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Home : Volume 25 : Spring 1999 :
A deanship ends its 18 year sail:
Bollinger looks back on his years as the college's leader

John Bollinger
John Bollinger
John Bollinger
John Bollinger

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:

  • Engineering Hall: This building, which was in reality only partially finished, received a $16 million addition. Groundbreaking was held April 19, 1991, and the project was completed in January 1993. The project added 70,000 square feet of space and two new state-of-the-art auditoria. A bronze sculpture by J. Seward Johnson, "Between Classes," was added to the entryway in 1994.

  • Engineering Mall: Completed in 1994, this project created much-needed greenspace in the center of the college. Includes the sculpture/ fountain Máquina, a work by UW-Madison alumnus William Conrad Severson, and an underground laboratory to facilitate computer control of the fountain's water, air and lighting features.

  • Highway Lab: Remodeled to include computer laboratories for Computer-Aided Engineering Center, as well as a computer classroom. A $2 million facility for applied microelectronics, including equipment for fabricating integrated circuits was also added to this building.

  • Materials Science and Engineering Building: $4.6 million renovation project, completed in 1998, added new high-tech labs for microscopy, and a computerized classroom. Also includes an enclosed walkway between Engineering Research Building and MS&E.

Administrative changes:

  • Computer-Aided Engineering created: In 1982, the college's Computer Aided Engineering Center was formed to "organize and manage all college computer facilities and services." CAE's Model Advanced Facility opened in 1994.

  • Engineering Extension: On July 1, 1985 the Department of Engineering Extension & Applied Science officially left UW-Extension and joined the college as the Department of Engineering Professional Development.

  • TQM: The College of Engineering and the School of Business proposal was one of eight winners of the national TQM University Challenge in 1992. The focus of the project was to adapt quality management concepts to business and engineering curricula. The university's industry partner in the project was Procter & Gamble.

Educational changes:

  • Manufacturing Systems Engineering MS program: Began in fall, 1983 on an experimental basis and approved by the Board of Regents in 1984, program quickly blossomed to meet the growing needs of the manufacturing industry.

  • Construction Engineering and Management Program: This degree option, which received funding from the construction industry, was first offered in September, 1991.

  • Freshman Design Course: In fall 1995, the college offered its first Freshman Design Course to expose first-year students to the engineering design and teamwork process. The students work on project ideas supplied by business, government or individuals.


  • Engine Research Center: In 1986, the Army Research Office announced that the UW-Madison Internal Combustion Engine Laboratory would receive a grant designating it the Army's "Center of Excellence in Advanced Propulsion Systems." The Engine Research Center was established.

  • Research expenditure growth: The college's total research expenditures passed the $50 million mark for the first time in 1992. (Research expenditures total $63.5 million for 1997-98.)

  • WCSAR: The college received a $5 million grant from NASA to form the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, dedicated to the commercial development of space-related technology.

  • New materials center: In September 1996 the college received a $10.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation for the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center on Nanostructural Materials and Interfaces.

Off-Timetable Learning:

  • Writing prize: In April 1992, the college awarded its first ever Steuber Prize for Excellence in Writing, an annual competition for engineering undergraduates with a $5,000 first prize. This competition is sponsored by UW-Madison alumnus William Steuber.

  • UW-TEC: In 1992, the UW Technology Enterprise Cooperative (UW-TEC) is formed. The brainchild of Dean Bollinger, it creates opportunities for UW-Madison students, faculty and staff to experience the technology entrepreneurship process and learn about the formation of technology-based enterprises.

  • Inventing competition: In 1995, the college holds the first annual The Schoofs Prize for Creativity competition for undergraduates. The contest challenges students to create an original patentable process or object.

  • Technology Enterprise Competition: The College of Engineering and the School of Business co-sponsor the first G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition in 1998. The contest challenges undergraduates to come up with the best business plan for a viable technology based enterprise.

  • FutureCar: The college's Team Paradigm and their modified Ford Taurus achieve a first-place tie in the national FutureCar Challenge competition. The year-long contest featured student teams from around the country creating the next generation of super-fuel-efficient vehicles.

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.
Bollinger in hardhat

"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.
Bollinger with FutureCar

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 by tractor

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.
John Bollinger

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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