When Engineering senior Courtenay Holscher met David Munson on Halloween last year, he was dressed as a pickle jar.
The costume itself wasn’t a shock — after all, it was Halloween. It’s just the fact that Munson, the man in the Vlasic Dill Pickle suit is the dean of the College of Engineering.
And last month, when Munson dressed as a wolverine for Halloween, he continued a tradition he began two years ago when he took over as dean of the college. It was an effort to prove to the rest of campus that engineers can enjoy themselves, he said.
Munson, who took office in July of 2006, has taken a different approach to a dean’s relationship with students. Between three and four times a term, he holds office hours for students to come and voice complaints, sing praises of professors or simply chat.
Engineering senior Steven Hechtman, president of the University’s Solar Car Team, said Munson makes it easy for students to approach him with ideas by making himself accessible.
“He doesn’t sit up on his own pedestal, and that really sets him apart,” he said. “It’s definitely a good thing for students to be able to approach their dean like that and not feel intimidated and really feel that their opinion is valued.”
PUSHING STUDENTS OVERSEAS
As dean, Munson has tried to shift the culture of the school away from intense specializations toward a broader, more well-rounded curriculum.
One of the biggest changes Munson has implemented since taking the reins has been placing a stronger emphasis on study abroad programs.
Historically, because of the specific nature and limited availability of Engineering courses, fewer Engineering students have gone overseas than from other University programs. Last year, just 250 students — about 3 percent of the college’s enrollment — studied abroad on a program or internship.
Munson’s emphasis on international experiences stems from his own experiences abroad, which he described as rewarding and broadening, citing his first trip abroad as a faculty member to Paris and Rome in the early 1980s.
“As a regular faculty member, I traveled overseas pretty much every year, and I just never had a trip that wasn’t amazing,” he said. “For our students to have some of those same experiences is really valuable.”
Munson increased staff support for the college’s international programs office and earlier this semester created an international minor for engineers.
The international minor requires intensive study of a foreign language as well as a study abroad program or overseas internship.
Amy Conger, director of International Programs in Engineering, said engineering-specific study abroad programs aren’t new. What is, though, is faculty members’ emphasis of the programs.
“For (Munson), international education is clearly a part of a Michigan Engineering education rather than something you do in addition,” Conger said.
Munson said he hopes half of all Engineering students will eventually have international experience before graduating.
“I don’t want for one of our students to go to a company and have their boss come to them Monday morning and say, ‘Susan, I need you to go to Beijing on Wednesday,’ and for the U of M alum to say, ‘Oh, golly, I don’t know what’s involved, I’ve never done this before,’” Munson said.
REACHING ACROSS CAMPUS
One complaint some engineers have about their field is that the work is isolating and doesn’t allow them to work in other fields.
“All our classes are with other engineers,” said Holscher, the president of the University’s Engineering Council. “We’re surrounded by other engineers, and there’s the School of Music and Art and Architecture, but they have their own giant buildings separate from our giant buildings, so there’s not too much running into other fields.”
Coming into the job, Munson sought to dispel that notion. In addition to his push for more emphasis on international programs, Munson has also encouraged interdisciplinary programs and cross-campus collaboration with other schools.
Munson said the college’s other minor, multidisciplinary Design, grew from watching comprehensive projects like the Solar Car Team draw students from multiple disciplines.
Munson said he sees a strong parallel between engineering and the arts.
To illustrate the similarities, he teamed up with the deans of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the School of Art and Design for the Arts on Earth initiative in fall 2007. The annual program sponsors multidisciplinary art projects and events.
“There’s an aspect of the work that’s very creative and design-oriented,” Munson said. “But there’s another aspect of the work that’s all about refinement and optimization and making something better and better, whether it’s the design of a bridge or playing a piece by Bach.”
Munson also said the interdisciplinary push is an effort to mimic the workplace.
“In the engineering world, it’s not like your team is all electrical engineers or all mechanical engineers,” he said. “A lot of products that are out on the market use some engineering and technology, but there may be some artistic content, as well.”
Munson has also teamed up with Ross School of Business officials to sponsor more courses in entrepreneurship.
While the College of Engineering and Ross School of Business have offered joint courses in entrepreneurship in the past, Munson said he wanted to focus a program more specifically on engineering to draw more interest from his students.
The partnership came to fruition in the form of the Center of Entrepreneurship, which launched last year to provide support to Engineering faculty and students. This semester, students can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship after nine credits of approved coursework.
Engineering sophomore Ambreen Sayed, who is considering pursuing a business career, said the entrepreneurial aspect of the college gives Engineering students “all-roundedness that’s really essential.”
“People haven’t really emphasized that in the past,” she said.
ROOM TO BREATHE
The college’s new interdisciplinary and international programs may take time to catch on. Many engineers don’t have extra time under their current course loads.
Many Engineering programs have less than 12 hours of general electives, and some have as few as eight, leaving very little wiggle room if students want to pursue an additional degree.
“If our students want to have the flexibility to do some of these other programs, they need more space in their curriculum,” said James Holloway, associate dean of undergraduate education for the college.
Holloway said as the list of new ideas and technologies grows, so does the required course list for many Engineering majors.
“We seldom step back and try to unpack it,” he said.
To address this, Munson assembled a commission to discuss lightening the required course load for undergraduate engineers.
The commission, slated to present its findings this spring, is considering whether the intense specialization of some of the Engineering majors deprives engineers of a broader education.
Holscher said the push for engineers to broaden their education is a marker of the cultural shift led by Munson.
“You can bring up any crazy idea and Dean Munson will consider it,” he said, “and if it’s crazy enough and interesting enough, it’ll happen.”