Courtesy of Cornell University

Dean Collins has worked at Cornell for over 18 years, he served as the dean of the College of Engineering for the last 10

February 12, 2020

Departing Engineering Dean Talks Accomplishments, Discusses Succession

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After 18 years as a faculty member and ten years as Dean of the College of Engineering, Prof. Lance Collins, mechanical and aerospace engineering, will leave Cornell to serve as the executive director of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus.

Collins — the first African American dean at Cornell — has been a faculty member since 2002.

While Collins’ departure from the engineering college makes him the second dean in just two weeks to announce an exit from the University, he stressed that it was a standard move planned beforehand.

“Cornell has a practice of deans serving for two terms,” said Collins, noting that a term was for five years. “I was thinking I would step back onto the faculty and continue as a regular faculty member.”

Collins also commented on the recent revolving door of the University’s deans — one which, in recent years, has seen top academic officials from Art, Architecture and Planning, College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell Tech, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences leave Cornell or seek higher positions within the University.

“I don’t see it as a negative thing,” Collins said. “I actually do think it’s great to get somebody new into the job and bring new ideas and different perspectives.”

Collins was approached by Virginia Tech towards the end of his term, when he was offered the position of first-ever vice president and executive director of its newly formed Innovation Campus.

As the engineering college dean, Collins played a central role in the University’s bid for Roosevelt Island as the site of the Cornell Tech campus in 2011. With Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus — an offshoot aimed at expanding the school’s footprint in STEM-related fields — founded for similar reasons as Cornell Tech, Collins said that his new position would be a natural transition, incorporating his existing skills and past experience developing a tech campus.   

“I’m stepping into a role that’s not so different,” Collins said. “Virginia Tech is launching their equivalent to Cornell Tech in some ways, and I think the experiences that I gained over the course of those years [working] with Cornell Tech will be very helpful to me.“

Cornell is currently reviewing potential replacement candidates, with a successor to be announced before Collins’ term expires on June 30 of this year. A search committee led by Provost Michael Kotlikoff will select Collins’ successor.

While the committee does not take into account the opinions of current deans, Collins is reassured that there are “great candidates.”

One of the most notable changes Collins presided over was an increase in female enrollment in the engineering college from 33 percent in 2010, when he began his tenure, to approximately 50 percent now. The national average of women enrolled in engineering undergraduate programs is 23 percent, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

“It’s really without hesitation the 50/50 male female ratio in the undergraduate population … despite other things that were really amazing and fantastic,” Collins said, who similarly presided over a doubling of underrepresented minorities in the engineering college from eight percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2020.

He credited Cornell’s success in expanding diversity under his tenure to the commitment of his colleagues, who he said have adopted “diversity as excellence” as a fundamental maxim for the college’s future programming and growth.

“One thing I can say about Cornell faculty is that if you can show how one thing you’re doing is going to lead to the college being stronger when they’re with you,“ Collins said.

Expressing bittersweet, though hopeful, feelings about his departure, Collins said it would be “very hard to leave just the incredible quality of Cornell.”

“While I’m excited about this new opportunity,” he said, “I will always have Cornell in my heart.“