Utah’s Engineering Advantages: A Conversation with Dean Richard B. Brown

March 22, 2022

After earning degrees at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah (the U), and a stint teaching at the University of Michigan, Richard B. Brown was appointed the eleventh Dean of the College of Engineering (COE) at the U in 2004. We caught up with Dean Brown to learn about a new agreement signed with the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and about Utah’s advantages in general.

Tell us about the SUPER agreement and the U’s overall relationship with INL.
We’re delighted to have this new agreement with INL. It’s called SUPER – Strategic Understanding for Premier Education & Research. It’s a bit of a forced acronym, but you have to have a good acronym.

It gives the U a “most favored nation” relationship with the INL. They have many areas of interest that are well-aligned with our work at the U. It’ll be a very natural and productive relationship.

We already had strong ties to INL that have developed through the years. We took a trip to INL at the end of October. I was interested to know how many current joint research projects we had with INL so I surveyed our faculty. It turns out that 18 COE faculty have current projects with INL and another 91 others said they’d be interested because they have research that’s related to what INL is doing.

To give you an example, there’s a faculty member in Electrical & Computer Engineering named Behrouz Farhang who has been working for 10 years with INL. His partner at INL is Hussein Moradi. I noticed in Behrouz’s CV that he and Hussein have 25 joint publications. That’s a long and very productive collaborative effort.

INL is so excited about this collaboration that they wanted to hire a bunch of Behrouz’s PhD graduates. Those candidates weren’t interested in moving to rural Idaho, so INL opened an office in Research Park to house them in Utah. My prediction is that as our relationship deepens and grows with INL, there will be more and more INL employees living in Salt Lake City working on joint projects with the U.

INL funds some projects directly and others are funded by third parties, usually other Federal agencies. The SUPER agreement streamlines the collaboration process. INL had a mandate to partner with a Research 1 university (the U is a member of the AAU – Association ofAmerican Universities, a club of the top 65 research universities of the country), and we’re delighted that they chose us. It made great sense. We’re just a three-hour drive from Idaho Falls, most flights that INL personnel take connect through SLC, and we have aligned areas of expertise.  

The announcement of the agreement mentioned energy and security as areas of collaboration. Could you please elaborate?
As you may know the INL is the national lab in the U.S. that has the task of managing nuclear technology for energy and other peaceful applications. That has historically been one of their real strengths. They have in recent years expanded that to many forms of clean energy. They also have the task of looking at cybersecurity for processes – not for your computer, but for manufacturing, utilities, and all kinds of industrial control systems. In other words, almost anything that produces or controls anything in our country.

If some agent with ill intent wants to disrupt something in the U.S. – say, a pipeline – that’s the part of cybersecurity that INL is focused on. We’ve had some terrific joint projects on the electrical grid – another system run by computers whose security is critical to us. When a storm comes through and the power is out for a couple of hours, we can barely function. These joint efforts will help keep our power supplies secure.

INL is also working on Small Modular Reactors for power, in conjunction with organizations such as UAMPS [an EDCUtah investor]. INL also has capabilities in materials science and hydrogen as a fuel, and it has a wonderful facility for testing batteries. This ranges from lithium ion up to utility-scale batteries that support large-scale solar arrays. Electric vehicles are another very important battery use these days, and there is a lot of good work going on in our COE on these types of lithium ion batteries. These are all current or potential areas of collaboration.

You’ve long been involved in workforce development in our state. How are we doing when it comes to engineering talent?
We have a great story on talent. It really started when Mike Leavitt was the Governor of Utah. Gov. Leavitt was concerned about creating more high-paying jobs. He was concerned that the average income in Utah had been eroding compared to the national average. We had a lot of jobs, but not necessarily high-paying jobs.  He observed that the high-paying jobs were in technology, so he decided that we needed to have a high-tech economy. He made a challenge to himself to spend more time in Silicon Valley than the Governor of California did. And Gov. Leavitt actually did it!

On one of those trips, the COE arranged for him to meet with John Warnock – the co-founder of Adobe software and a U alum. Dr. Warnock said, “Governor, if you’re serious about building a high-tech economy, you’d better do something about engineering education.”

So Gov. Leavitt came back and started the Engineering Initiative. John Warnock was sitting in the front row at the State of the State address when the Governor rolled it out.

It has been a wonderful program. It has funded our growth and capacity to educate engineers. At the time, the COE was graduating 366 engineers. This past year, we graduated 1,145. I anticipate that that growth is going to continue, because our thriving tech economy can take all of the engineers and computer scientists that we can produce.

This session, the Utah Legislature invested another $5 million on-going in the Engineering Initiative. The Technology Initiative Advisory Board, a non-partisan group of industry members, decides how to spread that money among Utah System of Higher Education schools to do the most good in growing the number of engineering graduates.


How many of these students stay in Utah? Are we just underwriting the California economy?
The answer is no. A couple of weeks ago, we looked at graduates from the past three years. More than 85% of our Bachelors in Engineering and Computer Science graduates take jobs in Utah. We currently have 6,411 engineering students at the U and that is growing rapidly.

We had 1,135 Freshmen declare that they were coming into the COE this year. We get a lot of transfer students as well. About a third of the students who graduate from the COE started somewhere else and transferred to the U; the majority came from Salt Lake Community College.

In 2004, 7% of Freshmen were coming into the COE. That grew to as high as 23%. The U is quickly becoming an engineering university. It’s our goal to see more Utah students getting the education they need to take these high-paying jobs and contribute to the Utah economy.

How diverse is the population of COE students at the U?
When I came to the U, 10% of the COE student body was women. That was 208 students. We now have 1,060 women students in our undergraduate population and are up to 21% women – about at the national average. For minority students, the story is similar. In 2005 we had 405 students of color. Today we have 1,924 undergraduates of color, and that number represents 38% of our students - more students of diverse backgrounds than you see in the latest graduating high school class in Utah at 22%.

Retention of university students is always a concern. The biggest fallout in any program comes between the Freshman and Sophomore year, and engineering is “not the path of least resistance.” You may be surprised to learn that our retention of female students is higher than that of male students, and our retention of students of color is higher than that of white students.


What challenges does the COE face?
Our big challenge right now is space. We are delighted that John and Marcia Price have committed to providing a $15 million naming-level donation, and that the Legislature allocated funding to get the detailed architectural design done in anticipation of completing the funding next session.

We have to raise another $15 million from private donors, and we are working with our federal legislative delegation to find funding to include in the building a SCIF – a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, for classified research. This will significantly increase our ability to collaborate with INL. There are few universities that have one, but we have a number of faculty members who want to do research in this space. We’re also in the final stages of an agreement with Hill Air Force Base to partner on this kind of research. The Federal government is requiring protection of data in more and more research projects.

INL has offered to sponsor clearances for faculty – and students – so that they can be involved with sensitive research projects, and when the student graduates, they will be able to start working for INL or another national lab or government contractor without the delay to get their clearance. That’s another benefit of the SUPER agreement.

What’s your message to site selectors evaluating Utah?
When I was a PhD student here, my own research was in developing solid-state sensors. We didn’t have all of the equipment we needed to run the process, but my advisor, Bob Huber, had a good relationship with Signetics, a semiconductor manufacturing company that was in Orem. They were willing to run these couple of steps for me that I couldn’t do in our lab.

While I was waiting, I chatted up the people there. Their main facility was in San Jose. So I asked them – how does this Utah facility compare with San Jose? They said, “Our productivity in Utah is much higher. The employees in Utah are reliable, and have a great work ethic. We love Utah.”

I’ve heard the same thing from people at L3-Harris, actually from a lot of different people.

Another thing I’d say is that we have a growing population of well-educated young people. There are many states – particularly in the Midwest – where the high school graduating class is declining in numbers. It’s hard to create the workforce a company needs when the incoming class is declining. Fortunately, in Utah it is still going up.

Just a week ago I received an email from an organization called the Bachelor’s Degree Center, that said of all the engineering programs in the country, the U’s is the second most affordable.  This doesn’t mean we have the lowest tuition, but the cost of the degree compared to the value of the degree gave us the number two slot in their ranking. At the U, students get a PAC-12 engineering education at the lowest tuition of any of the PAC-12 schools.  


For more information on SUPER, read here.