Five years after being named dean of the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, Katepalli Sreenivasan — known to his peers as Sreeni — has cultivated an ethos throughout the university of using technology in service to society, and has advanced the school’s efforts to be at the forefront of creating world-changing technologies and research.
Sreenivasan wears a number of hats within NYU, and is also the Eugene Kleiner professor for innovation in mechanical engineering at Tandon. He holds professorships in the department of physics and the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.
As he steps away from his administrative role to return to classroom teaching, Sreenivasan spoke with Education Dive about his accomplishments as dean, the future of higher education and his efforts to attract more women into STEM programs and professions.
EDUCATION DIVE: What will you be doing once you leave your administrative post?
KATEPALLI SREENIVASAN: I never looked at myself as being an administrator. I consider myself a researcher. I have always been doing some research, now I will do more. I haven’t been teaching for the last few years and will be going back to that.
Before that, I will be spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, then I will come back to teach and do research. [IAS is an independent, postdoctoral research center and was the academic home of Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel when they immigrated to the U.S. The institute works closely with Princeton University and Rutgers University, but is independent and does not charge tuition or fees. It’s supported by grants, endowments and is one of eight American math institutes funded by the National Science Foundation.]
As you make the move, can you reflect on your career?
SREENIVASAN: I have been at this job for about six years. During that time, we have done a number of things. We merged with NYU, but more importantly, we recruited a large number of high-quality faculty and students, and we renovated the labs.
We really tried to recruit more women students. The last engineering class was 48% women compared with about 25% before. I am very proud of that. We also recruited students from minority populations. We have a very diverse, very motivated set of students.
We also increased our faculty by about 40%, and hired a more diverse faculty in the last five or six years, including many more women. We were not just trying to grow the faculty for its own sake, but to create a great faculty. We have one of the best groups in cyber-security, transportation, artificial intelligence, things like that.
NYU in the U.S. has always been a vehicle of upward mobility for students. It helps students move up in their careers and lives. We really have to think through carefully, “What is higher education?” That is something that I tried to do, and I think we will all try to do moving forward. Sometimes it’s forgotten that education is meant as a way for people to better themselves in society. I hope that will not be forgotten. We have been trying to make sure that everyone who graduates gets a job.
What do you see for the future of technology and STEM education?
SREENIVASAN: STEM is very important, for U.S. students and for students in other countries. I am very worried more young students are not motivated to get into STEM, especially female students.
At a recent robotics competition (during STEMNow, a summer workshop sponsored by NYU Tandon to immerse middle and high school students and their teachers in engineering and science,) the young kids were split pretty evenly, but at the high school level I noticed it was mostly boys. That worries me. Why that is? We want to work at the middle school and high school level, and our goal is to motivate girls, to get them into STEM. There’s no reason to think women can’t be great in science. Bringing a lot of women into STEM is a really big thing for me.
During STEMNow, when a youngster is exposed to high-level research in a university lab or encounters a passionate NYU Tandon student mentor, he or she realizes unimaginable possibilities. When teachers return to their classrooms with innovative ideas for engaging their students in STEM, it has a ripple effect on entire generations of future engineers and scientists. That is an important focus for us.
What are you reading and what has it taught you?
SREENIVASAN: I am reading, “Skin in the Game.” The author (Nassim Taleb) is one of my colleagues. Say you are a diplomat, and there’s a war. The person who made the decision about the war, he says what he thinks is good advice, but he pays no price, he does not fight in the war. Or trickle-down economics. Many people were rendered homeless by this policy, made by people who were not affected or who did not have skin in the game.
The people who give the advice and are gone, they get paid whether or not the advice works. This book says that if the person does not have skin in the game, his advice is not as good as those who do. So, say with the bridge that recently collapsed in Miami (at Florida International University) maybe you hold everyone who was involved responsible, or maybe if you turn to people who do have skin in the game, better decisions will be made in the future.