News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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July 25, 2013

New Rose president says job is ‘opportunity of lifetime’

Conwell at post since May 1

TERRE HAUTE — Asked about his first three months on the job, Rose-Hulman’s new president, Jim Conwell, has a minor objection.

“Let’s not minimize my time here. … I’ve been here 85 days,” he jests.

With experience as both a global engineering executive and engineering educator, Conwell began his new duties as the 15th president of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology on May 1.

“For me, this is the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said in an interview at his office. “I can’t believe how much fun I’m having. The people are just great. The commitment they have to undergraduate education is everything I hoped and more. I just think this is a great time to be at Rose-Hulman.”

Asked his impression of Rose-Hulman, he described it as “an incredible collection of talented people focused on ensuring the total success of the student who comes here.”

All employees, from the people who cuts grass to the faculty who teach class, are dedicated to students’ success, he said.

He described Terre Haute as “a neat place, and the people are really friendly.” He’s learning about things he didn’t know much about, including the Indianapolis 500, which he attended, and the Brickyard 400, where he’s headed this weekend.

His wife, Angela, a mechanical engineer, has found Terre Haute to be “almost identical to her hometown of Paris, Tenn. She is incredibly comfortable with the community.”

He and his wife live near Deming Park in a residence provided by the college.

He’s spent the past three months, or 85 days, getting to know people on campus. His goal has been “to find out what their Rose story is, how long they have been here and how they view how they contribute to the success of students.”

He’s had lunch with housekeeping staff, for example, who view their role as providing guidance to students and serving as “mom away from mom,” Conwell said.

Asked what attracted him to the Rose-Hulman post, he said, “It is the No. 1 undergraduate engineering school in the country.”

While he was happy in his prior job running a large engineering company in the Detroit area, “as time moved on, I became more and more concerned there are some issues that our education system is going to have to learn to adjust to,” he said.

The nation has a shortage of capable engineers, he said. “I think this is an opportunity for me to leverage some of my past experience to help future generations of engineers be successful,” he said. “And what better place to do that at than Rose-Hulman?”

Going one step farther, he believes there is an educational crisis in the U.S., and the country is not educating enough scientists, engineers and mathematicians. In Michigan, for example, thousands of engineering and technical jobs can’t be filled because of a shortage of qualified applicants, he has stated.

“I think there is a crisis. If you look at the problems we are being asked to solve in our society, they are becoming more and more complex,” he said.

“How do you adjust to the impacts of things like global warming? How do you adjust to more severe storms that occur in places that are not quite used to having them? Hurricane Sandy is an example,” he said.

He hopes to be part of the solution, and part of that involves preparing students for a world that is changing.

“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve worked around the world with some of the best companies in the world,” he said. He knows the qualities of successful engineers.

Students “must be prepared to work in a world that is rapidly changing to a global environment, a multi-cultural environment, an environment in which diversity is respected and even encouraged because of the complexity of issues you are addressing,” he said.  

Asked his priorities for Rose-Hulman, he said, “We’re going to be the best in the world. We’re going to be entrepreneurial. We’re going to be global.”

Whether that will require a lot of change at Rose-Hulman, he said, “I’m not sure. That’s yet to be determined. I think the challenge here is to be open to that possibility.”

He noted that information today “moves very quickly and cheaply. We have to take advantage of that.”

He said 200 students this summer are enrolled in online courses offered by Rose-Hulman, and he anticipates that will continue to grow.

He’s suggested delivering courses to alumni who need continuing education to maintain engineering certification. It’s another way to stay connected with alumni and provide them high-quality continuing education, he said.

Conwell has attended meetings of local economic development organizations and the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce. He’s met with leaders of Terre Haute’s other colleges and universities.

The Conwells have two adult children, Anne, 23, an intensive care nurse in Grand Rapids, and James, 20, who will be a junior at Michigan State and who wants to be an oncologist. James has been shadowing some Terre Haute doctors this summer.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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