After leading the University of Virginia School of Engineering to new heights for research, graduate enrollment, undergraduate learning opportunities and alumni engagement, Craig H. Benson has announced he will step down from his position as dean on June 30, 2021.
“Craig Benson has been a transformative leader for the School of Engineering,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill. “He has energized the school with his vision, deepened its bench with his exceptional hiring and Ph.D. recruitment, and catalyzed exciting research programs across a range of disciplines and specialties. Engineering’s future leaders will be forever lucky to build on this strong foundation. President Ryan and I are grateful for his service to the school and University.”
The University appointed Benson, a renowned geoenvironmental engineer and member of the National Academy of Engineering, as the 13th dean of UVA Engineering in February 2015. In October of that year, in front of a standing-room-only crowd of faculty and staff during his first all-hands meeting, Benson shared his vision for bringing together faculty from across the school and University to focus on areas of research and education in which UVA could distinguish itself and contribute engineering expertise to complex societal challenges.
Benson encouraged faculty to collaborate and think big in their proposals for research and education initiatives. And honoring UVA’s position as the top public engineering school in the country for women undergraduates, he appointed two accomplished female faculty members as executive associate deans to help lead the efforts: Maite Brandt-Pearce, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, for academic affairs, and Pamela M. Norris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, for research.
In 2017, following a year-long “Focus for Excellence” process led by Brandt-Pearce, who is now the University’s vice provost for faculty affairs, UVA Engineering adopted a mission, vision and core values that articulated the school’s determination to create knowledge, make the world a better place and educate the next generation of engineering leaders.
Benson made all-hands meetings a semi-annual tradition for faculty and staff to discuss progress toward these ideals.
“The past five years have been among the most exhilarating of my 30-year career,” Benson said. He began as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1990. “Faculty, staff, students and alumni have taken ownership for our school’s successes, and we have had many.”
The payoff for bold ideas became quickly apparent when Benson announced in fall 2015 the school’s plan for forming the Link Lab, a space where researchers from multiple engineering disciplines and other parts of the University and industry partners could collaborate on the development of cyber-physical systems, such as autonomous vehicles, “smart” buildings, surgical robots and wireless health monitors.
The Link Lab built on the work many UVA faculty were already doing in the “Internet of Things,” including computer science professor Kamin Whitehouse, now on sabbatical and working for Amazon; John Lach, former chair of the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, now dean of engineering at George Washington University; and Jack A. Stankovic, UVA Engineering’s BP America Professor of Computer Science, who helped define the need for cyber-physical systems education in the United States.
The 17,000-square-foot Link Lab opened in early 2018, with support from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund, Stankovic as director, and nearly 40 faculty and their students from five engineering departments.
In 2017, the school announced its new Center for Engineering in Medicine, a joint project of UVA’s schools of Engineering and Medicine that was also supported by the University’s Strategic Investment Fund. The center, initially led by Jeff Holmes, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering who went on to become dean of engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, partners engineering researchers with medical practitioners to work together toward breakthroughs for health care.
Continuing the push for innovation, the school announced in 2018 its first new department in more than 40 years, the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. The department brings together civil, environmental and systems engineering faculty, formerly split into two separate departments, for a collaborative and whole-system approach to modern challenges such as smart cities, environmental resilience and health care.
Benson and Norris, who is now UVA Engineering’s executive dean, have taken a strategic approach toward providing faculty with resources that would help them grow their research programs and pursue new projects. Annual research retreats allow faculty to share ideas. A research development office, along with a corporate relations director and pre- and post-award staffs to handle grant submissions and accounting, help faculty mine and manage funding opportunities. The school focused around three primary areas of societal need: engineering for health, engineering for the cyber future and engineering technologies for a sustainable and connected world.
Benson also prioritized faculty hiring, particularly in fields that showed promise for multidisciplinary collaboration and long-term growth in research and education at UVA, such as biomedical data sciences, cyber-physical systems and multifunctional materials integration, which is an initiative aimed at developing the high-performance materials that will be needed for the devices and technologies of the future. UVA Engineering has 181 tenured or tenure-track faculty now compared to 166 in 2016. On the teaching side, the school has 82 academic general faculty in 2020, up from 62 in 2016.
The result of the strategic approach has been a nearly 40% increase in faculty research proposals school-wide from fiscal years 2016 to 2020, and an overall increase in sponsored research funding of 89% over the same period. Enrollment of Ph.D. students, who help drive the research program, has grown by nearly 50% since 2016.
Benson emphasized that a strong faculty, working to create the knowledge and technologies that society will need for a better future, was also essential to continuously improving the quality of education UVA Engineering’s students receive.
In 2018, for example, faculty leaders in the Link Lab announced they had earned a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to train master’s and doctoral students in cyber-physical systems and create a national model for graduate educational programs in the field. The Department of Engineering Systems and Environment has announced a construction engineering and management program that will train students to lead large-scale construction and infrastructure projects. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering recently announced a new bachelor’s degree program.
Benson has engaged alumni to help provide new learning opportunities for students, such as the National Instruments Engineering Discovery Laboratory. Benson and the school’s Board of Trustees have worked together to, among other initiatives, promote diversity in engineering, fund fellowships for graduate students and open a dialogue with University leaders about expanding UVA Engineering’s undergraduate enrollment.
Under Benson’s leadership, the school also received the two largest gifts in its history: a $15 million contribution from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation, which combined with a $15 million match from the University’s Bicentennial Scholars Fund established the UVA Engineering Clark Scholars Program providing financial and academic opportunities to undergraduate students from backgrounds traditionally underserved in engineering; and a $25 million gift from materials science and engineering alumnus Greg Olsen, which will support the department’s efforts to recruit star faculty and attract outstanding graduate students.
Throughout his career, which was inspired by growing up with a father who was an engineer and witnessing the environmental issues caused by industrialization in Pennsylvania, Benson has been an evangelist for the power of engineering to transform communities, spur sustainable economic growth and create opportunities for young people to become engineering leaders who will make a positive difference in the world.
During his term as dean, he has nurtured his own vigorous research program, welcoming graduate and undergraduate students into his lab. One focus of his work is designing extremely long-lasting – 1,000 years or more – containment systems for municipal, hazardous and radioactive wastes. His team also developed a technology for natural landfill covers that is now used around the world.
“I want people to think of me as an environmental gatekeeper – someone who saw the need for a natural world that is clean and healthy, and who also saw the need for an economy and industries that allow us to thrive,” Benson said when the National Academy of Inventors inducted him in 2018. “People who make a difference understand that we can have both.”
Benson said the global pandemic has taught him that time is finite and precious, and he wants to devote more time to his wife, son and projects that have a positive impact, such as expanding online education so that more talented people can benefit from opportunities to become engineers. After June 30, he will take a year-long leave and then continue as a member of the UVA Engineering faculty.
“Working together, UVA Engineering’s students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters have accomplished many of the objectives I set forth when I began as dean,” Benson said. “This is an appropriate time for a transition. A new leader will be greeted by an excellent, engaged UVA Engineering family, and will be in a position to continue building on the school’s achievements.”