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On Wayne Bennett: We were lucky to get him and unlucky to lose him

Popular MSU engineering dean to retire in June

STARKVILLE – When Mississippi State University (MSU) engineering dean Wayne Bennett announced that he would retire in June, the news rumbled throughout the state.

“We were lucky to get him and unlucky to lose him, but if anybody deserves a happy retirement, that man does,” said Rosemary Brister, executive director of the state licensing board for professional engineers and land surveyors.

Judy Adams, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies-Mississippi (ACEC-MS), said Bennett is “the epitome of what an engineer should be.”

“He is very sharp, well-spoken and polished,” she said. “He has been a great asset to MSU and to the engineering profession and we will miss him.”

A native of Rocky Mount, Va., Bennett received an electrical engineering degree in 1960 and a master`s degree in electrical engineering in 1963 from Virginia Tech. He earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Florida in 1966.

After serving as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Virginia Tech, where he was chairman of the computer engineering group, Bennett joined Clemson University, where he moved up to senior vice provost and graduate school dean. He joined MSU in August 1996 as dean of engineering.

“Dr. Bennett has been a visionary leader of the engineering profession in Mississippi and in the southeastern U.S.,” said Hunter T. Arnold, P.E., president of the Mississippi Engineering Society (MES). “He has been extremely supportive of the principles that are promoted by MES, and exemplifies the ideal traits of a professional engineer. It`s obvious that Dr. Bennett has recognized the leadership and problem-solving abilities that an engineering education instills in the young engineers of today, and he has exemplified how those abilities can be put to work at all levels of society.”

A registered professional engineer (P.E.) in Mississippi, Virginia and South Carolina, Bennett has industrial experience as a systems engineer for General Electric`s industrial control division and has consulted with GE, IBM, Litton, Babcock and Wilcox, and several other companies.

The author of “Introduction to Computer Simulation,” and co-author of four books, Bennett has published more than 50 technical papers. He established the Effective Technical Communication program at Clemson, and was featured on communication training videotapes distributed by the National Society of Professional Engineers. He has presented seminars on communications and management to the Navy, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Veterans Administration and a number of companies, including Motorola, Xerox, Texas Instruments, Chevron and AT&T. Research participation includes projects for the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and several industrial firms, including A. H. Robins.

“Dr. Wayne Bennett is one of the few professors who realize the importance of working closely with industries that hire engineering graduates so as to create a partnership between academia and industry,” said Bill Lampton, president of Ergon`s asphalt division. “His value of having a curriculum put together for entrepreneurs and showing them how to deal with people is far above others in excellence. His work ethic is second to none.”

During his tenure at Clemson and MSU, Bennett worked with state economic developers to help recruit industry from Canada, Japan, Korea and Germany. He has also coordinated international education and research exchanges in England, Japan, Russia and South Africa.

Tom Bryant, managing principal for Pickering Inc., an engineering firm in Jackson, said Bennett “not only took the MSU engineering school to the next level, but moved it up several levels.”

“Wayne Bennett is truly a class act, and his departure will be our loss at Mississippi State,” he said. “By the same token, the engineering school at State has always been strong and he will be leaving it even stronger.”

An Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow and a member of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), Bennett is also a Fellow of the International Engineering Consortium (IEC). He has held several offices in national and international technical societies, including two terms as vice president of the International Association for Mathematics and Computers in Simulation (IMACS). He is past president of the National Electrical Engineering Department Heads Association and the Southeastern Center for Electrical Engineering Education.

Bennett served on the board of directors of the ASEE and the Professional Engineers in Education for the National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE). He currently serves as a board member for the IEC and the National Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association (ECEDHA).

“Dr. Bennett has not only performed a vital function in the engineering community and made a wonderful contribution to engineering education, but also he has raised our visibility,” said Brister. “Outside the state, he has a stature that very few people in Mississippi have.”

A Rotary Club member, Bennett has also been an avid scouting volunteer. He and his wife, Shirley, a floral designer, have two children, David Bennett and Beth Bennett Varnes, who is married to Robert Varnes, and three grandchildren. David Bennett and the Varnes live in Charleston, S.C., and work for Scientific Research Corporation, a private

contractor for the Department of Defense.

The Mississippi Business Journal chatted with Bennett about retirement and rewards, challenges and changes, and the engineering industry in general.

Mississippi Business Journal: Why did you decide to retire now?

Wayne Bennett: The decision to retire as dean of the Bagley College of Engineering has been difficult for many reasons. First of all, I love my job. Working with bright students and a committed faculty makes every day special. Being involved in programs that are improving the economic well being of our state is rewarding. And, it is exciting to be a part of the rapid growth and development of the Bagley College of Engineering. However, it is time to get closer to our family on the East Coast. Also, spending more time with Shirley is important to me. She has been an active partner in every aspect of my career and has worked tirelessly for the Bagley College of Engineering.

MBJ: What has been the general response to your retirement announcement?

WB: Since I announced my plans to retire in June of 2004, a number of people have asked me questions such as: “What have you enjoyed most?” or “What are the most memorable occasions and events during your tenure as dean of engineering?” I have difficulty identifying the “most” in either case, but a number of things come to mind. Receiving support from the Robert M. Hearin Foundation during my first year is memorable, because it set the stage for incredible progress in most every aspect of undergraduate education, graduate studies and research and outreach to industry. We were able to leverage the Hearin funds to impact undergraduate students through curriculum improvements and better laboratory equipment. Programs that improve students’ communication skills, expose them to leadership and teamwork concepts, help develop entrepreneurial thinking and enable students to become more aware of the global nature of engineering careers have enhanced the undergraduate experience. The decision to require every engineering student to have a laptop computer has changed the way we teach, learn and communicate.

It has also been rewarding to follow the progress in research and graduate studies. Research expenditures have grown rapidly from $19.6 million in 1996 to more that $48.6 million last year. Our research expenditures now rank 32nd among the more than 320 accredited engineering colleges in the U.S. Our congressional delegation, state agencies such as MDOT and DEQ and corporate leaders have played major roles in helping our faculty accomplish this remarkable record. I will forever be grateful to these individuals and groups who have made thi
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The outreach programs in the Bagley College of Engineering have also produced memorable moments. Watching excited elementary school students learn about engineering and science and talking with high school students about engineering careers is just part of the fun of my job. I have been here long enough to see them come to MSU, graduate and take jobs in industry.

MBJ: What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as dean?

WB: Learning about the accomplishments of our graduates is a never-ending thrill. Hearing stories about their days at MSU from alumni who are leading state agencies, serving as CEOs of major corporations or retirees who played major roles in our country`s space program are part of a typical week on the job. I am amazed at the contributions our graduates have made to our state and nation. Important as these accomplishments are, they often pale in comparison to the excitement of a student group returning from a regional, national or international competition with other universities. In the past year alone, our students have won first place honors in most every discipline. What better way to promote Mississippi?! It is interesting to note that it is donations from our alumni that enable us to support students in these competitions. And, every student success is the result of commitments by our faculty and staff.

The generosity of our alumni has also produced memorable moments, such as Jim Bagley`s commitment to establish a $25-million endowment to make us one of the 25 named engineering colleges in the U.S. High on the list are alumni and friends who have provided support for endowed scholarships and graduate fellowships, 18 endowed faculty positions and programs such as communication skills, entrepreneurial thinking, study abroad, congressional fellowships and leadership development. Dave Swalm`s commitment to build a new chemical engineering building and the alumni gifts to renovate engineering buildings have enabled our college to have first-rate facilities.

The crystallizing moments are memorable, but it is the impacts on the lives of students and the economic well- being of our state that are lasting. The role our college played in attracting Nissan and American Eurocopter, as well as start-up companies such as SemiSouth is very satisfying. Other lasting memories will come from working with the leadership team in the college of engineering. However, we have only begun the work that is needed to prepare our state for the future. Thanks to the efforts of many people, the Bagley College of Engineering is positioned to move to new levels of excellence and play an even greater role in economic development. All of this makes leaving even more difficult.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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