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Dean Ross posing in front of Hokie stone.
Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech

Charting a community-focused approach to growth

Five years into her tenure at the university, Dean Julia Ross has led the growing reach and impact of Virginia Tech Engineering through a committed focus on people, support, and intentional planning.

The list speaks for itself:

First female dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

First female dean of the College of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

First female chair of an engineering department at UMBC, and before that, her department’s first female to be awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of full professor.

Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering, has not only witnessed many firsts in the course of her career — she’s lived them. And now, five years into her tenure at Virginia Tech, Ross is gaining widespread recognition not only for growing the reach and impact of Engineering’s programs and research, but also for championing a bold vision for the future of the college, which includes building a more inclusive engineering community.

As a testament to these efforts, Ross was recently named the 2022 Outstanding Woman Leader in Virginia Higher Education. The award, presented by the Virginia Network for Women in Higher Education, honors women who serve as role models to other women; display a commitment to developing and fostering the empowerment of women leaders; and exemplify leadership, success, and service.

Dean Ross accepting an award.
Ross gives remarks upon receiving her 2022 Distinguished Engineering Alumni/Alumnae Award from Purdue University on February 17, 2022. Photo courtesy of Purdue University.
Dean Ross accepting an award.
Ross (second from left) receives the 2022 Outstanding Woman Leader in Virginia Higher Education award at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center on June 10, 2022 From left: Karen Campbell, state chair, ACE Virginia Network of Women in Higher Education; Ross; Donna Price Henry, chancellor, University of Virginia’s College at Wise; Betty Adams, executive director, Southern Virginia Higher Education Center; and Towuanna Porter Brannon, president, Thomas Nelson Community College. Photo courtesy of the American Council on Education Virginia Network.

“In addition to being an outstanding leader of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and advocate for its faculty, staff, and students, Julie is a highly respected and valued member of the university’s leadership team,” said Virginia Tech Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, who supported Ross’s nomination. “She serves as a role model for faculty and academic program leaders at every stage of their careers.”

This most recent accolade joins several other notable awards and terms of service Ross has garnered over the last few years. She was also honored by her alma mater, Purdue University, with a 2022 Distinguished Alumni/Alumnae Award and was highlighted by the Society for Women Engineers magazine in their “Women Engineering Leaders in Academe 2020” feature. She is currently serving a second, three-year term on the executive committee of the Global Engineering Dean's Council, working closely with engineering deans from around the world to advance engineering education, research, and service globally.

Yet in spite of this recognition, Ross remains focused on where the college – and engineering more broadly – need to go from here. 

“As a discipline, we don’t tell our story very well,” she said. “Engineers shape our world, help society, and make a lasting impact. This is a career path that can be attractive for many – and we should be talking about engineering in that way.”

Positive signs for the future 

This vision for the future of engineering finds firm footing not only in Virginia Tech’s long history of engineering excellence, but also in the college’s recent growth and expanded reach. 

Since joining the university in her current role in 2017, Ross has led Engineering to many notable milestones. In the past five years, the college’s total enrollment has grown by 18 percent to over 12,000 students, led in part by the expansion of computer science and computer engineering in support of the state’s commitment to tech talent development.

Working closely with partners in the college and throughout Virginia Tech, Ross has led tremendous growth on several fronts:

The college’s research expenditures have grown by 16 percent (to $264 million in fiscal year 2020).

The value of the college’s endowment has increased by 31 percent (to $238 million, as of March 2022).

The college’s alumni giving rate has grown by 54 percent.

Engineering’s physical footprint is undergoing a significant expansion, which includes the recent re-opening of Holden Hall and its new research wing. 

Other capital construction projects currently in the works that will increase the college’s physical square footage include the Data & Decision Sciences Building, Hitt Hall, and the first building of the Innovation Campus in Alexandria, Virginia. 

Additionally, Ross recently worked with university and college advancement partners to help secure the largest ever gift to Virginia Tech from an alumnus ($35 million) to begin work on Mitchell Hall, which will serve as Randolph Hall’s long-awaited replacement.

But perhaps most impressive to Ross, the college also has seen an important increase in the diversity of the engineering community – in college leadership, faculty, and the student population.

So far, 2022 has been a record year for new hires, with Engineering welcoming 57 new faculty members – the most ever for a single year. Of these new faculty, about one-third are women and 18 percent are underrepresented minorities. 

“And today, the college’s leadership team of department heads and associate deans is about 50 percent female,” said Ross. “There has been nothing magical about making that happen. We’re just committed to hiring the very best people, one search at a time. It starts with being intentional in our search processes, using best practices, and building diverse pools of talent.”

Faculty and college leadership aren’t the only areas where engineering has made progress in representational diversity, which is also a university priority for both faculty positions and the overall student body.

TechGirls summer camp working with a polaroid camera.
Participants in the college's Tech Girls program, intended for international high school women interested in engineering and hosted by the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, participate in a job shadowing workshop in July 2019. Photos by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.
TechGirls summer camp working with a polaroid camera.

Through Ross’s tenure, and according to recent first-time in college numbers for accepted students (which tend to change slightly before the fall semester), the number of underrepresented minorities entering engineering in 2022 has increased to almost 25 percent of the student body compared with roughly 11 percent in 2017. The number of underserved students has also risen from 23 percent in 2017 to a current 27 percent, putting the combined percentage of underrepresented and underserved students entering the college at 41 percent – 1 percent above the university’s overall target of 40 percent by the start of the fall 2022 semester.

And for a discipline in which women are notoriously less present than men, the college expects to see a population consisting of about 25 percent female students this fall.

These numbers not only reflect significant progress for the college, but are also positive signs for the field of engineering, which she has pushed to make more accessible for much of her career – and it’s what the discipline desperately needs, she said.

“The easy problems have already been solved,” said Ross. “What’s left are the really hard, complex problems – the ones that take a lot of creativity and different kinds of thinking and collaboration to address. Engineering excellence for the future requires a workforce that can think about a problem from many perspectives and angles. From women and underrepresented minority students to those who are underserved like first-generation or Pell-eligible students, as well as students from rural backgrounds and veterans – it’s all about building a community with a broad distribution of life experiences.”

Pathways summer camp working on engineering crafts.
Students in the college's Pathways for Future Engineers program, focused on rising 10th through 12th grade first-generation college students, work on various projects during a design studio exercise in July 2019. Photos by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.
Pathways summer camp working on engineering crafts.
Pathways summer camp working on engineering crafts.

Navigating organizational change

For these reasons, increasing representational diversity and strengthening a culture that supports student, faculty, and staff success are a key components of the college’s strategic plan, said Ross.

The plan, created in 2019 in collaboration with faculty, staff, students, and alumni across the college – and informed by industry partners and employers – has served as an important blueprint over the last several years for the college’s leadership team. 

One of the most important aspects about using the strategic plan as a guide, especially during the pandemic, is that it helped leadership make hard decisions and prioritize resources in the midst of challenging and rapidly changing circumstances, said Ross. It has also allowed the college to become a more agile organization overall.

“We still have room to improve, but we’re a different organization than we were before,” said Ross. “The intentional implementation of the college’s strategic plan has led us to be more data informed and better at decision making in ways that will position us for future success. The first part of that process has been an honest assessment of where we are now and where we want to go – we’re not afraid to look in the mirror, acknowledge our weaknesses and challenges, and then figure out how to work on those and get better. As an organization, we strive to be better tomorrow than we are today.”

Plus, she added, with the plan’s clear focus on people and providing meaningful support, the college has become a more empathetic organization that is willing and able to address issues like work-life balance for faculty and staff, as well as the need for more comprehensive student resources. 

This summer, the college will revisit the strategic plan as a living, working document that incorporates recent progress, shifting external contexts, and any emerging gaps or opportunities. Three areas Ross sees as likely receiving more attention are graduate education, transdisciplinary research and partnerships, and experiential learning for undergraduates.

“Today’s graduate students are the faculty and research talent of the future,” said Ross. “We need more of them, and we need to prepare them to be future colleagues and leaders. They play an important role on campus, both as students themselves but also as teaching and research assistants. We want to make sure they’re prepared to thrive, whether through team-based research and teaching or in industry.”

Jonathan Boreyko working with C-Tech students in a lab.
Engineering students Laurel Hudson, Ashley Cornish, and Kathleen Troy are pictured with mechanical engineering associate professor Jonathan Boreyko (second from left) and graduate assistant Ndidi Eyegheleme (far right) in the Nature-Inspired Fluids and Interfaces Lab. As part of the CTech2 program, these students designed a desalinating water bottle and had their research published in Soft Matter. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

In terms of research, the college – and Virginia Tech – are taking notice of a growing emphasis on large-scale, transdisciplinary problem spaces that require diverse and matrixed research teams to address. There’s still a role for small projects, but the world is moving towards “big engineering and big science,” often in collaboration with industry, where applicability and use are top concerns. 

The university’s increasing focus on four research frontiers is one example of how Virginia Tech is responding to this changing research landscape, and the college is well-positioned to contribute, said Ross.

And for undergraduate students, more of them need access to the types of high-impact educational experiences that activities like team-based research alongside faculty can provide – as well as other options, including student design competition teams and study abroad opportunities. Affordability is always a factor, but the structured course sequences for aspiring engineers can also be a barrier. Additionally, said Ross, we just need more of these opportunities to offer our students.

“Access is the root issue,” she said. “These experiences are incredibly important for student success and post-graduation opportunities. We want all engineering students to have access to the best education Virginia Tech can provide.”

That standard of excellence has served the college well for 150 years – and coupled with an unwavering commitment to Ut Prosim, will ensure a continued focus on innovation, leadership, impact, and service.

If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call (540) 231-3628.