Dean Lester Reflects During His Last Week on the Job

On August 31, the longest-tenured dean in the College of Engineering’s history, Thomas W. Lester, will walk into his third floor office in the Ralph G. Anderson building for the last time. Lester is stepping down as dean, a decision he announced to the College of Engineering faculty more than a year earlier. Following the Labor Day holiday weekend, John Y. Walz, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Virginia Tech will take over for Lester, who will remain on the faculty as a professor of mechanical engineering.

Most of the today’s underclassmen hadn’t been born when Dean Lester left Louisiana State University for UK in 1990. Several of the facilities that play a prominent role in the college’s educational and research efforts didn’t exist and Dean Lester has seen two different presidents each spend a decade at the helm of Kentucky’s flagship institution. So when we asked him to cull through his experiences and share the top five things he learned while dean, we knew we were making a big ask.

Ever the engineer, Dean Lester was willing to tackle the assignment. As a result, we are grateful to Dean Lester and proud to disclose his reflections on the top five things he learned during his 22 years as dean of the College of Engineering.

 

Top Five Things Dr. Lester Learned During His Tenure as Dean

#1: It takes patience to change the culture.

We have 158 faculty members in the College of Engineering. They are all very bright people who are also very opinionated as to where the college should be going. So a dean can’t go in and start forcing change. A dean has to listen; in fact, the biggest thing a dean needs to be able to do is listen to the faculty, chairs, staff and students, articulate the direction he or she thinks the college should take and then, very patiently, coax people along that direction. You certainly can’t come in with edicts from on high and tell everyone where they are going to go. You have to work with them, involving them in the process.

#2: Always find the good in every individual.

Not every individual is going to be a Nobel Prize winner or a Lutes Award winner (given for outstanding teaching); however, every faculty member here was hired with the expectation that they could succeed at the University of Kentucky. The extent to which one can engage faculty members to further the mission of the college is a measure of how good of an administrator one is. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “You go to war with the army you’ve got.” Likewise, you go to school with the faculty you’ve got. That means you need to make the best possible use of the talent among your faculty and staff.

#3: Our alumni are awesome.

Nobody who has not been in my position can appreciate the love and the passion that our alumni have for UK and the College of Engineering. They are proud of this college and talk with sincerity about how much it has meant to their professional and personal lives. They talk with appreciation about what faculty members did during their time on campus that kept them from floundering and/or helped them succeed. It has been an enormously gratifying experience to listen to those stories and meet people willing to help the institution—not only financially, but also with their time and effort to assist with student recruitment.

#4: UK is profoundly important to the state of Kentucky.

One reason I came to UK was that I felt this institution had an ability to influence the state’s direction in economic development, medicine, technology, etc. That belief has only been reinforced during my 22 years here. This university is central to the welfare of the state of Kentucky. It is awe-inspiring to travel around the state and listen to people talk about how much they depend upon the university. Whether they went to UK or not, they have an admiration for the university, as well as high expectations that it will make life better for their children—better than life has been for them.

#5: I was more expendable than you think.

If the dean has done his or her job in assembling the faculty, staff, facilities, infrastructure and processes used to make sure things run well, it is amazing how well the place runs without the intervention of the dean. I learned this when my wife, Susan, was terminally ill with cancer. Then-president Lee Todd and then-provost Mike Neitzel encouraged me to make caring for my wife my primary responsibility, an offer for which I was extraordinarily grateful. So, there were six months toward the end of her life where I was a part-time dean and probably wasn’t very effective in anything I did—for obvious reasons. In spite of that, the college operated as well as it always had. We continued with our mission of educating students and, after I had walked through that nightmare and was back in my office, it was like I had never left. Why? Because the staff and faculty went about their business day after day, passionately educating students, pursuing knowledge through research and working with various agencies and companies outside the university to help stimulate economic development.

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