David B. Thorud Leadership Award
Photograph of Connie Bourassa-Shaw

Greg Miller

Professor and Chair, Civil & Environmental Engineering, College of Engineering

Nominated by Mike Bragg, Frank and Julie Jungers, Dean of Engineering College of Engineering

Awarded 2017

It is my great pleasure to recommend Professor Greg Miller, Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), for the 2017 David B. Thorud Leadership Award. He has been a tremendous leader in the College of Engineering and across campus for many years. In his role as Chair, he has been remarkably effective in leading a large Engineering department through a time of major change, bringing both growth and higher departmental stature, while significantly improving morale. He is a visionary and effective leader who exemplifies the attributes of the Thorud Award.

Innovation and Problem Solving. We value innovation in leadership, and Greg has been outstanding in bringing creative solutions to vexing problems. I recount just a few examples here. Like many units of campus, CEE is housed in dated facilities: CEE’s main building dates from the 1940s and it looks pretty much the same. (The most common comment from returning alumni is that the building looks just like they remember it, regardless of their year of graduation.) After several decades of minimal improvements within the building, Greg worked with faculty, students, and staff to break the cycle of passivity and to develop funding models to make improvements that are noticeable, functional, and symbolic of making the most of what the department has. This has ranged from something as simple as installing a water-bottle-friendly drinking fountain, to creating collaboration space for students, upgraded classrooms for instruction, new research facilities, and improved faculty/staff meeting areas. The old habit of complaining about the building has been replaced with a can-do attitude, improved facilities, and a better functioning department.

A second example comes in faculty hiring. Like many departments, CEE had a history of contention among different areas of specialization when hiring faculty. Greg realized this came in part from the UW’s default annual hiring cycle, which led to perennial battles over one or two faculty positions at a time. Greg did a detailed analysis of CEE’s likely hiring rate over a ten-year period, and used this analysis to move the department to develop multi-year hiring plans of 6-8 hires at a time. This led to a more collaborative and strategic approach to hiring and a string of highly successful hires.

Listening Skills. As chair, Greg sees his role as enacting the will of the faculty rather than imposing his own will. The trick is to provide the faculty and staff with opportunities to discuss ideas that lead to the emergent will of the faculty, and to be engaged in both informing the conversations with problem statements, data, and potential alternative solutions, and in listening carefully to ensure decisions are as inclusive as possible. Greg is particularly gifted in framing issues for productive discussions; making sure everyone is heard; and crafting actions based on serious effort to understand everyone’s position.

An example of this is a major departmental curriculum revision that was implemented during Greg’s first term as chair. CEE had spent literally three decades debating modifications to their required junior year curriculum. Despite divisiveness among faculty members, Greg found a way to bridge the various factions and develop a proposal that was supported unanimously, and implemented within the following year. Writes Professor Dawn Lehman, “Greg Miller’s leadership style is a unique blend of brave initiatives and community-building. He led the department through a transition to a very different approach to the CEE undergraduate curriculum. Faculty members take great pride in their course content. Greg engaged the faculty on finding a common thread through the courses, therefore identifying the critical content (rather than course) for the future of CEE education at UW. The end result was a curriculum built on an integration of expertise and consensus… through Greg’s leadership we all recognized that the change was necessary, and the methodology used to derive the solution was one that everyone agreed to.” Shortly after that, the department underwent its periodic ABET accreditation review, receiving its best outcome in memory.

Quality Work and Example Setting. Greg brings credibility and trust to his leadership. Credibility in academia builds on quality work, while trust relies on setting an example of follow-through. Greg is first and foremost a good faculty member, receiving a UW Distinguished Teaching Award and an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award. Also, as an alumnus of UW CEE, he has a deep commitment to the department. Fortunately, Greg has the full respect of his colleagues, which I saw firsthand during the review I led as when renewing his appointment for a second term. I met separately with faculty and staff and literally everyone in the department uniformly supported his renewal. The most common comment I heard was “Please make sure he stays.”

Value and Respect for People. Greg believes that faculty members and staff will not be happy unless they are doing well professionally, feel supported by their institution, and like working with their colleagues. During his reappointment, it was clear to me that the faculty and staff feel respected and that their input is valued. Indeed, Associate Professor Anne Goodchild writes, “I’m amazed at the personal relationships he is able to cultivate with faculty, students, and staff.” Adds Professor Emeritus Steve Burges, “Greg’s thinking is always for the long-term good.” Associate Professor Michael Dodd contributes, “Greg has truly brought us closer together as a department through his efforts.”

Partnerships and New Ideas: Besides his great work in CEE, Greg has been broadly engaged across the college and campus as a team player and a team builder. He recently led a committee to determine how big the College of Engineering should be to best suit the needs of students and the needs of Washington State for hiring our graduates. The outcome of this committee’s work is now guiding the College’s 10-year growth plan. He subsequently served on a committee to examine the College of Engineering’s admission system and to recommend how to enroll engineering students in the coming decades. This committee’s will have a profound effect on the academic experience of all future engineering students. It was key having Greg’s perspective as both an UW Engineering undergraduate alumnus and a department chair.

Greg has been equally active partnering outside Engineering. He maintains a close relationship with the College of the Environment where he serves as a de facto member of their Executive Committee, and has helped with several joint initiatives, including multiple joint hires between CEE and other units. He also serves on the Steering Committee for Urban@UW, which provides broad linkages between Engineering and a wide array of other campus programs interacting with urban systems and populations. He is a member of the UW Research Advisory Board and the Hyak Board. Greg is clearly someone who is sought out across campus for partnerships and participation for forward-looking initiatives. He is also an important partner on diversity. He has regularly spoken at the ADVANCE leadership workshops for department chairs at UW. He has aggressively recruited women to the CEE faculty, and the percentage of female assistant and associate professors in CEE is 41%, while nationally CEE departments have an average of just 16.3% female faculty.

Accomplishments, Achieving Large Scale Goals: I hope I have given a good sense of Greg’s remarkable leadership attributes. However, I want to highlight his spectacular leadership results. Greg’s first year was met with challenges that could break just about anyone. When he started, CEE had just gone through a period of five interim and short-term chairs in five years, so there was no normal transition from one long-term chair to the next. Within weeks of starting his chair appointment, his administrator was put on leave and could not be replaced. For six months, Greg had to function as both chair and administrator with virtually no system memory, all during the era when UW budgets were in free-fall. He also inherited several thorny HR situations which required action despite the likelihood of lawsuits. Greg showed true courage during these uncommon circumstances. His willingness to make difficult decisions, even at significant personal cost, has greatly benefitted CEE.

Since Greg became chair, enrollments are up across the board including a 50% increase in PhD students; 17 new faculty have been hired; the departmental national ranking has risen from 19 to 14; CEE houses four new research centers; three new online degree programs have been launched; there have been 19 faculty promotions with 6 more underway; CEE faculty and staff have won Distinguished Teaching, Distinguished Contributions to Lifelong Learning, and Distinguished Staff Awards; two CEE faculty were named to the National Academy of Engineering; and CEE’s endowment has more than doubled. Not bad for 7 year’s work.

Greg would downplay his own role in these amazing accomplishments but I know these kinds of things do not happen without effective, innovative, and collaborative leadership. In summary, I can think of no faculty leader at UW whom I think would be a better candidate for the David Thorud Award than Greg Miller. I hope he will be selected for this wonderful honor.

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