First-Hand:History of an ASEE Fellow -- Curtis J. Tompkins


History of an ASEE Fellow

Curtis J. Tompkins[edit | edit source]

May 22, 2018

Birthplace: Roanoke, Virginia

Birth Date: July 14, 1942

Family[edit | edit source]

My father, Joseph Buford Tompkins, was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1910, and grew up in the nearby town of Vinton. My mother, Rebecca Louise Johnston Tompkins, was born in Moneta (Bedford County) Virginia in 1913, and moved when she was six years old with her parents to Roanoke. My parents met while studying at the National Business College in Roanoke in the early 1930s and were married in 1938. In 1942, I was born in Roanoke; my brother Edward Deal Tompkins was born in 1946; our brother Joseph Buford Tompkins, Jr. was born in 1950. Our parents were descended from English and Scottish immigrants who arrived in the vicinity of Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s. For many generations, most of our ancestors were farmers in Virginia. A notable exception was Reverend Rowland Jones, my seventh Great Grandfather, the first Rector of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg (1674-1688); he was also Great Grandfather of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (wife of George Washington).

In January 1964, Mary Katherine (“Kathy”) Hasle and I met in Blacksburg, Virginia and were married on September 5 of that year. Her father was Harold Hasle (a mechanical engineer) whose parents were Norwegian immigrants who settled in Watertown, Massachusetts in the late 1880s. Her mother was Mary Katherine Thacker, whose ancestors were of English descent. They met in Washington, D.C. where he worked for the U.S. Army and she was organist at Union Methodist Church, two blocks from the White House. We have three children: Robert Kiel Tompkins (Washington & Lee University and the W&L Law School), Joseph Harold Tompkins (The Eastman School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music), and Rebecca Reid Tompkins Philips (West Virginia University, Michigan Technological University, Radford University, and St. Scholastica University). We have four grandchildren.

Education[edit | edit source]

My brothers and I attended the public schools in Vinton, as had our father. We graduated from William Byrd High School where we were active in a variety of student organizations, most particularly the band. All of us were also very active in our church and in Junior Achievement (JA) in Roanoke. One of my JA advisors encouraged me to study electrical engineering at Virginia Tech and work as a cooperative program (co-op) student with his company (Appalachian Power Company in Roanoke) as a way to pay the cost of attending college. I followed his advice and also worked for the U.S. Post Office in Vinton during Christmas breaks each of my five years of undergraduate school. Back in those days (1960-65) the relatively low cost of tuition, room, board, books and fees was such that with a few scholarships and my earnings from the Power Company and Post Office, I was able to afford to go to college. I also earned some “spending money” playing in two dance bands at Virginia Tech.

I was a member of the Virginia Tech Regimental Band and Corps of Cadets during 1960-64, and learned leadership and organizational discipline skills that were important to my career development. We marched in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade in January 1961. I was commander of the Regimental Band in 1963-64, and we led the opening day parade of the New York World’s Fair in April 1964. I transferred from electrical engineering to industrial engineering in my third year and went on to earn masters and doctoral degrees in Industrial and Systems Engineering. Kathy graduated from Virginia Tech in 1964 and continued on for her master’s degree in Clothing, Textiles and Related Arts. I completed my undergraduate degree in 1965 and went to work for E.I. DuPont in Richmond, Virginia.

In 1966, DuPont generously permitted me to enroll in graduate studies at Virginia Tech in a modified co-op program, working as a member of a pilot plant team for the company in Richmond and West Groton, Massachusetts, and attending school in Blacksburg every other quarter, completing my master’s degree in 1967. What I learned at DuPont was a very valuable part of my education, thanks to the challenging work assignments and mentors there.

In 1967, I left DuPont and began my doctoral program at Virginia Tech, then accepted an offer from Georgia Tech in 1968 to continue my graduate work in Atlanta while serving as an Instructor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering headed by Dr. Robert Lehrer, teaching two courses a quarter and also as a staff member of the Health Systems Research Center headed by Dr. Harold Smalley, coordinating master’s degree students who were supported by federally funded traineeships, applying industrial engineering to hospitals in the Atlanta area.

Kathy and I moved to Atlanta in March 1968. Our first child was born there in May of that year; our second was born in January 1970. I was paid $10,000 a year by Georgia Tech while I earned my PhD degree. We were able to buy a modest house for $16,000 near campus. As with my undergraduate and masters programs, I was able to work my way through the doctoral program, thanks to supportive leaders like Dr. Lehrer and Dr. Smalley, my super-supportive wife, and my encouraging dissertation advisor, Dr. Ed Unger (who went on to be the head of the IE Department at Auburn University).

Employment[edit | edit source]

When I was born in 1942, my father was office manager for the Vinton Coal Company (supplier of fuel for many of the homes in Vinton in the 1940s). He and a business partner purchased a retail hardware store two blocks from the coal company when I was in the sixth grade. When I was in the seventh grade, I began working for him after school, on Saturdays and during the summers and continued to do that until I went to college. My early duties were sweeping the floor at the end of each day, washing the large windows that wrapped around the front of the store, straightening and dusting the merchandise, and doing a variety of odd jobs. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I was carrying large bags of fertilizer and cement, threading galvanized pipe, cutting window glass, weighing nails, and, of course, continuing to sweep the floor and wash the windows. In the ninth grade, I was assisting customers, helping my father take annual inventory (which solidified my knowledge of every single thing in the store), and pretty much doing most of what one does when working in a hardware store. I learned many lessons from my father that I have used throughout my life! His gentlemanly, humble, and friendly demeanor, amazing work ethic, and customer-satisfaction driven approach became ingrained in me by osmosis. He knew each customer by name. He taught by example. Looking back, I realize that working for and with my father during my formative years provided a solid foundation for the remainder of my life.

Likewise, my mother exhibited a remarkable work ethic. She was employed by First National Exchange Bank of Virginia throughout her working career, first in the trust department and later in the commercial note department. In both departments, she met and dealt with community and business leaders and knew each by name. For our family, she cooked, did the laundry, cleaned the house, and participated enthusiastically in the high school Band Boosters and our church’s Sunday School and other activities. She was a person of deep spiritual faith, and that had a lasting impact on me. When I was in high school, I seriously considered studying to become a Methodist minister. Frankly, the practical necessity of having to pay most of my college costs tipped the scale toward my decision to be a co-op student in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech. I fell in love with teaching at Georgia Tech during 1968-71. The inspiration that I had received from many of my teachers in Vinton and professors in Blacksburg prepared me to be successful when I was given the opportunity to teach at Georgia Tech. In particular, Marvin H. Agee, John A. White and Paul E. Torgersen at Virginia Tech were excellent role models. Bob Lehrer had me teach introductory undergraduate courses in operations research; Harold Smalley had me teach introductory courses in hospital industrial engineering and medical terminology. Harold also required me to work as a hospital industrial engineer at South Fulton Hospital in 1968-69. When I completed my PhD degree in 1971, Harold offered me a full-time position to stay with the Health Systems Research Center. I also received a tempting offer to go to work for a company that was developing a hospital industrial engineering practice in several major hospitals. I received an attractive offer from the Department of Industrial Engineering at Ohio State University, and for a few weeks that appeared to be where Kathy and our boys and I were going. Then an unusual and totally unexpected opportunity at the Graduate School of Business Administration (later named The Darden School) at the University of Virginia (UVA) came to me when my former Georgia Tech PhD classmate Bob Landel called to say that UVA had an opening that I should consider. In short, Dr. Charles Abbott, founding dean of the Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business Administration hired me as an assistant professor in September 1971, to teach quantitative analysis and related subjects to MBA students, most of whom were approximately my age, using the case method developed most prominently at the Harvard Business School.

In 1972, I was promoted to Associate Professor and made head of the Quantitative Analysis Area as well as coordinator of academic computing for the business school. This latter responsibility included my participation with my counterparts from several other American, European and Canadian graduate business schools that were using Hewlett Packard (HP) series 2000 computers in their MBA programs. HP sponsored and paid for our meeting annually to collaboratively develop shared software and related materials. In successive years, we met at The London Business School, Stanford’s Graduate Business School, INSEAD in France, The University of Chicago, UVA and the University of Montreal. This unusual opportunity to learn about other excellent business schools and work collaboratively in academic software development in the 1970s broadened my perspective in unexpected ways. Simultaneously, Dean Abbott asked me to collaborate with economics professor Leslie Grayson to develop and offer a second-year MBA elective course on Management of Public Sector and Nonprofit Organizations, based in part on my experience of working with hospitals. The course became very popular with MBA-JD (law) students, and we published a book by the same title.

The MBA Class of 1973 elected me as one of two faculty marshals for their graduation commencement; the other marshal was Paul Hammaker, retired CEO of Marshall Field & Company. That honor meant much to me, in large part because it was bestowed by my students when I was approaching 31 years of age, and it reinforced my confidence that I was doing well in an environment (a graduate business school using the case method of learning) that was new to me. The MBA Class of 1977 likewise chose me as one of its two faculty marshals.

In 1977, a new door opened, and I became head of the industrial engineering department at West Virginia University. Three years later, I was appointed dean of engineering at WVU, a position I held until I became president of Michigan Technological University in 1991. I retired as President Emeritus in 2004 and a few months later became a Senior Executive Service Officer with the U.S. Department of Transportation. I retired from government service on August 31, 2011.

Government Service[edit | edit source]

At the invitation of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, I joined the U.S. Department of Transportation in October 2004, as Director of Management Improvement Initiatives at the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became a Senior Executive Service Officer, and was named Director of the Volpe Center in January 2005, the position I held until I moved to Washington, D.C. in September 2007 to become Director of the University Transportation Centers Program supporting transportation education, research and outreach at 125 universities. My UTC Program leadership continued under Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for whom I also served simultaneously in a variety of other roles, including acting Director of the Transportation Safety Institute in Oklahoma City and acting Associate Administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

The Volpe Center was created in 1970 to assist the various parts of the U.S. Department of Transportation which had been assembled under one umbrella in 1967 from existing federal transportation agencies, dealing with systems development in highways, rail, aviation, coast guard, and other aspects of transportation. When I arrived in 2004, the Center (often referred to now simply as “Volpe”) had about 550 federal employees (many of whom held PhD and Masters degrees in engineering, science, economics, human factors, mathematics, computer science, and other fields) and about 1,200 contract employees with similar academic and experiential credentials. Volpe had annual expenditures of about $350 million paid for entirely with fee-for-service payments to Volpe by the various “client agencies” (e.g., FAA, FHWA, FRA, NHTSA, et al) within U.S. DOT and select other clients. Client satisfaction was an essential driving force at the Volpe Center. In 2009, I received the Research and Innovative Technology Administrator’s Leadership Award.

ASEE Activities[edit | edit source]

In 1977, Paul Torgersen encouraged me to be active in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), and I followed his advice. Beginning in 1977, I was continuously active with ASEE, beginning with the IE Division which I chaired in 1980-81, and the Engineering Deans Council of which I was a member during 1980-91. I was a member of the search and screening committee for executive director of ASEE in 1985-86, and during 1985-87 served variously as First Vice President, VP for Public Affairs and member of the Board of Directors, Chairman of the Projects Board, member of the Finance Committee and the Executive Committee.

I served as ASEE President-elect in 1989-90 and President and Chairman of the Board in 1990-91. In 1993 I became a Fellow of ASEE and received the ASEE Centennial Medallion. I also had the privilege of presiding at ASEE’s 100th anniversary gathering of the Order of Tattered Purple Badges (past presidents of ASEE) at the University of Illinois in June 1993, at which a large number of the living ASEE past presidents participated.

My family attended several annual ASEE conferences, beginning in Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1977. Those occasions were annual reunions of our children and their friends from previous ASEE conferences. ASEE appointed me to be its representative on the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) during 1981-86, and I led ABET teams to two universities annually during that time.

I was a member of a delegation of 25 engineering educators representing ASEE and ABET invited to visit the Peoples Republic of China during November 1-21, 1984 under the auspices of the People to People Program. We visited 12 universities in four major cities. Subsequently during 1998-2003, in my role as president of Michigan Technological University, I visited the University of Science and Technology in Beijing several times and was made an honorary professor at that institution on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2002.

I was a member of a delegation of 12 American engineering deans representing ASEE and supported by the National Science Foundation to visit 12 technological universities in the USSR in November 1990. A result of that initiative was the signing of a memorandum of understanding and cooperation between ASEE and the USSR’s counterpart association of polytechnic institutions.

Other Activities[edit | edit source]

The longstanding Latin motto of Virginia Tech is Ut Prosim, translated to mean “That I May Serve.” In many ways my unusual career path did not follow standard practice, but it did resonate in its own somewhat unique way with Ut Prosim. I was continually given opportunities to be of service and often to be a leader. I have been blessed with a loving and supportive family. I have had friends who pointed me toward opportunities that I might not have seen on my own. At the same time, I have walked away from some opportunities that I believe would have been good and exciting. As a good friend once told me, you can do anything, just not everything.

As an industrial engineering student in the early 1960s at Virginia Tech, I was encouraged to be active in what was then called the American Institute of Industrial Engineers (later the Institute of Industrial Engineers). I was continually active in IIE even when I was working at the business school at UVA, and held several national offices including President in 1988-89. I became an IIE Fellow and Life Member in 1989 and received IIE’s Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Distinguished Industrial Engineering Award in 1998. In 2012, I received the Marvin H. Agee Distinguished Alumni Award from Virginia Tech’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the highest honor bestowed by that department.

I served on the advisory committee of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering during 1988-91, and chaired the subcommittee on plans and planning for the directorate. At the national level, I served as a member of the Association of Governing Boards Council of Presidents (1996-2004), of the Council on Competitiveness (1997-2004), and of the Board of Directors of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (1996-99). At the state level in West Virginia, I was a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Land Corporation of West Virginia (1980-89), Co-chair of the Governor’s Regional Partnership for Progress Council (1989-90), and member of the steering committee of the West Virginia Conference on Environment (1986-89). In Michigan, I was on the Board of Directors of the Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (1997-2003), member of the Governor’s Workforce Commission (1996-2002), member of the Board of Directors of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (1999-2004), and member of the Michigan Higher Education Assistance Authority and the Michigan Higher Education Student Loan Authority (2002-04). For three consecutive years, my fellow Michigan university presidents elected me to serve as Chair of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan (1996-98). I became a Fellow of the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers (MSPE) in 1998 and a Fellow of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in 2003.

Philosophy of Engineering Education[edit | edit source]

My philosophy of engineering education has evolved from my days as a student until today, based on what I observed and learned from students, colleagues, mentors, role models, ASEE conferences, and a wide variety of other influences. I began in the “slide rule era” in 1960 at Virginia Tech and participated in the accelerating development of ways to teach, learn and create during the next 50 years at DuPont, Georgia Tech, the University pf Virginia, West Virginia University, Michigan Tech, and U.S. DOT until I retired in 2011. My early co-op experience at Appalachian Power Company blended contemporaneously with my undergraduate academic program at Virginia Tech provided opportunities to practice what I was learning at the university and to have insights while at school based on what I experienced in the world of practical affairs. Likewise, my co-op program approach to my master’s degree with DuPont and Virginia Tech provided synergy that made learning and practicing very productive.

At West Virginia University I worked with Dr. Jack Byrd during 1977-91 to create, develop and support the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and Development (CESD) through which students work on projects for West Virginia companies, solving real problems using what they learn on campus. At Michigan Tech during 1991-2004, I encouraged and supported creation and development of the Engineering Enterprise Program in which second-, third- and fourth-year students form multidisciplinary teams (“enterprises”) managed by the students themselves with faculty and industry advisors, to solve real problems posed by sponsoring corporations. Results include many students applying successfully for intellectual property protection and many companies testifying that important problems have been solved.

For more than 40 years, the U.S. DOT’s University Transportation Centers Program has supported education and research aimed at solving real transportation problems. As a result, thousands of students at hundreds of universities have benefited, and our nation’s transportation systems have been remarkably strengthened. As Director of the UTC Program during 2007-11, I saw firsthand how this purposeful problem-solving approach to education and research works very well.

And so my philosophy of engineering education can be partially captured in the motto we coined at Michigan Tech: “We prepare our students to create the future.” We do that by demonstrating to the students the relevance of what we want them to learn relative to real problems and challenges, fostering creative thinking as part of the problem-solving process. And we never stop innovating how we conduct engineering education. As someone once famously said, “Self-satisfaction is a terminal disease of certainty.” Continuous experimentation and innovation are essential, and I believe that much of that can come from the students.

It is important to foster a global perspective as future generations in our colleges and universities prepare to lead and improve our nation and world. My experiences growing up in the 1940s and 50s in a small town surrounded by friends and families that were mostly similar to me and my family (and before “social media” as it is called today existed) were different from what my grandchildren are experiencing. I try to imagine what their grandchildren may experience in their lifetimes.

Two things in particular strike me: (1) The abiding importance of solid personal values, constructive guiding principles, generous spirit and love for our fellow human beings, and (2) The long-term strategic future of our planet depends on leaders and citizens who are well educated and comprehend that our future generations’ welfare in the millennia ahead will in all likelihood hinge on mutual dependency, collaboration and cooperation on a global scale.

A growing challenge for those intimately involved in crafting and providing engineering education has increasingly been and will continue to be, beyond the technical and scientific aspects of engineering, that we must weave a global fabric that includes understanding and appreciating that there is a rich diversity of cultures, beliefs, perspectives, needs and aspirations of those who are not necessarily products of the same conditions that we have experienced and embraced. The universities with which I have been associated have students, faculty and alumni from dozens of countries. We should regularly remind ourselves that “Unto those to whom much has been given, much is required.”