New engineering dean’s main role: managing school’s remarkable growth

The University of Kansas has named Michael Branicky as the new dean of the School of Engineering. Branicky, who teaches and chairs the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, will officially take over as dean on July 1. Branicky was touring the KU campus and meeting with faculty Thursday, May 9, 2013.

Michael Branicky has a big job ahead of him. But that’s what drew him away from his hometown of Cleveland, where he’d spent most of his life, to take charge of Kansas University’s School of Engineering.

Branicky grew up in Cleveland, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Case Western Reserve University there — the first member of his family to go to college — and then served on the faculty at CWRU for 16 years after earning his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But what drew him away from his home was the opportunity presented by the KU engineering school, in the midst of an effort to increase its enrollment by about 60 percent, hire more faculty to teach those students and increase its research profile.

“I would use the term ‘remarkable growth,'” Branicky said in an interview shortly after becoming KU’s engineering dean in July.

That growth is bolstered by state funds intended to help produce more engineers for the state. About $35 million in state funds will go toward an $80 million expansion, on which construction is set to begin this academic year.

Branicky replaces Stuart Bell, who left to become provost at Louisiana State University. Distinguished professor Stan Rolfe, a longtime faculty member who led the school for a year as interim dean, will move into a phased retirement with Branicky aboard.

A lot of work early in Branicky’s tenure will revolve around managing that growth, the new dean said, from hiring and mentoring faculty to developing ways to better prepare new students for the engineering workforce.

“We’re really growing almost faster than we can provide space for everybody,” said JoAnn Browning, associate dean of administration for the School of Engineering, “and he’s really tackling it head on.”

KU plans to add a total of 30 new engineering faculty in the coming years as the school’s enrollment grows.

The university couldn’t have hired a better person to be a mentor for the new professors who will be coming aboard, according to Shiva Sastry, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Akron.

Sastry, who has worked with Branicky during an adjunct appointment at CWRU, said Branicky was “generous” in the way he helped guide the careers of less-experienced teachers and researchers. Branicky took time to work with Sastry early in his career even though he worked at a different university, said Sastry, who now regularly wins research grants from the National Science Foundation.

“A large part of that credit goes to him, for mentoring me and getting me up there,” Sastry said.

When Branicky’s hiring was announced, KU Provost Jeff Vitter said leaders believed that with his research experience he’d be able to help the school increase its external research funding. During his career, Branicky has helped attract more than $7 million in external funding for research, and he’s published more than 100 research articles in journals and at conferences.

Sastry said the well-connected Branicky was also likely to be able to recruit good faculty for the school.

Branicky also worked for the NSF from 2008 to 2010, serving as program director for a group that awarded grants for research.

“He took a program that had started very meagerly and grew it into one of the largest programs at NSF,” Browning said.

Branicky’s program funded research on cyberphysical systems, the combination of computer processors and mechanical systems such as airplanes or cars.

That’s one of Branicky’s chief research interests. He says he became interested in engineering during college when he realized he much preferred classes in which he got to work on problems rather than memorizing biological names or chemical compounds.

“I like solving problems,” Branicky said. “I’m a very, very analytical person.”

Branicky came to Lawrence with his wife, Danielle Olds, who was also hired to become an assistant research professor at the KU Medical Center, and a son who just turned 1 year old. He plans to look out for good spots in the area to water ski, and he’s also sampling Lawrence and Kansas City barbecue restaurants to find a favorite.

As dean, he said, he’ll focus on pushing for more online and hybrid (combining online and in-person teaching) courses and increased research funding, as well as a big job for any dean at KU: fundraising. He’ll be reaching out to alumni and people in industry as part of the university’s “Far Above” fundraising campaign.

“Securing resources for the school is another big part of the job,” Branicky said.

Browning, who helped lead the search committee for the engineering dean job, and Sastry both agreed: They believe Branicky is the right person to lead the growing school.

“You’ll see he is pretty tenacious,” Sastry said. “When he wants something done, he usually gets it done.”