|Home : Volume 25 : Spring 1999 :|
|A deanship ends its 18 year sail:|
Bollinger looks back on his years as the college's leader
COE Milestones 1981-1998
Change was the watchword at the college during the tenure of Dean John G. Bollinger. Here's a glimpse at just a few of the milestones that occurred while he was dean of UW-Madison's College of Engineering.
Major building/remodeling projects:
As a UW-Madison undergraduate in 1955, John G. Bollinger couldn't escape the image of a giant coal heap dumped next to the engineering buildings he studied in every day. The coal was being stored for UW-Madison's steam plants, but made his corner of campus look positively dumpy. What's worse, he could see the beautiful, ornate buildings of Henry Mall just across the street.
"It irritated the living daylights out of me," recalls Bollinger.
It galled him enough to start a one-man petition drive to have the coal pile relocated. He delivered a petition with hundreds of student signatures to then-Dean Kurt F. Wendt before the 1955 summer break.
"The next semester it was gone," he says with a big grin.
It's a fitting story today, as Bollinger reflects on 18 years as dean of the College of Engineering. The physical campus might be his most visible legacy. Engineering Hall now has a corporate-looking modern upgrade, and the old parking lot in front is replaced by a pedestrian mall with an artful centerpiece--the "Máquina" sculpture and fountain.
Bollinger helped design his own high-tech Henry Mall, and he says it finally gave the college an image. "Now nearly every student gets a graduation picture with parents in front of that fountain," he says. "The value of that far exceeds the investment."
When Bollinger retires from the deanship this summer, he can admire a much different campus than the one he inherited. Aside from the physical upgrades, he is widely credited with building a more efficient undergraduate program, infusing the curriculum with an entrepreneurial spirit, and building strong relationships with industry and alumni.
When he came on board in 1981, the college faced serious problems. College enrollment had ballooned to more than 5,000 undergraduate majors. Bollinger remembers that classes were so over-booked that students frequently sat in window wells during lectures.
And with no firm standards on admission, many students were set up for failure. Bollinger says the college used to have an associate dean whose full-time job was dropping students who didn't make the grade. "The old system was really a disservice to students," he says.
"We decided to basically flip-flop the college," he says. "We shrunk the enrollment of undergraduates to protect the quality of instruction, and at the same time expanded our graduate student base."
By the late 1980s, Bollinger says the seven-to-one ratio of undergraduates to graduate students improved to three-to-one, and the undergraduate enrollment stabilized around 3,400. Not only did the improved numbers strengthen research, Bollinger says, but the changes improved success rates for undergraduates. "Today, when a student is formally admitted to an engineering department, the retention rate is 90-plus percent."
With this new foundation, Bollinger says his focus turned to making the college "a competitive, exciting place to be." Bollinger set out to create what he calls an "off-timetable opportunities culture," with programs meant to give students a true flavor of engineering.
As engineering grew more theoretical, Bollinger worried that students could graduate as whizzes in math, physics and chemistry, but never pick up a wrench or tune an engine. He began to nurture development of student teams in hands-on engineering projects, such as the FutureCar Challenge competition, the Concrete Canoe competition and the The Schoofs Prize for Creativity.
The Schoofs Prize for Creativity, funded by engineering alumnus Richard Schoofs, awards more than $20,000 each year to student teams who invent commercially viable products. Bollinger also shepherded with the School of Business the G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition, in which students not only build inventions, but come up with a complete marketing and development plan.
Bollinger's philosophy shows through in these ideas: Creativity and teamwork are essential parts of engineering. Bollinger says he wanted to give students the tools to be entrepreneurs.
"These are people who perceive problems in the world, and want to make it better," says Bollinger, sounding again like the undergraduate idealist who got rid of the coal pile. "Engineers are always answering the question, `Why would you do it that way?' They observe in life that there are things people are struggling with."
Bollinger's colleagues describe him as a relentless idea person, someone who continually puts new projects on the table. He is also a team-builder who developed a more collaborative spirit among researchers.
"His style is very much to throw ideas out there, to kind of shoot from the hip, you might say," says Neil A. Duffie, a mechanical engineering professor and former graduate student of Bollinger. "He would leave it up to colleagues to throw out the bad ones, and capitalize on the good ones."
Bollinger, 63, earned his bachelors and doctoral degrees at UW-Madison, becoming a mechanical engineering professor here in 1961. He is a two-time Fulbright Award winner with research expertise in robotics. His 1963 invention of a robotic welder, which controlled motion in five directions, helped Milwaukee's A.O. Smith Company revolutionize the manufacture of automobile frames.
He also conducted research on industrial noise control--a talent that proved useful when he was chair of mechanical engineering. He converted an entire office wall into a sound-absorbing panel to help muffle street and construction noise from University Avenue.
Bollinger and his wife, Heidi, share a passion for sailing. He's regarded as a talented yachtsman, and owns a 40-foot sloop that he sails on the Atlantic coast along Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He says he's planning to trade in the boat for a larger one with more comfortable living quarters.
After retiring as dean, Bollinger will stay involved in developing the new Engineering Centers Building, a massive project that should be completed by 2002. The building will be a major boon to students, providing space for student organizations and student innovation. "The building will reflect the way students should engage with the world."
Bollinger seems most proud of the roll-up-your-sleeves ethic he has helped foster in the college, and of students who follow their own ideas. When asked what separates a garden-variety engineering graduate from a future innovator, he instantly retorted: "There are no garden-variety engineering graduates."
By Brian Mattmiller, UW News and Public Affairs
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Date last modified: Tuesday, 06-Apr-1999 12:00:00 CDT
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