Leading the Way: A Conversation with Belle Wei
By Lily Gossage and Beverly Louie
"Unfortunately there is somewhat of a culture of exclusivity in engineering, the implication that lesser mortals need not apply," says Dr. Belle Wei, recently named Provost and Academic Vice President of California State University, Chico, and former engineering dean of San Jose State University. While this may decrease the approachability of the field to some individuals or groups, Dr. Wei is a shining example of someone shaking up the expectations and demonstrating the increasing success of underrepresented groups in college leadership roles. Her intimate experience of adjusting to new cultures gives her the natural ability to understand others and how to help them, especially in a field that can be difficult to navigate.
Blazing a Trail and Becoming a Leader
One of fewer than 20 female deans of engineering schools nation-wide, Dr. Belle Wei was the first Asian American woman to lead the College of Engineering at San Jose State University, a leading four-year public institution located in California and one of the largest providers of engineers to the Silicon Valley. At the time of her appointment in 2003 as an engineering dean, only 4% of engineering deans in the United States were women. The proportion of women engineering deans has now doubled to about 8%. During her tenure as engineering dean, she focused on increasing funding for faculty development and student scholarships, such as the Silicon Valley Engineering Scholarship, which provides full and partial merit-based scholarships to high-achieving engineering students.
Dr. Wei's rise to leadership began as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in 1987 at San Jose State University. After 11 years as a faculty member, she became chair of the electrical engineering department (1998-2002). When asked at what stage she knew she was ready to advance to the role of engineering dean, exuding a quiet passion, she said, "In a leadership position, I can set the tone for the engagement of faculty and students and also create conditions in an environment for faculty and students to thrive. As chair, I realized that I was impactful. In the dean's position, the impact is greater in terms of improving student learning. I am an educator at heart, and I want students to be successful both in their careers and their lives."
Dr. Wei believes that as the Provost of a university, she can cultivate what she calls "the renaissance of engineering - meaning that students need to have competency in technical skills but also benefit from broader education rooted in the humanities and liberal arts." She believes that students with strong liberal arts backgrounds benefit tremendously from technological literacy; this type of thinking responds to her concern about the need for global competitiveness among the American citizenry.
Climate and Mentoring Impacts
Dr. Wei believes a supportive climate is critical for students studying engineering. She notes, "When I felt that the environment was not necessarily nurturing-though student services professionals were hired to work directly with students-faculty advisor groups were formed as well. Faculty advisors members went through training so that they had better skills and understanding about where students were coming from."
In the same way, support structures can be critical for women taking on leadership roles. Early in her leadership career, when female role models were in short supply, she proactively sought out male mentors. Belle emphasized the value of mentoring, saying, "I think the challenge [for young women today] is mentoring. Because there are few senior women engineering leaders, younger women engineering leaders may not have access to [female] mentors. Therefore, conferences and workshops should be designed to be more intentional to offer and build such networks." Of the variety of resources that emerging women leaders could tap into, Belle stated that mentors "should be more experienced," that is, mentors should be trained and be proactive with their mentees. Describing her experience as a mentor, she stated, "I am very conscientious about mentoring people. When I meet people in meetings and conferences, it is notsystematicin terms of engagement. When I was an engineering dean, I took great effort to create a women's support circle. As an example I organized a dinner for woman engineering deans before the formal meetings." Dr. Wei walks the talk, fostering an environment that supports mentoring relationships, knowing each mentor-mentee relationship is unique.
Overcoming Stereotypes and Being "Different"
Born and raised in Taiwan and having arrived in the United States after her high school years, Dr. Wei has a strong connection to the immigrant experience. The experience adjusting to a new culture in a radically new environment heartened her determination for developing initiatives that reach out to women and under-represented minority (URM) populations. Her efforts focus on helping students overcome what she described as the "agony of being new and different."
Speaking from her deep understanding of human potential and how to draw the best out of a person, she stated that, "People want to categorize other people, and that works against recruitment into engineering schools." High on her priorities is the need to cut the graduation gap for minority engineering students. At SJSU, the retention rate for minority engineering students is 76%, higher than that of the campus-wide rate.
In addition to efforts involving increasing engineering student retention and graduation, Wei also recognized the need to increase the pipeline of engineers. Towards this goal, she implemented an extensive program of outreach for engaging K-12 students and teachers. An example of her K-12 work includes the California State University (CSU) Engineering Academies, a consortium of 16 four-year participating public institutions working with middle- and high-schools in California. This initiative established a framework for increasing the number of California high school graduates who are academically prepared to pursue an engineering degree. Among her many K-12 initiatives, her greatest efforts were focused on increasing the number of women and URM groups, most notably African-American and Latinos. As a strong advocate for diversity, Wei chairs the Committee on Diversity within the Executive Board for the Engineering Dean's Council of the American Society of Engineering Education.
The Power of Partnerships
To facilitate change in engineering education, much of Wei's energy-and the hallmark of her management style-has been devoted to establishing strategic partnerships with industry, government agencies, and a multitude of educational organizations. Her student success initiatives revolve around cutting-edge multi-disciplinary programs that blend biomedical device engineering, green engineering, global experiential learning, and business education for engineers. A significant example of her work includes the Global Technology Initiative (GTI), which sends 25 students to Asia each year on a 100%-sponsored two-week study and industry tour. Engineering students witness the first-hand challenges of working in the global arena, learn what to expect in the 21stcentury and then return home and share what they learned through presentations to peers. Certainly, Wei's acumen for balancing engineering education and technologies with savoir-faire for business is the primary reason for her success in developing strong educational partnerships, both domestic and international, with industry.
San Jose State University's national prominence has benefitted from her extraordinary work. Her innovative and thoughtful leadership style, aligning communities from industry, government, and education, earned Dr. Wei congressional mention in the House of Representatives in 2003.
Setting the Pathway Toward Global Competitiveness
Epitomizing the global citizen-through her work in both international forums and domestic fronts, Wei understands the demands of a rapidly changing global marketplace. Her perceptive insights inspire an assertive type of oversight for creating educational programs that express the rigor appealing to international counterparts but at the same time agile enough to be incorporated quickly into domestic educational environments. Given the insufficient numbers of graduates in STEM today in the United States, as was articulated by the National Academies' report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," Wei's ambitious plan for developing educational programs that blend international education practice within the confines of the American educational system could be a significant step toward raising standards. Her network of educational advocates extends beyond her strong relationships to executives in the Silicon Valley; plus she has ties to regional and national government leaders. Invited by Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader, Dr. Wei addressed Democratic Representatives in 2006. Serving as the authority on engineering education during the "Innovation Forum: A Commitment to Competitiveness to Keep America Number One," she expressed the "burning crisis that challenges our nation's leadership in technology." In comparing the educational behaviors of Chinese students with American students, Belle mentioned that Chinese students take an average of six to seven classes per semester-and also plan to pursue a master's degree, to make themselves more globally competitive. In this light, Belle mentioned the "much needed awakening of (American) students to the new world of globalization."
Goals of a Provost
Now in her first year as Provost of CSU, Chico, Wei has already established a plan of action for improving the campus' four- and six-year graduation rate. Her beginning work involves first-year faculty in developing a six-unit pilot freshman course with the goal that all Chico State undergraduate students would take during their first year of enrollment. Based in Aristotelian philosophy-which supports courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom-this course intends to cultivate students' personal and social responsibility early in their college student life cycle. Resonating with her Asian upbringing, which embraces the traditional tenets of Confucian thought, Wei asserted that, "Cardinal virtues espoused by Aristotle have counterparts with Confucian philosophy; the similar and different pieces coalesce. Asian society is less individualistic, supports a strong work ethic in the upbringing of children, and these virtues align with the American founding fathers', they are nothing new."
In the overall discussion for improving graduation rates, she envisions curricula that would incorporate teaching and learning that help students internalize their goals and connect them to bigger life and career goals. To facilitate this type of holistic learning, the course will be taught in a project-design-studio format involving groups of experienced and talented faculty.
With the ability to affect change at the institutional level, the role of Provost offers Wei a unique opportunity, given her engineering background, to become a spokesperson for increasing the importance of STEM education across curricular boundaries and across disciplines. When asked whether she saw occasion for including efforts to continue contributing to the advocacy of women engineers in her new role as Provost, Belle offered her sentiments about engineers as being effective leaders: "The reality is that the general public views engineers as tending to be robotic and dry, so that turns out to be a disadvantage. But I know engineers can be well-rounded." She continues, "When I first arrived at CSU, Chico, I attended a College of Business retreat, and people there told me that this was the first time the university selected someone from a professional school to be Provost. There is a dichotomy of liberal education versus professional education. And for all students to be successful, both of these must be integrated. I believe a person with an engineering background but a mindset for liberal education can be a successful Provost." We believe this, too, and look forward to following Dr. Wei's success in her new position.