Professors Join 2 Universities With Different Approaches to Big Hiring Pushes

November 29, 2015

Hiring for Global Impact

Courtesy of Angela K. WIlson
Angela K. Wilson
One crucial tool at Angela K. Wilson’s new chemistry lab at Michigan State University has nothing to do with chemical equations. Skype, she says, will be important.

Ms. Wilson will join Michigan State in February as a professor of computational chemistry, just one month before beginning as director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry. Screen time will be necessary to accomplish each job.

She was hired at Michigan State as part of its new Global Impact Initiative. Ms. Wilson has "a strong track record" in an area of chemistry "that no university can afford to neglect," says Stephen Hsu, vice president for research and graduate studies. He was "tickled," he says, that Ms. Wilson was offered the foundation position after the university recruited her.

Michigan State will provide her with extra resources and flexibility so she can do both jobs. From the NSF, in Arlington, Va., she will have Skype meetings with staff members in her university laboratory. She will also get time off from the NSF to go to Michigan every month. The lab is scheduled to be running by next fall.

A team of six students and three doctoral fellows will accompany Ms. Wilson to East Lansing from her former lab, at the University of North Texas. She plans to hire several Michigan State students as well for the lab, which will work on 20 to 30 projects at a time, exploring, for instance, methods used in industrial processes or better ways to recycle the heavy-metal elements found in cellphones and cars.

The global-impact effort "opens up a lot of doors for research" and "lots of opportunities for collaboration," says Ms. Wilson. "I’m excited to be able to see science from a much grander perspective."

She is one of 100 planned faculty hires who will join the initiative in the next four years. The university will devote $17.5 million a year to hire professors who will amp up key research areas, including computational science, engineering, genomics, plant science, and precision medicine, says Mr. Hsu. They will seek to build a culture in which start-ups can grow, he says.

New faculty members will be principal investigators in positions eligible for tenure.

Michigan State has created a department of computational mathematics, science, and engineering as part of the effort. Andrew J. Christlieb, department chair and a professor of mathematics, says its collaborative model is "discipline agnostic," with hires across biochemistry, mathematics, statistics, and mechanical and electrical engineering. "We’re trying to think about the problems we are facing now," he says, in the hope that the effort "will have a broad impact across the university and across the world." — Kate Stoltzfus

Entrepreneurial Factor

Kellyn Shaffer
Christina Drake
Though Christina Drake went into industry right after receiving her doctorate, she was lured back to academe by her desire to change how engineering is taught — and, she says, by "the prospect of being able to say, ‘Hey, I got to start a university.’ "

Ms. Drake is an assistant professor of engineering at Florida Polytechnic University, a three-year-old state university focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. The former nanotechnology researcher at Lockheed Martin is one of 70 faculty members the university plans to hire over the next two years as it pursues accreditation.

These aren’t tenure-track jobs; instead, faculty members are offered renewable contracts of two, three, or five years, says President Randy K. Avent. The positions will be filled by candidates who "didn’t necessarily do what everyone else did" after graduation, he says. The university is looking for "entrepreneurial" faculty members who have leadership experience or have worked in industry or with start-ups, and requirements for promotion can include that type of work in addition to traditional benchmarks like journal publication.

Having a renewable contract doesn’t bother Ms. Drake because "coming from industry, your employer can fire you at any time" — although, she notes, the reactions of some of her colleagues have been more mixed. Mr. Avent says that the idea was inspired by a talk given by Stanford University’s president, John Hennessy, who described alternative hiring models, and that the administration is open to trying something new as time goes on.

Ms. Drake has long been concerned with the gender imbalance in STEM education. During her time at Lockheed, she advised students from the University of Florida on class projects. "It was frustrating doing that advising one at a time with a small group of students, when it looked like the problems were so much bigger," she says.

Now she is involved with two educational projects: a Women in STEM Leadership program, and an effort that is developing a curriculum that is project-based instead of class-based.

"Industry is great at producing products that are safe and that work, but they’re very slow to change culture, and that’s what I wanted to do," she says. "There is the fear of failed endeavor here, but this seemed like the best way I could get satisfaction with my career." — Angela Chen

Cultivating Young Talent

Kip May
Jonathan Plucker
Jonathan Plucker left his job as an elementary-school science teacher when he realized that he wanted to study creativity, but his time in academe has never truly taken him away from children’s classrooms.

Beginning in January, he will be a professor of talent development at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education and Center for Talented Youth. He will do gifted-education research, helping Hopkins reach its goal of "beefing up social policy," and promote what he believes to be the next big thing: individualized education, which offers customized instruction for each student.

Mr. Plucker was pulled into the policy side of education while working at Indiana University at Bloomington more than a decade ago, when "gifted education" was a hot topic. He tapped his background in educational psychology to write policy reports and evaluate school programs. Since 2012 he has been a professor of education at the University of Connecticut.

For years he has studied the "excellence gap," which involves the fact that low-income and minority students are far less likely to reach advanced proficiency in a given subject than their more-affluent peers are. To encourage higher achievement, he has recommended that states track measures of advanced performance over all and by income level, and that they become more flexible about kindergarten entrance age and grade skipping.

Of course, he says, "any program that focuses on the needs of a smaller group of students, regardless of what that program is, is always going to be controversial." Instead of looking at just the usual candidates for gifted education, who tend to be white and relatively wealthy, places like Hopkins are increasingly examining the needs and potential of gifted low-income, minority, and rural students.

Hopkins is well-suited for this strain of research, he says, because its Center for Talented Youth, which operates nationally, grants crucial access to the schools and sites that serve less-privileged students.

Mr. Plucker says he and the university share the belief that tailoring instruction for each student is the "natural direction" the field will move in. "We’re going to look back at the past 100 years and go, ‘Why didn’t we switch sooner to individualized education?’ " — Angela Chen

Scholar of the Amish

Steven M. Nolt, a professor of history at Goshen College, in Indiana, has been appointed senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania. He succeeds Donald B. Kraybill, who retired from that post this summer.

Mr. Nolt is known for his scholarship on the history, life, and culture of the Amish and Mennonite communities. He is an author, with Mr. Kraybill and other researchers, of books about the Amish, and has written A History of the Amish and Foreigners in Their Own Land: Pennsylvania Germans in the Early Republic.

He will begin his new post in July.

Obituary: Humanities Devotee Dies

Louise Cowan, a former chair and professor of English at the University of Dallas who was known for her advocacy of humanities education, died on November 16 in Dallas. She was 98.

She joined the faculty in 1959 and served as dean of the Braniff Graduate School of Liberal Arts during the 1970s. She was a founder of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and established its Teachers Academy, which guides Dallas-area teachers in intensive study of the classics.

Ms. Cowan’s specialty was 20th-century Southern literature. She wrote two books on that subject, The Fugitive Group and The Southern Critics. In a talk at the university two years ago, she urged members of an honors society to learn poetry by heart as a way to activate the "powers of the soul."

Her husband, Donald Cowan, was president of the University of Dallas from 1962 to 1977. He preceded her in death.

Read more about people in Gazette  or on Twitter at @ruthehammond. Submit news releases and contributions for What I’m Reading to