Engineering’s Michael Vaughan, associate dean of academic affairs, explains his role

Michael Vaughan, associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Engineering (COE) at the University of Delaware, was named the recipient of the 2018 John Warren Award. The award, created in 2011, recognizes significant accomplishments by supervisory staff in areas of leadership and service.

Vaughan was nominated by Babatunde Ogunnaike, former COE dean who remains on the faculty. In his nomination letter, Ogunnaike said Vaughan’s work continues to have a major impact on the college.

“I have come to depend on Michael as a trusted counselor on many matters involving college operation as a whole, not just academic affairs,” Ogunnaike wrote. “It is not an exaggeration to say that our reputation for excellence in engineering education across the board for our undergraduates owes a lot to Michael’s leadership and his staff.”

Vaughan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University and a doctorate in civil engineering at UD. He joined the University in 1992.

UDaily sat down with Vaughan to talk about the award, his role and how he discusses engineering with potential students.

Q: Congratulations on winning the award. How does it feel and was it a surprise to you?

Vaughan: It was a surprise to me. I knew John Warren, so it is an honor because I knew what kind of professional he was on this campus. It is very nice to know that my contributions to the campus are valued and then recognized with an award of this significance. After I won the award, I wrote my nominators a note. I ended it with a quote attributed to John Quincy Adams that says, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” I think that really encapsulates my perspective as a leader and as a campus contributor. It is not about me so much, but it really is about how you inspire other people, especially other people who are under your management to see growth and opportunity in their professional futures.

Q: Who inspired you over the course of your 27 years at the University?

Vaughan: I would start with John Warren. He was an inspiration to many of us, but certainly to me in the various ways that he served the campus with consistency and leadership. Many of the administrators that came before me have inspired me. Dick Wilson also comes to mind. He was some generations ago, but people still talk about him not only for the contributions that he made to actually looking at how we diversify our campus, but also because he created infrastructure to support students. Another is Ron Whittington, who served as assistant to the president. He really was in many ways an ambassador for the campus and was here when I arrived as a professional. David Roselle, former president, who was here at the time I was hired, also inspired me. I worked very closely with him, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas, to try to understand his vision and how we could make the University a much more welcoming place. I’ve been inspired by the presidents since Dr. Roselle as well. I’ve been inspired by many of my colleagues — some who are very well known and some who are somewhat unsung. Over the years, there have been many of us who have come together to create what we have now; where, the right pieces are in place to support our students in extremely positive ways.

Q: What are your main goals and focus in your role as COE Associate Dean for Academic Affairs?

Vaughan: I focus on how we develop and maintain student support and student success infrastructure at the college level. In essence, the role of academic affairs is to facilitate processes and opportunities that allow the in-class experience to connect with the out-of-class experience and to make sure that the curriculum moves in the overall direction that the college, it’s faculty and our various stakeholders deem appropriate. We also do outreach to K-12 populations to encourage careers in engineering and computer science and organize celebratory recognitions like our convocation and honors days to recognize student success outcomes.

Q: You also do a lot of work to support underrepresented groups of students interested in engineering. Can you share more on this specific goal?

Vaughan: All student experiences are unique and personal. When you look at underrepresented student groups or minority student populations, you can’t assume that all the students in those populations need the same kind of support. Therefore, it is about how we make the campus welcoming and how we connect the campus so students understand what resources are here for them. We are guiding students along the pathway that leads to where they feel they want to go. The challenge is to listen well enough so you can actually hear where the student wants to go as a learner.

Q: What projects are you particularly proud of accomplishing?

Vaughan: One thing that I’m proud of is, over time, we’ve really revamped our whole advisement structure. That was something I was very involved in some years ago in coordination with our academic departments. Students have a diversity of things they are trying to accomplish, so having more people to talk to about their various interests and aspirations is an important thing. We have professional staff who work with students on the nuts and bolts of advisement and faculty who work on advisement at whatever level they feel comfortable, but also increasingly as mentors of students. We are now trying to integrate the Campus-level Blue Hen Success Collaborative (BHSC) analytics into our advisement processes and are thinking every day about new and innovative ways to leverage the strength of the BHSC platform to enhance student support as a way to promote increased student success.

Q: What are your goals for the future of COE?

Vaughan: We are looking for ways to continue to add value. It is creating safe spaces where students can explore and where they can express themselves inside and outside the classroom to create this thing we call the engineering student experience. It is really about the people who support the facilities where we live, learn, work and play. It is important to have an environment where students feel they have the mobility to move between different kinds of interactions and opportunities in ways that help them to meet their overall educational, career and life goals.

Q: Your nominators praised your problem solving skills. How does your engineering background inform your current role and help you solve problems?

Vaughan: There has been discussion in our community of late about the Grand Challenges of Engineering; namely, 14 challenges that have been cited by the National Academy of Engineering as the major technological challenges that confront our world. The reality is that these are very complex problems, which will need a multidisciplinary perspective and approach to solve. I think engineering is a wonderful discipline to help someone develop skills where they can be a contributor in all kinds of spaces, whether it be in an engineering company, the College of Engineering, a non-profit or any area of human endeavor. Problem solving skills are at the core of an engineering education and we teach our students to think critically and systematically. This was my training as well.

Q: What do you tell students that are considering engineering, but are unsure?

Vaughan: We ask young folks where do you see yourself in five or ten years? What problems do you think are important? What are some of the issues in this world that you think need your attention? Sometimes it is hard for a young person and some not so young to ponder these questions. The reality is that if they can answer some of these questions, then picking a discipline becomes a lot easier because if you know where you want to go, there are many pathways to get there. Selecting a major is really about understanding who you are as a person and a learner.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Vaughan: Sometimes we have a lot more ideas than we have the time to implement. It really is a challenge because as we grow as a college, there is an increased demand on our time. We are trying to do more and more with less and less. With that said, we sometimes have an opportunity to think some important things through, to work smarter, not harder. The key is how we can work in ways to have a greater impact on what we are trying to accomplish. So achieving this balance is important, to use some of our precious time to think rather than just do. This thinking allows us to be strategic and intentional in the ways we approach our work.