Q&A: Dean Tom
Q: Having moved literally from the west coast to the east coat, what are your impressions of Durham and North Carolina so far?
Dean Tom: I am rapidly falling love with North Carolina. At first, I wasn't used to the density of trees. Maybe, it was growing up with Hansel and Gretl stories, but the woods sort of made me nervous. But now, I can't believe how beautiful my commute home is on a 2-lane country road just 10 minutes from the campus and major community centers. And it's great that you can leave at rush hour and there isn't one!
Stephanie and I and the kids are renting a house near Jordan Lake. It is a great kid community and the kids love that there is a pool and lots of space to run around the house that they didn't have in Manhattan Beach. Stephanie and I like that we can go waterskiing 5 minutes away.
I was telling Dick and Cindy Brodhead at dinner the other night that there is a word in the Greek language that doesn't exist in English called "Filoxenia" -- literally from filos for friend and xenos for stranger, meaning friend to strangers. I always told people that this was a special part of Greek culture that didn't exist in American culture in the same way; hence as the linguisitic faculty tell us, there is ‘not the word.’ But here the word hospitality is not quite enough, so the word southern hospitality is needed to express what it is really like. I think this is something special and the NC counterpart to filoxenia.
So far the most unusual food I have tried is fried pickles. I hear they are surprisingly addictive but I don't see the need to sign up for a 10-step plan to wean myself off them yet.
It is too bad there are so many steps and rough stones at Duke … I think I will have to leave my skateboard up on the wall as a plaque rather than transportation.
Q: What has been the most unusual thing you've done since coming to Duke?
Dean Tom: I would say that the first two months on the job has been a wild ride ... literally. In fact, I received a tour of Duke and Pratt from the sky via the Duke Helicopter courtesy of Professor Roni Avissar and a ride in the Navy's newest Virginia class submarine as part of a nuclear engineering career recruiting meeting. I got hooked on the flying somehow, and have now had 3 flying lessons in a Cessna 172 after the trip with Prof. Avissar.
Q: If you had to choose, what is the one piece of advice you would give an aspiring engineer?
Dean Tom: It depends on what level. For incoming students, I encourage them to take advantage of all the opportunities they have here at Duke outside the classroom. I think by stretching themselves through international education experiences, extracurricular clubs and teams, programs that let them use their engineering skills like Duke Engage and Duke Startup Challenge, original research, minors or interdisciplinary certificates in widely distributed fields, students giving themselves a leg up in the highly competitive global economy. It is through these broadening experiences that they will become the leaders and innovators of the next century and will be prepared to solve the complex problems facing society.
Later on in their life, I might have different advice. I believe in a work hard, play hard ethic. So balance is very important. But at these early stages, the harder you work, the more opportunity you will have later.
Q: What drives you? Why did you want to become the Dean of the Pratt School?
Dean Tom: My life's career has been devoted to higher education. I am terribly proud of the role higher education plays in enriching the lives of men and women, enabling to realize their potential as humans and opening the doors to meaningful careers. Duke gave me the opportunity to realize these ambitions on a higher plane. The many hats I have worn in my previous roles as Professor, Associate Dean, Vice Provost and faculty president all seemed to be leading me to this position and its multi-dimensional challenges and opportunities. But it was not just Duke, but Dean of Engineering that makes this my dream job. Engineers are about applying knowledge in service of society. That's what drew me from physics to engineering in the first place. And when I saw that this was at the heart of Duke's strategic plan, I knew this was where I wanted to be.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your first year as Dean?
Dean Tom: We have so many strengths here at Duke -- top faculty who are ambitious and passionate about close student-faculty interaction, the best students in the country, strengths in the surrounding disciplines that are so important to solving the most important problems we face as a society -- that we can expect nothing less than to be an equal peer among the very best engineering schools in the nation. My hope is to take advantage of those strengths and the momentum generated by Deans Kristina Johnson and Robert Clark to help move Pratt to the next level. I recently outlined 10 Initiatives to the faculty that we will pursue in the coming year that will move us toward the realization of our vision.
So what I hope to accomplish the first year is to set in motion these initiatives that will take us to the next level within 5 years.
First among these is an expanded masters program, the introduction of a 4+1 program to encourage undergraduates to earn a BS and MS in five years and the introduction of distance delivery for working professionals to take our masters programs. The faculty and I are working on creating exciting new MS degrees that are distinctive to Duke, taking advantage of our strengths, and that one could only get here -- interdisciplinary degrees in areas like imaging and biomaterials that combine strengths in different departments or combined degrees with our outstanding business, medical and law schools.
The second big initiative this year is the hosting of a major national meeting called the Grand Challenges Summit. This two day event on March 2-3 will bring scholars and thought leaders as well as students from around the country and world to Duke to address the most important challenges facing society in the 21st century -- the topics come from a recent National Academy of Engineering panel and span areas of energy, environment, health and computing. Duke has teamed with the National Academy of Engineering, USC and Olin College and is joined by other top schools to achieve two ambitious and original goals: one is to engage students in these challenges by shaping the curriculum to prepare future leaders to solve these grand challenges and two is to be the catalyst for a national conversation that must take place across the disciplines, not just between engineers, but between engineers and policy makers, social scientists, legal scholars, business leaders and humanists.
Q: What do you do in your spare time (do you have any?)?
Dean Tom: My hobbies mostly involve water. I was a swimmer and water polo player in college and still swim pretty regularly (right now with Durham Area Masters Swimming). Sailing has long been a favorite hobby and my favorite vacation is to bareboat charter in interesting places from Greece to Tahiti and the Caribbean. Next May we will be sailing The Grenadines. Here in NC, we are looking forward to taking advantage of what this beautiful state has to offer -- I think that will be a lot of waterskiing (we towed my wife Stephanie's boat from Oklahoma and she is the real expert here), maybe biking and riding my motorcycle and flying.
I also like to play bridge, although when I started playing in college with some guy buddies, we called it 'poker night' because playing bridge didn't sound right. But in fact, I am bad at poker and it is Stephanie who gets together with the girls for real poker nights!