Q&A with Dean Lance Collins
As Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, completes his second and final term as dean, Cornell Engineering Magazine looks back at his decade-long tenure and his many achievements.
Collins joined Cornell in 2002 as a faculty member specializing in the application of numerical simulations to turbulent processes. As the first African American director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and later as the first African American dean at Cornell University, Collins elevated the college as one of the premier engineering research and education institutes in the world.
Collins will be joining Virginia Tech as the inaugural vice president and executive director of its new Innovation Campus following the completion of his term on June 30. He sat down with Cornell Engineering Magazine to reflect on his tenure as dean, including his thoughts on leading through a crisis, his favorite moment, and the one 'rule' he was proud to break.
What is a specific memory from your time as dean that you’ll always remember?
I recall speaking to Cathy Dove, who was associate dean of administration at the time, just after Stanford announced that they had decided to withdraw their bid for the applied sciences competition in New York City. Cathy and then-Provost Kent Fuchs were in New York overseeing negotiations with the city’s Economic Development Corporation. It was just another Friday afternoon. For context, you have to remember that this competition was a day-in, day-out grinding slugfest, and there was no indication that one university was ahead of the other. Cathy, this calm, strong leader—the task master who had orchestrated our pre-proposal, proposal and final negotiations—got on the phone and couldn’t get the words out. After three or four tries, I was able to make out two words, “Stanford withdrew.” Instantly a wave swept over me and I knew Cornell Tech was born. That moment stands out because it speaks to the magnitude of the institutional change. Speechless indeed.
You led the college through the Great Recession and now through the COVID-19 pandemic. What have you learned from leading during times of crisis?
There is a saying that you should never waste a crisis. That’s not to be cruel, but it’s a reference to the fact that as resources dwindle, you are forced to focus on activities with the highest strategic value. For example, following the Great Recession, then-Provost Kent Fuchs led the university through a budget overhaul to create what we then called the "New Budget Model,” and now we’re much stronger institutionally to handle the COVID-19 economic fallout. I don't mean we’re richer, just better managed and with more refined tools to help us handle the economic rough waters ahead with our more transparent and uniform budget model.
Right now, I believe we are experiencing a disruptive event in higher education. Consider the fact that every university across the country, in a few short weeks, has shifted to online delivery of its curriculum. Faculty are through the learning curve and will now have the opportunity to see advantages to some—not all—aspects of online education. There’s an opportunity for universities to rethink how they deliver their curricula, and for companies working in the education market to be inspired to develop the new platforms for online learning.
Beyond the COVID-19 fallout, what will be the most pressing challenge faced by your successor?
There’s no question Cornell Tech remains an incredible opportunity for Cornell Engineering and I think we can further exploit that opportunity. The next dean has to focus on very dramatically upping our game in New York City and taking advantage of the city’s potential as a leverage point for entrepreneurship across the college and the whole university.
Another big challenge will be the physical plant. The aging infrastructure on the quad won’t sustain a premier engineering college forever. I started the process and we made some good progress, but the next dean is going to have to build on that.
Is there a rule or status quo you were proud to break?
I am proud that Cornell Engineering has shattered the myths that women and minorities aren't equal to the task of becoming an engineer. We broke the rules by changing the narrative around diversity. Historically, people have often viewed diversity and excellence as competing interests, and Cornell Engineering has established unequivocally that they are perfectly aligned and mutually reinforcing. You just have to be on our campus to feel the vibrancy of our college.
Maybe the next dean will get to make an historic announcement about minorities the way I got to about gender parity. Keep breaking that rule!
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Cornell Engineering community?
I will miss Cornell. It’s an obvious sentiment, but it’s true. I feel like I grew more here than any other point in my career and more here than at any other institution I’ve been. It’s definitely a bittersweet experience to be leaving Cornell, but it will always be a part of me.