Leading for the Future: A Conversation with Honors College Dean Toni Doolen

Toni Doolen’s five-year tenure as the dean of the Honors College has been a period of almost constant change. Since becoming dean in 2012, the college has grown from 600 to 1,200 students and moved twice, ending up in the Learning Innovation Center, OSU’s new world-class facility for teaching and learning. In that time, Toni has also been at the forefront of campus-wide efforts to increase the number and diversity of high-potential students enrolling at and graduating from Oregon State University.

Toni earned her Ph.D. in industrial engineering at Oregon State in 2001, just before joining the faculty. She has two bachelor’s degrees from Cornell University and a master’s degree from Stanford University.

Originally from eastern Montana, Toni had a successful career in private industry before coming to Oregon State, working as a process engineer, a manufacturing systems engineer, and a manager with Hewlett-Packard, in the Optical Communications Division in San Jose, California and the Inkjet Supplies Business Unit in Corvallis, Oregon. While working for Hewlett-Packard, she became an active member of the Society of Women Engineers, a nonprofit professional and educational society, and she continues to lead outreach activities for the organization.

In this interview, Toni discusses her engineering career and educational background, as well as her education advocacy work and her leadership of the Honors College.

Engineering, Research, and Education

In addition to serving as dean of the Honors College, you are a professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering. What is the focus of your engineering research and scholarship?

My primary research is a sub-discipline known as engineering management. My work looks at technical organizations—any business that has an element of engineering, engineering design, or technology as a core part of their business. The research is inspired by my work at Hewlett-Packard and looks at managing human capital as well as technical capital and how to use these resources to create dynamic and innovative organizations.

What led to your interest in engineering?

Growing up in eastern Montana, I had no interest in engineering. I ended up taking an introductory course in material science and engineering because my older brother studied material science, and I wanted a better understanding of his field. The course focused on what takes place conceptually within systems, which was fascinating and different from the pre-med courses I was taking in the College of Liberal Arts. At the end of my freshman year, I applied to transfer to the College of Engineering. This was in the days before everything was done online, so I waited all summer long to find out that I had been accepted into the engineering program.

Tell me about your family and educational background.

My grandfather owned a creamery, but when my parents started a family, the business wasn’t big enough to support all of us. My dad became a production worker at an oil refinery, and my mother didn’t work, except when my dad went on strike. My parents grew up in a small town in Montana, got married directly after high school, and didn’t attend college. They both valued education and expected us to do well in school. Their expectation was that all five of us would try college. Out of five children, my older brother and I are the only siblings to finish college. My older brother also attended Cornell University, so I visited the campus when we dropped him off in his freshman year.

Before returning to academia to earn your Ph.D., you worked as a process engineer and a manufacturing systems engineer for Hewlett-Packard. Could you tell me more about your work at Hewlett-Packard?  

In 1987 I graduated and started working for Hewlett-Packard. One of my engineering degrees from Cornell University, material sciences and engineering, was created to give students training in semiconductor processing and manufacturing, so the HP job was aligned with my studies. The position was with a manufacturing facility, and I didn’t have any manufacturing experience, per se, but they were looking for a process engineer in photolithography, which is an area in which I had conducted undergraduate research. The facility also did development as well as engineering, so I thought it would be the perfect place.

After working at HP, why did you decide to pursue graduate studies?

I earned a Master’s in manufacturing systems engineering from Stanford University while I was in the Bay Area and still working for HP. I loved working in the high-paced manufacturing environment. At HP, I was encouraged to apply for management positions, but in going through the application process, I realized that I wasn’t excited to continue moving up through the levels of management. It just didn’t feel right, and it was my husband who reminded me that I wanted to return to academia. With his encouragement, I applied to OSU. I chose industrial engineering because I wanted to study engineering management and industry training. My family and I thought we would leave Oregon State once I completed my Ph.D. because my goal was to transition from industry to academia, but they were hiring when I graduated, and I got a job here.

How does working at a university compare to your work at Hewlett-Packard?

A professor of engineering conducts research, mentors a group of graduate students, and writes grant proposals. In that respect, it’s sort of like managing your own business, but it’s the business of your research, and you have the fun job of teaching on top of that.

Toni in her office in the Learning Innovation Center

From the beginning of my career in academia, I sought tenure. As a female faculty member in engineering, I feel that it’s important to serve as a role model to demonstrate that a woman can become a professor and be promoted. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I never had a female faculty member, and I think it’s validating for female students who chose engineering to see themselves in the profession. I finally had a female faculty member who taught engineering economics at my master’s program. In my Ph.D. program, I minored in statistics and had some female faculty there, but women aren’t well-represented in engineering. We’re not yet represented at the 50 percent mark. That’s one of my goals: to be a role model for women who are thinking about engineering but don’t see themselves in the field.

Engineering Advocacy

Can you share more information about your involvement in the Society of Women Engineers and the organization’s importance to you and the field?

SWE is a nonprofit educational and professional society. This is different from many professional societies because part of our mission includes education, as well as supporting women who’ve already entered STEM fields. Another big component of SWE’s work is outreach education in elementary and secondary schools. The educational mission of SWE really helped me engage in SWE’s outreach work.

Have you experienced challenges as a woman in a field that remains largely male?

Women typically only make up 14 percent of engineers, and 20 percent of engineering majors in college are women. I’ve found that the way that information gets disseminated in engineering is often from a very male and tech-oriented culture. Engineering can be an extremely satisfying career for women, both in industry and in academia, but we also have to develop some skills to navigate a career in which women are a noticeable minority. I think a big part of closing the gender gap in engineering is helping people understand some of the presumptions that get put upon women. I hear from female undergraduate engineering students that they’re often asked to be the note taker, that it’s often assumed that they’re less skilled in the more technical aspects of the job. Navigating these social structures and expectations is really challenging. And for a lot of women, if it happens enough and they’re not cognizant of it, they may start to think that they aren’t capable and that they don’t belong in the field. Helping women recognize that and teaching them to be their own advocates is one way to address this issue. Another part of the equation is helping men understand their role in societal norms and structures, so a big component of this is education. That’s been a passion of mine, and that’s why I’m still active in SWE locally.

The Honors College

How did you become involved in the Honors College?

During one of my first days on campus, I met Bill Bogley who was associate dean of the HC at the time. He told me about the Honors College experience at OSU and noted that HC students must complete a thesis. I talked to him about my experience conducting undergraduate research at Cornell, which was impactful and one of the reasons that I returned to academia. I think that if I hadn’t done research as an undergraduate, I wouldn’t have thought about a career as a faculty member.

In your time as dean, what accomplishments and changes are you most proud of?

There are three things that I’m proud of as a dean: first, putting together an amazing team of leaders and dedicated people. We’ve gone from a college of 600 to 1,200 in the last six years, and while we’ve added a couple of part-time resources, we haven’t fundamentally grown as a team. I’m really proud that we’re still serving students in a really personalized way with a small staff. I’m also really proud that we finally have a strategic plan. We’d had a couple of strategic plans in the early days of the college, but connecting what we’re doing to the rest of the university has been essential as the HC looks ahead. Finally, I’m proud that we’ve continued the work in transitioning our Board of Regents from an operationally-focused group to a more strategic board that focuses on philanthropy and big-picture direction.

We’ve also made progress in thinking about student engagement. The Student Leadership Circle is in its second year, and the Parent Leadership Circle—which gives us a different perspective on student life—is in its third. Overall, we’ve been engaging students in a much more intentional way.

What keeps you engaged in continuing to work in the HC?

Interacting with students one-on-one is a huge part of what keeps me engaged—that’s a truly rewarding part of my role as dean of the HC. I’m excited that OSU is so committed to student success as an institution. In my mind, student success means serving both students who come to OSU underprepared and students who arrive ready to meet the demands of studying in a university. At the Honors College we’re doing something that’s in direct alignment with what the university is trying to accomplish in student learning, and that’s exciting.

What are the greatest challenges facing the Honors College in the next 5-10 years? How do you imagine addressing those challenges?

Our students graduate from OSU at incredible rates and are extremely capable, but we’ve historically under-performed in getting students to honors degree competition. Two other areas of focus are helping students complete their thesis projects and cultivating an understanding of the value of the Honors College community. We’re now putting some of our tactical resources into helping students engage in the thesis process early, as well as helping students connect to the Honors College community at all stages of their education.

We grew very quickly as a college, but our scholarship resources did not grow at the same rate, so that’s another huge challenge. It’s great that we grew as a college in support of what OSU is trying to do to bring in high-potential students, but we have students who can’t maintain their honors membership because they can’t afford to pay the differential tuition. Now we’re seeking endowments and support from private sources to fund opportunities like differential tuition scholarships. That’s an area that we’ll have to double down on and continue to work toward.

What sets HC students apart and how does the experience change their education?

HC students are here to get the most out of their education, and they opt into activities at an unusually high rate. Our responsibility is helping them find and choose opportunities that are going to be valuable and meaningful in helping them accomplish their long-term academic and professional goals. OSU is a big place, and it can be challenging for students to navigate the intricacies of the university system. A lot of students as undergrads only navigate the educational part of their experience at OSU; they don’t yet have to navigate the research component of education. Because honors students are required to write and defend a thesis it’s an important part of our job.

What are you hopes or goals for the HC in the near future?

I’m most excited about becoming a college in which students don’t leave because they can’t pay differential tuition. We’ve always talked about the Honors College as a testing ground for the rest of the university, and I believe that some of the innovations that we try out here could be disseminated throughout OSU. It can be something as small as a faculty member trying a new pedagogy in an honors classroom and then taking that practice into other classrooms. It can be what we’re doing around tracking student engagement as a way to figure out when we need to intervene with students so they reach honors degree completion. There’s no reason those systems can’t applied to a student seeking OSU degree completion. If we become really great at what we do, we can help the rest of the university by taking what we learn in a smaller and more controlled environment and employing those practices elsewhere at OSU.

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