Koubek talks Tech’s future

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Richard Koubek, seen in his office Thursday, is approaching the one-year mark as president of Michigan Technological University.

HOUGHTON — Michigan Technological University is starting to show the influence of President Richard Koubek, who took office July 1.

When interviewing, Koubek had learned about Michigan Tech’s importance to the Keweenaw as an economic driver. But the biggest thing he’s learned over the past year, he said, is how important the area is to defining Michigan Tech.

“It’s hard for me to envision Michigan Tech being the same place if you were to pick it up and put it in Grand Rapids,” he said. “…What I’ve realized over time is how that’s become a great competitive and comparative advantage for our institution, when we position ourselves for leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

That term, coined by economist Klaus Schwab, is characterized by the merging of the digital technologies that arrived in the Third Industrial Revolution.

Previously executive vice provost of Louisiana State University, Koubek has an educational background with footholds in both technology and the liberal arts. He holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biblical literature (with a chemistry minor), as well as a master’s and Ph.D. in industrial engineering.

For universities to succeed in the new environment, they have to pay attention not to the technology, but its impact across different fields, whether social, economic, environmental or policy, he said.

“It’s a very strong comparative advantage to have a center of gravity around technology and engineering, but a full complement of faculty who are experts and understand the implications of that technology,” he said.

That was reflected in the Tech Forward initiative launched last year, where the university put forward nine initiatives after a series of campus meetings about the university’s future. Those include creating the College of Computing, intended to allow the spread of computing principles across disciplines, as well as a new Institute for Policy, Ethics and Culture, which will examine how recent technological developments are affecting society.

Koubek had proposed a number of ideas to Tech’s board while “sitting in my office in Baton Rouge.” Those overlapped in many ways with the Tech Forward proposals. But the “remarkable creativity” of faculty and staff resulted in better ideas, he said.

“It was difficult for me initially to stay out of the mix, because of course I came in with all kinds of ideas,” he said. “But I stood on the sidelines and let the process unfold to see what the faculty and staff came up with, and it was an excellent list — better than what I had.”

One of the other decisions he cites as the toughest was dissolving the School of Technology, the components of which were distributed between the new computing college as well as he business school and civil-environmental engineering departments. He described the change as “an evolutionary decision.”

“This institution needs to continue to succeed as it has in the past, which means we have to continue to be pushing the forefront and stay at the front,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re leaving anybody behind, it means we’re bringing them with.”

Koubek still plans to pursue other ideas that didn’t make it to the Tech Forward list. Long-term, he’d like to grow Tech’s business college, which in time will get a new facility.

Koubek envisions the business college’s enrollment growing at least five-fold. It will also offer more courses for students from other majors.

“Students can get a great business education, but engineering students can also learn a lot about business from there,” he said.

The university is building a plan for the next 15 years. Over that time, enrollment is projected to grow by 3 to 5 percent per year, reaching about 10,000 students compared to the current 6,800.

“We’ll be recognized at least nationally, perhaps internationally, as one of the institutions that’s helping to define what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is going to look like,” he said.

The student growth is forecast during a period where the number of high school graduates in Michigan is projected to fall. To find those students, Tech will look at two areas, Koubek said.

One is looking at populations that haven’t traditionally viewed Tech as an option. This fall is expected to have the largest entering class of women in Tech’s history, Koubek said. The freshman class is also projected to be the most racially diverse Tech has seen.

He said Tech is also looking at putting more effort into recruiting students on a national stage.

It wouldn’t take a spot away from in-state students, who are admitted if they have the qualifications, Koubek said. But it also addresses a perceived gap of skilled workers in the state, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has identified as one of the top issues facing the state.

“One of the roles that we can play is bring people in from other states that can graduate from Michigan Tech and then serve the industries of Michigan and stay here,” Koubek said.

Koubek would also like to see the university do more to grow the economic base of the region, including more technology transfer and helping to draw more companies to the area.

With the university leadership team in place, including a new chief financial officer, one focus for next year will be looking at allocating resources. The provost is also looking at ways to revise the general education curriculum at Tech.

Along with a projected increase of students this fall, at the end of the month Tech is also expected to report the highest research expenditures in the university’s history. Fundraising has also surpassed the university’s fundraising goal for the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“All of that’s landing very well, so we have wind in our sails,” Koubek said. “I expect to see that trend continue.”