Akers accepts position at Bradley University, bids Mizzou Engineering a fond farewell
Lex Akers arrived at the University of Missouri in 2001 to assume chairmanship of the Electrical Engineering Department and became the college’s academic dean in 2006. In December 2011, he was named the founding dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. He began that new chapter in his career on May 1.
Reflecting on his tenure as associate dean for academic programs at Mizzou, Akers said it has been the “the perfect storm.”
“By allowing me to hire people with passion, determination and focus who work together in harmony, we were be able to take the challenges the dean [Jim Thompson] put before us and both meet and exceed his expectations,” Akers said.
Just as he joined the administration, the college was beginning to lay groundwork for the reconstruction of the Lafferre Hall’s 1922 addition. Working with Mike Klote, manager of engineering technical services, and Marty Walker, engineering’s director of administrative services, Aker’s supervised the reconstruction of 25,000 square feet of outdated lab space into 60,000 square feet of modern, multi-disciplinary undergraduate labs, research facilities, classrooms and offices.
“We were working to move the college forward into experiential learning and visited universities around the country for ideas,” Akers said. “We now have a showcase facility for students and faculty to work simultaneously in an interdisciplinary setting. It was a tremendous group effort.”
Under his leadership, the college’s Student Services Office and its programs were revamped and extended — efforts that include increased recruitment strategies, expanded initiatives to add diversity to the engineering student body and new retention efforts. An innovative and growing international program that includes a long-anticipated study abroad initiative also was launched.
“From summer camps to Mother/Daughter Day, we’ve drilled down into middle schools to share the excitement of engineering and the beauty of the MU campus,” Akers said of recruitment activities. “There is a 21 percent increase in enrollment and the quality of our students just keeps going up. The recruiting team has hit a home run.”
Enrollment by minority students and young women also has increased significantly in the last six years. “I’m very proud of what my staff has done,” Akers said of the college’s continuing effectiveness in these efforts. “From world and life experience, we know that the best engineering teams are diverse engineering teams.”
Efforts to ensure that students have the support and tools they need to be successful as they make the transition into college and as they continue their studies have been a priority. The college has made gains by increased emphasis on Freshman Interest Group (FIG) living situations whereby engineering freshmen room together in residence hall blocks and take core classes together.
“It’s important the engineering students spend time with their peers. It helps with satisfaction and retention,” Akers said. “We are pushing the university to extend FIGs.
Student services also launched an enrichment program to aid in student retention. Akers said that high school students are often surprised at the level of commitment necessary to succeed as college students.
“Some of them have never had to study,” he said. “With the new enrichment program, we get grades from their first math test. Instead of waiting for them to fail, we can rapidly identify students who need help and turn the situation around,” Akers added.
Most recently, Mizzou Engineering Student Services has initiated international and study abroad programs.
“We recognized that we needed to internationalize the undergraduate program to help students learn about different cultures through shared experiences and challenges,” Akers said of the college’s concerted efforts to attract students from outside the U.S. This semester, there are 120 international students enrolled in the college’s undergraduate program, up from just a handful two years ago.
“What a touchdown the study abroad program has been as well,” Akers said. “We have wanted to do this for many years, and in its second year we have over 100 students who come back with life-changing experiences. It opens their eyes to possibilities, adds to their maturity and helps with employment when they graduate.”
Akers spent all six of his years as associate dean working on the college’s Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., (ABET) accreditation process, meeting regularly with department chairs and faculty. “We know we do a quality job, but we needed to be able to tell that story,” he said. “The chair of the ABET review said it was one of the best he’s ever seen.
“The people I have worked with here are the best people I’ve worked with in my whole life. They are dedicated to the college’s mission,” Akers said.
“When I discussed this job with Jim [Thompson] six years ago, he said, ‘Here’s a wish list. These are the things I want you to do.’ He challenged me. He’s been a great mentor and role model and we have worked together as a team. It’s been enjoyable.
“Leaving is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”