Dean of Kimmel School leaving for Kettering University

On August 1, Western Carolina University will prepare to lose one of its greatest assets as Robert K. “Bob” McMahan, Dean of the Kimmel School, will be leaving for Flint, Michigan’s Kettering University to become the school’s president.

Kettering announced that McMahan would be their new president last month after the school was impressed by his resume. Dr. Robert L. Simpson, the school’s provost, said that McMahan “is a superb academic” and that when he looked at his academic credentials he appeared to be a “very strong teacher with a good record of research and scholarship.”

Along with his years in government and his entrepreneurial style that fits Kettering well, McMahan’s academic credentials were pivotal in Kettering’s Board of Trustees decision to hire him as president. Simpson went on to say that when hiring a president for a university it is “important for that candidate to have the capacity to work with many different types of people” and that he believes McMahan “fits that bill.”

Some of McMahan’s duties as the new President of Kettering University will include, according to Provost Simpson, “to become the leader of Kettering and set a vision for its future, keep a strong relationship with both the faculty and students but also the local community, and to represent the university in a positive manner.”

McMahan has been dean of the Kimmel School at WCU since March 2008 after working as the N.C. governor’s senior advisor for science and technology in Raleigh. Along with working with the governor, McMahan was executive director of the N.C. Board of Science and Technology, which former WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo was also a part of. The Board worked to create the N.C. School of Science and Math, along with a biotechnology center. It also kept tabs on what universities across the state were making strides in the fields of math and science.

The same unique blend of industry and academia that earned McMahan the dean’s chair is also what attracted him to Western Carolina.

“Western was always near the top of the Board’s listing of institutions that were working hard to create things in the fields of math and science that make a difference,” McMahan said.

He also said that even when he was on the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill, he still “became fascinated with the intriguing things that were going on at WCU.”

In his three years as founding dean of the Kimmel School, McMahan worked diligently to get the college off to a good start and to work with faculty to develop a model for how they wanted to school to be positioned. One of his signature acts as dean was to use Kimmel’s engineering program to engage with local communities.

To accomplish this, McMahan used The Rapid Center, which “acts as an interface to initiate and manage engagement opportunities between regional interests and faculty and students,” according to its webpage. The Rapid Center was not a part of Kimmel’s core at the beginning, but McMahan worked hard to develop the model for the Kimmel School that implements project based learning.

“Integrating the business activities of the Rapid Center into the projects of the students was an important process,” McMahan said, who believes that when students graduate having been subjected to “real experience with real companies that make new technologies” it creates young students with unique college educations that are hard for businesses to pass on.

McMahan cites that the “strong tradition of co-op education of engaged and hands on educational learning” drew him to the university, along with a “marvelous opportunity” to become president of a “very interesting university.” He admits that this unique mix of “economic education” made Kettering very akin to Western Carolina University, a place that he will miss dearly.

“My family and I will be keeping our home in Western North Carolina because this is such a great place to live,” McMahan said. “I’ve enjoyed the students, the faculty, the administration, and all of the other work relationships at WCU.”

Along with juggling his presidential duties at Kettering, he hopes to continue his tradition of being a teaching dean, as he most recently taught astronomy at Western and hopes to teach in the physics department at Kettering.

With McMahan now focused on packing boxes and learning from and listening to his new staff at Kettering, it is up to the Provost at WCU to determine who will step in as interim dean.

On Thursday, July 21, Beth Tyson Lofquist, WCU interim provost, announced that James Zhang will be serving as interim dean, effective Monday, Aug. 1. Zhang joined the WCU faculty in 2003 with more than 10 years of industry experience in electrical engineering research, development and management. He was appointed associate dean for the Kimmel School in 2008. From 2009 to 2010, he also served as interim head of the Department of Construction Management.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, master’s degrees in telecommunications and electrical engineering and a doctorate in electrical engineering. During his tenure at WCU, he has generated more than 50 publications. He also holds seven U.S. and international patents.