Denice Denton: A New Kind of Dean

Engineering Dean Denice Denton. Photo by Mary Levin.
When University of Washington
President Richard L. McCormick set out to appoint a new dean of the College of Engineering, he wanted somebody who shared his progressive vision. He wanted somebody who had more than just a great research background. He wanted somebody who could champion diversity with the conviction of personal experience.

He wanted somebody who would be a new kind of dean.

With the appointment of Denice D. Denton--the first woman dean of engineering at a major U.S. research institution and, at 37, the youngest dean at the University of Washington--that's exactly what McCormick got.

"One can make the argument that if you want to do things differently and you want to prepare for the next century, hiring a traditional individual from a traditional background may not get you where you want to go," says Denton, formerly a professor of electrical and computer engineering and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Over the next five years, all colleges of engineering will need to be more interdisciplinary in nature, more diverse with respect to student, staff and faculty populations and more agile in responding to opportunities."

Being a woman isn't the only thing that sets Denton apart. As co-director of the National Institute for Science Education, she has been a national leader in engineering education reform. She also is an expert in the development and use of extremely small-scale machining techniques for fabricating microelectromechanical systems, which are used, for example, to make air bags work.

The mathematical logic and the real-world application of engineering first piqued Denton's interest as a teen-ager. She attended a summer engineering camp at Rice University in her hometown of Houston. A high school counselor who ignored traditional gender and career stereotypes encouraged Denton's interest, and she went on to complete bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Continuing to encourage students, particularly women and students of color, to pursue engineering careers will be a priority for Denton. She envisions a strategic plan involving public schools, industry partners and alumni to increase the number of students and faculty from underrepresented populations in the College of Engineering.

"Enrollment projections for the so-called baby boom echo show a student population that is larger and more ethnically diverse than our current population," Denton said. "The College of Engineering has a responsibility to prepare for that so we have the right people and programs in place to effectively serve a more diverse population. At the same time, we want to continue to offer the same high quality of education that we've been offering and to remain one of the most outstanding colleges of engineering in the country."--Greg Orwig

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