the college remained in touch with the changes of industry and how has that influenced the education we provide?
We are well connected with advisory boards, our alumni and friends in the corporate and industrial world. They are coming to campus to provide feedback on curriculum change. Staying connected with business and industry has been a hallmark of this college for many years. That influences curriculum. You can always feel that what we are doing is relevant because we are, in a sense, responding to a customer out there. And these boards are not shy in telling you what you should be doing and what you’re not doing.
How have student expectations changed?
I talk with more students today that state that they want to run and operate their own business. Thirty years ago, the students wanted to work in the automotive or aviation industry.
What have been some of the special moments for you as dean?
Events like homecoming, commencement, and our DTA recognitions have always been important as dean. They have provided the visual evidence that we are doing the right thing here. Bringing our alumni back home, hearing their stories of success, seeing them interact with each other, with our faculty, with our students and seeing their joy as they reflect on their times as a student – all of that is very special.
What do you point to as your biggest accomplishment as dean?
It’s always around recruiting outstanding faculty and staff. We are a people business. Trying to build an environment where this is an attractive place for faculty and staff has been a big priority for me. I go back to the external part. We‘ve taken external relations, alumni, corporate relations to a whole new level. I’m also very proud of the level of scholarship support being awarded to students today. That’s special to me.
What have you missed most about being in the classroom?
I miss interacting with undergraduate students, and students in general. They really challenge you intellectually. At a place like Purdue, you have to be pretty sharp in your area. You can’t go into a lecture and wing it. There is some intellectual stimulation interacting with students that I miss. I miss the enthusiasm of the students. They keep you young. It’s the core of what we do here. I think most faculty members are students at heart anyway. You are always learning something new. You have to stay abreast of what’s taking place. I miss being around studets, their energy, the excitement. The opportunity to help shape the future is a pretty exciting business to be in.
When you pack up your belongings at the end of this semester, what’s next on the agenda?
I’ll do the big punt on July 1. The plan is to take a sabbatical. I have applied for a Fulbright Scholarship as a senior specialist. If that is approved we would spend some time at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland [in the fall]. It would be good for Dennis Depew to leave for a period of time. The new dean doesn’t need me here. The plan is to come back in January of 2012 to teach.