Interview With Dean Zu

On Tuesday, I sat down with the new Dean of the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science, Dr. Jean Zu. Walking into the second floor of the EAS building to find her office under renovation, it was clear that change was coming to the school. Dean Zu’s new position means that she is now in charge of overseeing eight departments and 50 academic programs.

Dean Zu’s story starts in China where she attended one of the country’s top engineering schools, Tsinghua University. There she completed both her undergraduate and master degrees in the field of engineering mechanics, an interdisciplinary field that combines math, physics, and engineering all into one degree. There, she also began her career as a professor and researcher for three years. Her particular field of study focuses on mechanical vibrations. From the vibrations of car engines to energy harvesting bio-instruments, Dean Zu has done it all.

At that point in time, Professor Zu was in a state of economic hardship, but she had the dream of coming to the West and studying abroad. Her father, a very important academic in China, pushed her to make the move. Through a friend of hers, she was able to apply to one school in Canada, the University of Manitoba, because she had the application fee waived by someone who would end up becoming her supervisor. She jumped at this chance, adding that “whenever a good opportunity is presented, I would never miss it.” But she felt it very important to clarify that a good opportunity includes timing and making sure to leave no unfinished business behind. That one application opened the door to the rest of her career. At Manitoba, she earned her Ph.D. and continued her research.

From Manitoba, she was accepted to the University of Toronto, a top school in Canada, as a professor. Dean Zu was happily surprised to be accepted to the school because she did not expect any chance of getting in. From there she continued on to become the chair of her department in 2009. That particular department had recently undergone a merger which left some hostile feelings lingering between faculty and alumni. As the Chair, Zu was able to seamlessly turn this hostility around and create a community filled with unity and loyalty. In addition to this, she modernized an outdated management system and led the department to great success. She attributes many of her leadership abilities to her father, saying that leadership is in her blood.

A short time later, another school came looking for then chairwoman Zu to become dean of their school, but she turned down the offer. Zu felt the timing was not right for her and remained in her position until four years later when Stevens came knocking and she answered the call. She described her life as one full of bonuses. The most she ever dreamed of was becoming a professor; becoming a department chair and now dean was not even part of her wildest dreams.

Dean Zu is headed for great success with her three-part plan to build a stronger community. The first step is increasing lines of communication, starting with a monthly newsletter from the Schaefer School and a town hall meeting every semester so students have the chance to voice their opinions on how to improve the school. The second step is stronger collaboration, in every aspect of the word. This includes all students, faculty, schools, and departments that make up Stevens. Finally, one of the most important steps is to project the great success stories of Stevens to the world with the hopes of making Stevens an even more elite school known in every corner of the globe. Her goal is to help Stevens become part of the top 50 universities in the world. Many of these ideas come from her previous experiences in which she has proven these ideas to have worked.

Finally, I ended by asking Dean Zu what advice she has for the incoming freshman and the seniors that are set to graduate in 2018 from the Schaefer School. For the freshman, she said that these are tough fields to study, so persistence and patience are very important, but also build lifetime relationships with friends and have fun memories along the way. And for the seniors, she noted the great foundation that they have been given, and “to keep lifelong learning and growth, it’s only the beginning.”