Ravi Bellamkonda, Wallace H. Coulter professor and chair of the Wallace H. Coulter department of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, was named the new dean of the Pratt School of Engineering in January. He will replace former Pratt dean Tom Katsouleas Aug. 1. Bellamkonda spoke with The Chronicle’s Rob Palmisano about his goals and the future of Pratt.
The Chronicle: What are some of the most important lessons you intend to apply from previous endeavors to your new position as dean?
Ravi Bellamkonda: I’ve been very fortunate to be in very successful departments in the past. The lessons I think I’ve learned are the following:
One, if we create the right environment and give room to those who work in that environment to take charge of what they do, rather than a central command control system, then we have bottom-up leadership that is superior to a top-down system. My tendency is to find people who are passionate, and then empower them to do what they can and give them the support and the environment to take risks as they reach a little higher than normal.
Two, another thing I believe is that today’s students are incredibly socially conscious, they are wise and they work hard. I would love for us to have a curriculum that enables our students to drive their own learning, that challenges them to stretch, to work in teams and to work on problems that are meaningful and important.
My leadership experience so far has led to a philosophy that trusts and empowers people to do their thing by creating environments and resources that support their pursuit of things they are most passionate about. So my job is to align these passions with our larger, college level educational and research goals.
TC: What do you foresee as some of the key challenges in presiding over Pratt and how do you intend to overcome them?
RB: Largely, the challenges looking ahead are the ‘good-to-great’ type of challenge. Actually, at Duke this is more like the ‘excellent-to-great’ challenge. For greatness, you don’t follow others’ blueprints. So I think Pratt’s challenge is to figure out what it means to be a ‘great’ engineering school. I think that means we have to really figure out what are the areas we have the capabilities to make ‘great’, significant impact. To believe that you can change the course of engineering education, of materials research, invent new therapies, bend the climate change curve—this takes confidence! I’d like to be part of the process at Duke where we believe we can do great things, and where we actually embark on this journey collaboratively.
The more practical and immediate challenge we have is that of having the correct physical infrastructure such that our faculty and students have a competitive advantage to achieve their scholarly and educational goals. We really do need a new building with the appropriate research and learning spaces, where interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial research can take place. So with the support of the Provost and the generous Pratt extended family, I hope to play my part in helping make a new building where we can collaboratively ‘engineer our future’ possible.
TC: If you had to name some of your principal goals you have for your time as dean, what would they be, and why?
RB: First, I think I concur it as an honor to be the dean of Pratt. It’s one of the engineering schools that I think can really lead the nation in various ways. There is no question that technology is revolutionizing our world—from health to computing to business to environment to our national defense. However, for true impact, technology needs partners—industry, public policy, economics, clinicians, etc. This is the strength of Duke. This gives us a differential advantage.
So I’d like for us to find the intersection between what we are good at doing and what is worth doing and what is meaningful in the world in our research programs. And when we find this, I’d like to invest in our faculty and students to enable their success.
Second, I’d like for us to explore what a student-driven, learning-centric curriculum would look like. I truly believe that we are moving from a ‘content-delivery’ model to a ‘learning-centric’ model in engineering education, and at Pratt we have the opportunity to lead in this space as most engineering schools are very traditional in the ways curriculum is set up.
Third, I am very committed to trying to create an environment where all of us celebrate each of our success, and each of us feels like all of us are rooting for us. I’d like Pratt and Duke to be inclusive in all dimensions of the word, intellectually, racially and otherwise. Diversity is not just a social justice issue; I believe it is critical for our success. There is no question in my mind that the more ambitious our challenge in research or education, the more important diversity becomes to our ability to tackle this challenge. Diverse perspectives make a ‘richer’ solution set, a more nuanced perspective that is critical to be able to creatively solve grand challenges.
I am also very interested in encouraging faculty and student entrepreneurial activities. At my current institution, I’ve helped craft a very successful program which led to over 21 student startups in just the past two years. We have lots of activity at Pratt already in this space, and I’d like to support these and new programs.
TC: What are you most excited about moving forward?
RB: I ultimately believe that the core of progress and success is to be surrounded by incredible people, and I’m so excited by the quality and the determination of the professors and students I’ve come in contact with so far.
I’m also excited to bridge the collaboration between Trinity, the medical school, Fuqua, Nicholas and other schools. I hope to increase mingling among students, faculty and others by shared common interests, rather than ‘units’ that you either belong to or you don’t. When we run into those like us and those not like us often, at seminars, when we step out of our offices, at coffee shops, this is when magic happens, and I’d love for us to be intentional about increasing ‘mingling’ and reducing the barriers to such mingling on campus by the way we design our campus spaces.
I believe the importance of engineering is more critical than any other time before. And at Pratt there is incredibly exciting research that is ongoing in all of our departments and centers and institutes. We are really fortunate to have the faculty we have. Ultimately, this is why I am confident that we will make the ‘excellent-to-great’ transition.