What's in a Name: Professor of Practice

By Chris Dawson

New faculty title draws industry experts to academia. 

It is no longer good enough to simply train engineers to be technically proficient at what they do. To stay relevant to students and to industry, colleges of engineering have to do so much more than transfer academic knowledge. Students today need to learn about sustainability, entrepreneurialism, communication, teamwork and leadership.

In order to better provide today’s students with what they need, Cornell Engineering has recently approved the creation of the faculty position called “professor of practice.” “We are excited to have this title available,” says Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell. “It provides a way to bring a very different set of complementary skills to campus to add to our already stellar faculty. Now, people with deep experience in industry will have a chance to be part of the teaching corps of the university.”

To understand the value of the professor of practice title, it is helpful to know some of the history. 

Fourteen years ago, back in 2002, Cornell Trustees and Faculty approved the title “clinical professor.” A person hired for a clinical professor position would be a non-tenure-track teacher. The title was approved because at the time Cornell lacked any professional titles for people with academic appointments focused solely, or mostly, on teaching with little or no expectation of engagement in research. This put Cornell at a great disadvantage when it came to recruiting and hiring people with years of professional experience in their fields and a wish to teach.

Imagine, for example, a person who had worked in the petroleum industry for more than thirty years, with many of those years spent as a manager of engineering and construction.  Further imagine that person wished to join the faculty of a college of engineering to share the wealth of knowledge he had gained about plant design, process control strategies and managing new business development. In 2001 Cornell Engineering would have had no way to match other universities whose range of faculty titles could give suitable acknowledgement of this person’s status, qualifications and opportunity for career advancement.

In 2002, with the adoption of the clinical professor title, the university thought it had addressed the problem and given each of the colleges a new tool to attract these highly qualified and deeply knowledgeable people. But it turns out the specific words in the title matter more than people thought. While the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Cornell Law School got on board right away and hired experienced people with the title of clinical professor, many other units around the university found the title limiting and unattractive to people they wanted to hire. 

In 2014 the Faculty Senate wrote, “Although the 2002 enabling legislation represented an important step in modernizing Cornell’s academic titles, the choice of clinical professor title as the sole authorized designation for non-tenure-track faculty engaged heavily or exclusively in a primary teaching function has proven too limited for a number of units on campus.” The words “clinical professor” simply didn’t have what it took to attract experienced industrial practitioners to Cornell over the competition.

The Faculty Senate revisited the issue and hit upon a practical solution. Rather than crafting new legislation to create a new title, they voted to amend the 2002 enabling legislation to allow each unit of Cornell to use either the clinical professor or the professor of practice title, at their discretion. Within a few months of the amendment’s approval, the faculty of Cornell Engineering voted overwhelmingly to implement the use of the professor of practice academic title. Among tenured and tenure-track faculty, the vote to approve was 139 to 6; among non-tenure-track faculty, it was 17 to 0.

Dean Collins makes it clear that the motivations driving the adoption of the professor of practice title are the same as those behind the initial addition of the clinical professor title back in 2002. “First, most of our peer institutions have a similar title, and so not having the title places us at a competitive disadvantage,” explains Collins. “Second, there are increasing chances to bring faculty with this type of professional experience to Ithaca, as well as to the Cornell Tech campus, and we know their presence will enrich the experience of our students.”


Remember that hypothetical petroleum industry veteran? He is not so hypothetical. 

His name is Alfred Center and he is the first Cornell Engineering faculty member to have the title professor of practice. Center teaches in the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), where he is also the associate director of the school’s masters (M.Eng.) program.  “Sometimes in a high-powered research school like Cornell,” says Center, “you run the risk of the work getting so deeply specialized that you lose touch with the practical side of an engineering education. The professor of practice title helps Cornell keep itself firmly planted in the practical, applicable world.”

Center’s point is supported by an NSF-sponsored report created by a joint academic-industrial group of experts led by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. According to the report, “…there is decreased faculty experience with industry and, in the case of faculty members who come from non-chemical-engineering backgrounds, limited experience with core topics. At the heart of this concern is the question of how it affects student preparation. Many industrial participants thought this change was a critical problem.” Center believes the professor of practice title gives Cornell Engineering a valuable tool to address this problem head-on.

While teaching at Cornell, Center has created several very well-received electives based on his many years of experience in the petroleum industry. He has also been the lead teacher in the senior capstone course on plant design for CBE students. Together with industry veterans Alan Feitelberg, Muqtadar Quraishi and Simon Coulson, Center shares his insights with senior CBE students as they work their way through design projects that require them to consolidate and apply three-years-worth of learning from their core ChemE classes. “Because we have real world industrial experience in a variety of domains, we are able to really help these students think through some of the challenges and issues they might face in their jobs just next year,” says Center.

One of the many students who have benefitted greatly by Al Center’s presence on the faculty is Stephanie Glass ’06 CBE. When Glass was a student at Cornell, Center was retired from the petroleum company Caltex and had just recently joined the Cornell Engineering teaching faculty. “He became a mentor to me,” says Glass. “During my senior year he helped me see that the energy industry isn’t just about putting gasoline in your tank. Really, it is part of how we solve the global energy problem.” Because Center had a career’s worth of experience in the energy industry, he was able to give Glass insights more traditional professors could not. She listened to what he had to say and today Glass is a fractionation technology group head for ExxonMobil.

Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of Biomedical Engineering in the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig Schoolof Biomedical Engineering at Cornell (BME), also sees the value of the professor of practice title. “It gives us an opportunity to bring seasoned industry practitioners to Cornell,” says van der Meulen, “and that is quite exciting. These faculty have expertise and experiences that the majority of our faculty do not and that are extremely relevant to our students who intend to continue to industrial careers.”

Van der Muelen and the Meinig School jumped at the chance to hire a professor of practice and scooped up Newton de Faria in 2015. De Faria brings 20 years of industrial experience at National Instruments to his positions as professor of practice and M.Eng. program director for BME. “Newton brings a wealth of industry achievements, contacts and knowledge to the Meinig School,” says van der Meulen. “His background is an outstanding fit with our vision for the professor of practice title in the College of Engineering. In addition to his professional qualifications, Newton is a high energy, engaging and creative individual. We are pleased to have him here.”

And he is pleased to be here. “I was very happy in my job at National Instruments,” says de Faria. “I wasn’t really looking to go anywhere. But then some friends told me about the posting and the more I looked at the description, the more attractive the position became.” De Faria visited campus and met van der Meulen and others in the Meinig School. “For me, the human factor was huge. There are so many good people here. I saw the chance for a twenty-year career here doing the things I love to do and I took it.” 

De Faria sees many ways his experience in industry can be put to use at Cornell. For one, he is teaching BME 5500—Innovation and Design of Biomedical Technologies. The course is for M.Eng. students and it allows de Faria to apply his 20 years of industry experience immediately and directly. “Through my work at National Instruments I have good insights into the process of product development,” says de Faria. “I know the science, but I also know about markets and technical needs and corporate priorities. As I have designed this course, I have been able to bring in so much of what I learned while working in industry.”

One sign that de Faria’s experiences translate directly into value for BME students is the success of a company called Aurora Fluidics. Aurora Fluidics is comprised of BME M.Eng. students Ilya Getsin, Rose Auguste, An Nguyen, and Gaurang Dimri, who entered the 2016 New York Business Plan Competition. De Faria acted as their advisor as they pitched their idea for a device that would streamline the bacterial culturing process from 48 hours to under ten minutes. The team won the People’s Choice Award as the most popular idea in the biotech segment of the competition.

In his position as director of BME’s M.Eng. program, de Faria is responsible for industry outreach. He contacts firms who make and market biomedical devices and he explores the possibilities for BME M.Eng. students to work on real-world projects. Because of his career at National Instruments, de Faria has many valuable contacts in the industry. These connections have paid off and there are currently several industry-sponsored M.Eng. projects underway. De Faria is also quick to point out that in his new position he has had the benefit of the relationships already in place before he got here, as well as the successful and collaborative alumni network. 

A third, less obvious but very important benefit to having Newton de Faria in the professor of practice position is his availability to fellow faculty members as they develop new technologies and have questions about product development and commercialization. “Good research institutions create IP,” says de Faria, referring to intellectual property. “This IP is valuable to the university and to society. Because of my industrial experience, I can help professors think through the process of developing their ideas into useful biomedical devices.” De Faria is excited to be at Cornell and to be one of the first few professors of practice. “Like it or not,” says de Faria, “in academia titles matter. The words matter. People treat you differently when you say you are a professor. I have a chance to help define what professors of practice can be at Cornell Engineering and this is something I take seriously.”

The unit of Cornell Engineering with the most ambitious plans for the professor of practice designation so far is the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE). Under the leadership of David Shmoys, director of ORIE and the Laibe/Acheson Professor of Business Management and Leadership, the school has committed to increasing student opportunities for hands-on, data-intensive experiences driven by real-world problems and applications. “Our digital society generates an abundance of data, tracking our every step,” writes Shmoys in a statement outlining his vision for the OR curriculum at Cornell. “As a result, OR, which has its roots in large-scale organization-level, strategic and tactical decision-making, will be used in individual-level, minute-by-minute decision-making that constantly impacts our everyday lives and the everyday operations of enterprises.”

To meet the new and growing demands on OR professionals, the way undergraduates, M.Eng. students and Ph.D. students are taught has got to change with the times. Shmoys understands that OR students must have more exposure to projects where they are asked to integrate real-world applications with their textbook-and-classroom, lecture-based learning. One way to ensure these projects are actually valuable is to have professors of practice deeply involved in the selection and design of the projects students will tackle.

Shmoys’s visionary plan calls for three professors of practice to join the school in the coming years. One will be focused primarily on working with undergraduates, one with M.Eng. students and one with Ph.D. students. Each will possess many years of OR experience out in the world, where the timelines are often short and the data is just about always messy. 

The first of these three endowed professor of practice positions has already been funded. At a dinner held earlier this spring to celebrate ORIE’s 50th anniversary at Cornell, Director David Shmoys announced that Art Geoffrion ’59 MIE ’61 and his wife, Helen, have endowed a professor of practice position in ORIE. The person who fills the position will have the explicit charge of increasing the number of opportunities ORIE Ph.D. students have for real-world engagement. “Ph.D. students provide the next generation of professors,” says Geoffrion. “The more that professors recognize the crucial synergy between academia and practice, the better will be their shared destiny.”

Across Cornell Engineering, all of the schools and departments are busy strategizing the best way for each of them to take advantage of the professor of practice title. “It is hard to duplicate in the traditional tenure track faculty the amount of industry experience a professor of practice brings to our college,” says Dean Collins. “We need to be doing all we can to ensure our students are getting the analytic and technical skills they will need, but also the professional knowledge they will need to be able to put into practice what they have learned.”

Now that Cornell has gotten the words right, the professor of practice position is poised to make a huge contribution to the education of the next generation of professional engineers.