J. Murray Gibson was appointed dean of the joint Florida A&M-Florida State University College of Engineering last summer. After focusing his initial efforts on revamping the college’s internal structure, Gibson is now reaching out to both parent institutions and the community to move the college into the top tier of schools nationwide.
But even before he assumed the dean’s job, Gibson said Tallahassee already felt a lot like home.
“I should say right off the bat that part of the reason I’m here is because of my wife Faye who’s been in town a lot longer,” he smiled. “She’s a graduate of FSU in design and she and I met 13 years ago when I was collaborating with the Mag Lab. I was in Chicago at the time and came down three or four times. That particular collaboration didn’t work, but I met my wife so it paid off better than I could have hoped for. And so as a result, I got to know Tallahassee quite well. We kept a house here, even though we were living in Boston and Chicago.”
In Chicago, Gibson was a director at the Argonne National Laboratory and before that was a professor at the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois. He also worked – for a while alongside Greg Boebinger who now heads Tallahassee’s Mag Lab – at the legendary Bell Laboratories. And now Gibson is bringing all that formidable experience to his job heading the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.
“Very few people know or understand the nature of this joint college. So it was only when I was up close that I realized what’s going on here and I think it really is a grand experiment that I think is of national importance and interest.”
Gibson said it’s not that the College hasn’t been doing its job since it was created in 1982.
“We’ve done very well as a college over the years, but we have the potential to be transformational,” he insisted. “The key is the issue of diversity in engineering (which) is one of the least diverse professions, yet it’s one of the most important professions. It turns out that some Harvard economist estimated half of our economy comes from engineering. You just have to pull out a cell phone.”
He added it’s not only the local College that is wrestling with the challenge of making the fields of engineering and the sciences more diverse.
“For example Intel put $300 million on the table to address the issue of how do we improve diversity of STEM. Google has announced that they’re seeking 1,000 under-represented engineers that we’re not training today. I’ve visited companies like Apple who are really anxious to diversify their workforce.”
Which is why Gibson said he’s so upbeat about the future of his institution, which he insists is uniquely positioned to address the issue.
“First, you have the partnership of a top historically black college and university and a top research university. And in engineering, that’s something that is really critical to be successful in this area of training a diverse engineering workforce.”
Gibson explained why he believes his school has a rare opportunity to promote that goal because of its link to historically black Florida A&M University.
“Thirty percent of all African-American engineers are graduating from HBCUs, even though HBCUs are less than three-percent of the marketplace in higher education,” he said. “If you look at another statistic, more than half of African-Americans who get a PhD in engineering did their undergraduate degree at an HBCU. They may go to Cornell, MIT and Stanford, but not for their undergraduate degree.”
However, Gibson acknowledged that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a critical deficiency when it comes to launching engineers and scientists.
“Not one of them really has a research capability that compares with the top research universities like FSU. A lot of that’s for historical reasons; they’re transitioning from only being allowed to teach 30 or 40 years ago and they’ve got a long way to go. It’s a difficult journey. You need a lot of infrastructure and other things. Teaching loads are very high in HBCUs, so they don’t have time to do research,” Gibson said.
As the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering has been around for 35 years, Gibson understood why so many folks don’t realize just how special it is.
“We have the only shared college of engineering – the only shared college I’m aware of outside of medicine – which has all the capabilities and function. A student can go to FAMU or FSU and get a degree from either one. They get the same exact education from the same faculty on our campus here at Innovation Park, so we can get the best of both worlds.”
That might sound like the ideal platform from which to promote the big goal of STEM diversity. But, like so many engineering project blueprints, Gibson said what looks so great on paper sometimes has a few real-world glitches.
“The problem is we haven’t been functioning - as you know from history – as a true partnership for awhile. I think of it like a grand experiment and it was a brave and wonderful thing to do and we’ve been amazingly successful. But one of the things that is key to the partnership I always tell people, it’s just like a relationship; the partners have to respect each other.”
Now that Gibson is the engineering college’s dean, he says that restoring that two-way respect is a top priority. Although the college was originally set up as a “merger of equals” between the Florida A&M and Florida State, Gibson would be the first to admit the reality has often missed the mark. FAMU enrollment at the college has lagged behind FSU’s. And he admitted that the often-repeated rumor that Florida State somehow wants to “take over” the school hasn’t helped.
“There’s a lot of history,” he said. “But what I believe will happen is that we will get recognition nationally. I’m being careful as the new dean to really build the story because we have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I can go and say we’re a partnership, but when you can see one example is – thanks to FSU that runs the e-mail system – I got the e-mail address changed for everyone, whether they’re FAMU or FSU; it used to be ‘eng.fsu.edu’. But now it’s ‘eng.famu.fsu.edu.’”
That may seem to be a relatively small thing, but Gibson insisted it can be little things that make a big impact. Of course, big things can help, too. Such as a positive relationship between the presidents of the two universities that jointly operate the college.
“At the invitation of President Thrasher, President Robinson came along with the chancellor of the Board of Governors to the Seminole Caucus meeting breakfast to talk together about the college and its potential,” he said. “So there’s no question; the individual partnership and also the partnership is beyond the individuals of other members of the leadership teams in both institutions are very supportive.”
And to emphasize again how critical Florida A&M is in that partnership, Gibson cited a study.
“Somebody made a list of all the universities in the country according to the social mobility index of the students, how well did the students do relative to their parents. FAMU is number three of all universities in this country in improving the social mobility of its students. No matter what we say about graduation rates, about retention and all these things, the majority of FAMU students are better off because they went to FAMU. Harvard is number 438 in that list, so FAMU does something that Harvard doesn’t do.”
Gibson wants to leapfrog off that FAMU success, as well as the research reputation of Florida State, to move the joint engineering college to the next level.
“Hiring faculty…hiring them strategically in areas where we can grow research. For example we have a lot of strength in power systems across the street (at FSU’s Center for Advanced Power Systems), we can build that to be a real powerhouse to win more national competitions and team up with other universities in the state like U of F, but bring something else to the table that no one else has.”
Also, Gibson said, developing local partnership and collaborations, perhaps even helping jumpstart some manufacturing activity in the area.
“One area we’re talking about it biomedical devices, (perhaps connected with) aging, which makes a lot of sense for the community. We could perhaps with time help to develop local industries, spin-off companies that would build a critical mass in some area like that that would benefit the community because we want those very close connections for our young students to get access to internships there, etc. Long-term, I think you’d have a lot of good economic impact on the community and be mutually beneficial as well.”
An important component, Dean Gibson predicted, of a multi-year program to move the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering into the elite company of the nation’s very best engineering institutions.