Debra Larson doesn’t use a pocket protector, wear glasses or take notes on graph paper.
At least not anymore.
Larson, a former civil engineering professor and the associate vice provost for academic affairs at Northern Arizona University, was named the new dean of the Cal Poly College of Engineering by Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong on June 24, and although she doesn’t fit the stereotypical engineer mold, Larson said she has been interested in engineering since high school and has made a career of the subject.
“I grew up in a mining town on the upper peninsula of Michigan, which helped to form my interest in technology and engineering,” she said.
This interest was also due in part to her close ties with many families who were involved in the mines as miners, professional geologists and engineers.
Since her family was closely connected to Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech), Larson said she was influenced by engineering students at a young age.
“My early impressions of seeing students outside at (Michigan) Tech running survey equipment helped to cement the ‘Ah-ha!’ moment,” she said. “You mean I could have a good career solving problems while being outside at the same time? What a deal.”
Larson also attended one of the first Women In Engineering summer camps in the nation at Michigan Tech between her junior and senior years of high school, which she said confirmed her ultimate interest in civil engineering. She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the same college.
However, upon graduating, Larson said she was surprised by the high expectations in her chosen field.
“I came from a highly regarded engineering university at the time I graduated,” Larson said. “I realized I wasn’t as well prepared as I needed to be for the industry, and I was shocked.”
In response, Larson said she became overly excited about educating engineers to be ready for the engineering profession.
“The world is changing so rapidly,” she said. “Engineers need to learn to communicate across many disciplines.”
Larson also said a good engineering education forces students to get out of their comfort zones.
“Engineers have become very very good at working in isolated spaces,” she said.
Larson won’t be isolated in her new job as dean of the Cal Poly College of Engineering though. The department has recently undergone changes following the request for former dean of engineering Mohammad Noori to step down, which left vice provost for programs and planning Erling Smith as the acting dean of the college.
Mechanical engineering senior George Cummings said he thought hiring the new dean was positive news for the Cal Poly College of Engineering.
“I’m glad they actually hired a dean,” Cummings said. “We haven’t had a dean for a long time.”
Larson began work on Aug. 22, and took over Cal Poly’s largest college of approximately 5,000 students and 13 degree programs.
“What attracted me to Cal Poly engineering is that they’re already so successful,” Larson said.
She said this is very rare among public institutions.
“Most of the top-rated programs are private,” she said.
Larson arrived in San Luis Obispo with her husband, Gale Wilberger, and their dog, Tenner, on Aug. 15 after tying up loose ends at Northern Arizona University, she said.
“(I was) focusing my efforts on finishing my job (in Arizona) first,” Larson said.
Her daughter, Holland Vlieg, who currently works in engineering management, and her son, Shay Wilberger, who is studying engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson, will not be moving with her to the Central Coast.
“My husband is from near the (southern) Oregon coast … and he is happy to get back to the West Coast,” Larson said. “Me, I’m a skier and love winters.”
Larson said she describes herself as the social equivalent of kinetic energy while on campus: constantly in motion.
“I’m pretty high energy, and I’m known to run around a lot,” she said.
Karen Pugliesi, vice provost for academic affairs at Northern Arizona University, said she was fond of Larson’s work ethic.
“She works very hard,” Pugliesi said. “She’s one of the most talented leaders on this campus, and Cal Poly is very lucky to have her.”
College of Liberal Arts dean Linda Halisky was nominated as chair of the search committee for the new dean of engineering, which began its process in January by researching a pool of applicants from across the country.
“It’s a very high-level search,” Halisky said. “You want to be sure everyone who should know about it knows about it … We thought she rose to the top.”
The committee identified three main requirements when looking for applicants: industry experience, administration experience in engineering and being current on new ideas in engineering education.
Larson met all of these requirements, and is even planning to spend her time at Cal Poly developing several new ideas of her own in engineering education.
Larson also said she has three main goals for her career at Cal Poly.
Firstly, she said she is interested in tying Cal Poly’s Learn By Doing approach into the department’s focus on innovation. Secondly, Larson said she hopes to help increase the collaboration between students and faculty, as well as between different departments and concentrations. Finally, Larson said she wants to “continue to develop the Cal Poly engineering program as a global leader in engineering education and (prepare) its students for the global marketplace.”
Cal Poly recently developed a liberal arts and engineering studies degree program, a major which combines the College of Liberal Arts with the College of Engineering. With the foundation of this new program, Halisky said Cal Poly seemed a good fit for Larson, who is looking to broaden the ideas of engineering education.
“She and I are very much on the same page,” Halisky said. “We want to be working as equals, together, to support an education that takes into account both sides of a student’s brain … Who knows what we might come up with together.”
For Halisky there is an added bonus to Larson’s appointment as a college dean.
“There will be another woman at the table,” Halisky said.
Although Larson said she is pleased to join Cal Poly’s staff, her focus is not just going to be on excellence in grades.
“Having a good engineering education is much more than getting an A in Calculus III,” she said.