Fridays with Fuhrmann: Winter’s Coming

FWFimage_20171027I have mentioned before the old canard that there are two seasons in the Upper Peninsula: Winter’s Here and Winter’s Coming. While this obviously does not do justice to our beautiful summers, there is definitely a Winter’s Coming season, and it just arrived. After a rather late, warm, and wet fall, we had a storm blow through here on Tuesday with cold rain and 50-60 mph winds that was like a shot across the bow. Although the landscape is still dotted with a few bright yellow trees that weren’t quite ready to quit, for the most part our woods are bare. The forecast now includes rain/snow mix and other reminders of what’s to come. It’s the time when we put the driveway stakes in the ground, tune up the snowblowers, and make sure our snowplowing contracts are in place.

The change of seasons coincides as it often does with a change in the vibe in the ECE office. For some reason, it seems that the first half of the fall semester is just frenetic, with one deadline after another and lots of visitors who like to come to campus during that short window of time when the fall colors are at their peak. This year was made even a little more hectic with our ABET accreditation visit earlier this week. (I’m not supposed to tell you how that turned out, so I won’t.) Now all of a sudden it feels like we can take a little bit of breather. More importantly, we can turn our attention to some important longer-range issues that keep getting putting off on those days when all one thinks about is the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting.

The biggest long-range project on my plate this year is leading an effort to look at the role of computing at Michigan Tech. Before describing that further, I should give some context. This year we are looking at a major transition in the leadership at Michigan Tech, with ongoing searches for the president and the deans for four out of our five academic units: the College of Engineering, the College of Sciences and Arts, the School of Technology, and the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. This is not the result of any crisis, but just a bizarre coincidence where everyone hit retirement age at about the same time. The “last man standing” is Dean Johnson from the School of Business and Economics (whose first name really is Dean, leading to no end of jokes and explanations.) While it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen, I think it is safe to say that Michigan Tech will look a lot different at this time next year.

Back to the computing initiative. For many years, a number of people, both on-campus (including me) and some key external advisors have been looking at Michigan Tech’s position with regard to computing and information sciences, and wondering what we can do or should do to elevate our impact and our visibility in this key technology area. For several years now I have been a part of the Alliance for Computing, Information, and Automation (ACIA) which brings together the ECE Department, the Department of Computer Science, and the School of Technology, as we look for ways to cooperate in our academic programs and collaborate in research. The most successful outgrowth of that partnership has been the establishment of the Institute of Computer and Cybersystems, a research center led by CS department chair Min Song. However, there is more to be done, and with the upcoming transitions at Michigan Tech now is the time to do it.

In April of 2017 I made a presentation to the Michigan Tech Board of Trustees on behalf of the ACIA, where we made the case that computing is a key technology driver in the 21st century and that Michigan Tech should have a larger presence in order to stay true to its mission. With the encouragement of the Board of Trustees, this was followed up with a Computing and Information Sciences retreat on August 18, led by Provost Jackie Huntoon, where more than 60 member of the Michigan Tech community came together for a day and got a lot of issues out on the table. There was an excellent keynote address by Michigan Tech alumnus and benefactor Dave House, really driving home the point that the world has changed and that Michigan Tech needs to be paying attention. The retreat was a success, I believe, for raising awareness and getting people to think about what we might do. Of course, there were as many ideas about that as there were people in the room.

This brings us to present. Provost Huntoon has formed a Computing and Information Sciences (CIS) Working Group and asked me to lead it, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. The other members are: Min Song (CS), Jim Frendewey (SoT), Laura Brown (CS), Tim Havens (ECE/CS), Roger Kieckhafer (ECE), Myounghoon Jeon (CLS/CS), and Benjamin Ong (Math). Our charge is to use the time we have this year to develop recommendations designed to promote growth in size and quality of the degree programs and the University’s research portfolio in computing and information sciences, in the broadest sense. The recommendations are due to the Provost prior to the end of the 2017-2018 academic year. She will review those recommendations and use them to provide guidance to the future University president and the University’s Board of Trustees. Throughout the year we will periodically engage with a broad-based Advisory Group to share ideas and receive feedback. We have already gotten started, but now that some of the early-semester tasks are behind us I hope to really gather some momentum.

Most likely the topic of computing and information sciences at Michigan Tech will be the theme for this column, for much of the rest of this semester. The reader might wonder why I led off this story with a description of the change of seasons in the Upper Peninsula, which on the surface sounds a little ominous. You have to understand: I love the winters here at Michigan Tech. I am energized by the snow and all the winter sports that come with it. For me, this is not a time of hibernation, it’s a time of joy and rejuvenation, even during the shortest days and the darkest nights. I hope to bring some of that enthusiasm to the important task before us, and if we make any progress you will read about it right here.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University


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