October 12, 2011

Ashley Emery: A half-century at the UW and going strong

News and Information

The University of Washington has been a great place to work, says Mechanical Engineering Professor Ashley Emery, but it has changed a lot since he got here.

And he got here 50 years ago.

Ashley Emery, professor of mechanical engineering, has taught at the UW for 50 years now and has no plans to stop.

Mary Levin

Ashley Emery, professor of mechanical engineering, has taught at the UW for 50 years now and has no plans to stop.

Thoughtful, soft-spoken and often bemused, Emery looked back over the decades in his office in the building where, but for some interruptions, he has worked since John F. Kennedy was president.

The UW he came to was a little more formal and a lot less technology-driven, he said. Computers were still room-sized and slide rules still poked from pockets. It was the days of mimeograph machines, chalky blackboards and typing pools.

“I wouldnt make it now, because nowadays you have to have a postdoc,” Emery said. “Practically speaking, if you dont have a lot of experience and a lot of papers, its pretty hard to get hired.”

In fact it seemed far from certain hed get the job when he applied in 1961 on the advice of a friend, with a doctorate fresh from the University of California, Berkeley. Mechanical engineering back then had an executive officer instead of a chairman in Bryan T. McMinn, who didnt seem eager to hire Emery. “Finally, I guess the dean prevailed,” Emery said, noting that his starting pay was about $650 a month.

“So I came here and I can remember we had teacher rating polls, the same thing as we do now. They were by decile ratings, and I was just crushed when my first rating was a 2,” Emery said with a chuckle. “I went to see Professor McMinn and he said, ‘Well, this is fantastic! For a new person to have gotten a 2, this is great!”

Emery was promoted to associate professor in four years and shopped for a house even though salaries seemed uncertain because the Legislature, as seems often the case, “was having difficulty coming up with money.”

You rarely saw senior faculty on campus on weekends back then, he said, and when you did it was usually because of a promotion meeting, the results of which were kept private until they made the papers in late spring. “Youd look for your name and if your name was there, you had been promoted. And if you didnt you had no way of finding out why you didnt make it,” Emery said.

He said teaching was heavily emphasized then and most courses had two or three sections, often in the same quarter. “There were virtually no TAs,” he said. “We did everything ourselves.”

The informality of the late-1960s and 70s was still a few years off. “You didnt teach without a tie, and you didnt teach without a suit,” Emery said. “And … every day when we went home — you had yellow chalk — and so the back of your suit was always covered with yellow chalk, typically right at the hip, where youd back up against the chalk tray.” He laughed, adding, “I think I kept the dry-cleaners in business.”

He recalled the pre-computerized UW of punch cards and 35 mm. projectors. The arrival of computers brought certain efficiencies, he said, but they also ushered in an era of rewriting research papers 10 or 15 times over.

“Seattle was a very, very different place. A strong union town.” Before long, Boeing would slump, slowing the Northwest economy. “There was a lot of uncertainty, but I dont think that we were that worried about it. The Space Needle, of course, had just been constructed, and things looked pretty good.”

He recalled of that Cold War-era time, “Relatively speaking, there was a lot more money than there is now for research, since there was a lot less competition,” he said. “The National Science foundation (where he was later to work distributing grants) had just begun and engineering was a small part of it, not even recognized.

“Engineering science had just really begun — the first of the engineering science classes were coming on line.”

Collaboration often came easier then, he said. “Because almost every course had two or three sections, youd find yourself meeting with other faculty members and discussing how to teach, what to teach. As a result of those meetings there were opportunities to talk about the research you were doing …it was much easier to collaborate with others. Now, you have to set up and seek collaborations.”

Still, he said, working across disciplines is “not only important to the University, I think its more valuable to the participants. But by the same token I think the average faculty member now is — how to say this? — more egotistical. They feel a greater sense of their own ability to do things, and less need to work with others.”

These days, Emery said, hes frustrated with those who use initiatives to increase certain spending even while purporting to reduce taxes. And hes worried about the health of the middle class as university tuitions rise.

The students themselves are different than decades back, he said. “Its changed dramatically, the sense that, formerly, most of the people came out of  a background where they had a lot of practical experience and now we see more purely academic students.”

And though he said chemical and civil engineering programs have done fairly well recruiting women students, “My impression is that we dont see the underrepresented students here as much as we should.”

The highlights of his 50-year career are lengthy indeed, and include chairmanship of the UW Faculty Senate. Per Reinhall, chair of mechanical engineering, said Emery was “one of the early key faculty members who put the department on the national and international research map” and has remained “an incredibly active faculty member over the years both in teaching and research.”

Reinhall added, “After 50 years on the faculty (Emery) is not slowing down. He is currently the faculty adviser of our highly successful Formula SAE racecar project and a key member of the FAA Joint Advanced Materials and Structures Center of Excellence. Ashley is also an active cyclist and continues to impress everybody by completing the annual Seattle to Portland bike race in one day.”

At 76 (for a few days yet), Emery still commutes by bike and says he has no plans to retire.

In fact, hes preparing for yet another year of teaching — wearing a tie, of course.

Career highlights

  • President of the Faculty Senate.
  • Chair of Mechanical Engineering Department
  • Program manager, National Science Foundation
  • Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
  • Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
  • Fellow of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
  • Puget Sound Engineer of the Year, 1990
  • Best paper award, ASME, 1993, 2004
  • Chair, editorial board, ASME Applied Mechanics Review