He isn't sure why, but even as a boy, Stevens Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jianmin Qu always knew he would become a college professor.
"Although I was very young, this was already what I knew I wanted to do," he recalls. "It's kind of curious because my parents did not attend college and they were not teachers. But it was always my dream."
He would accomplish that dream and more, emigrating to America from China for graduate school and eventually teaching at Georgia Institute of Technology for two decades before joining Northwestern and Tufts universities in academic leadership roles.
Now, as Stevens' top academic officer since September 2021, Qu is bringing his experiences as both a student and professor to bear on his work as the university embarks upon a newly approved Strategic Plan, one Qu played a role in developing as chair of the plan’s steering committee.
"I have two main priorities on my agenda," he explains. "First, to keep our students' college experiences always in mind and to always work to improve them. And second, to amplify the societal impact of Stevens' research enterprise, bringing it to even greater heights."
An adventurous spirit; a perfect fit
Qu completed his undergraduate studies in mathematics at Jilin University in northeast China, then moved to the United States to acquire his master's and doctoral degrees in theoretical and applied mechanics at Northwestern.
"I have actually always been very independent," he says of the decision to come to America to pursue his life's dream. "My parents had something of an adventurous spirit; I think it probably comes from them."
"The United States has what I consider to be the world's finest higher education, and I knew I would need to come here to obtain my Ph.D. and begin my teaching career. So that's what I did. It wasn't really a very difficult decision."
“[Stevens] combines the high-touch education students receive at small liberal-arts colleges with the research power of much larger research institutions.”
After postdoctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Qu was hired as a faculty member at Georgia Tech, where for 20 years he taught and developed leading-edge research in materials — including novel techniques for assessing fatigue and weakness in airframes, nuclear reactor structures and other materials using ultrasonic techniques.
Following two decades in Atlanta, he returned to Northwestern as chair of its civil and environmental engineering department, then joined Tufts as dean of that university's engineering school — where he served for six years before joining Stevens.
"I joined Stevens because of the many opportunities it offers," Qu explains. "First, Stevens is a student-centric technological research university. As we all know, reliance on technology has become a way of life. A technologically literate citizenry is essential for maintaining a stable democratic society with a thriving economy."
"Technological research universities like Stevens are well-positioned not only for advancing science and technology, but also for educating the next generation of citizens to be responsible managers and stewards of modern technologies."
"Second, this university has the perfect size. It combines the high-touch education students receive at small liberal-arts colleges with the research power of much larger research institutions — places where students sometimes feel like they are a number."
He also appreciated Stevens' proximity to New York City's cultural offerings — and the wealth of potential corporate partners in the region.
"This is the hub of technology, finance, media and many other industries," he says. "For me, it was the right fit."
Now, as he continues the work of guiding Stevens through its next decade of evolution, growth and greater impact, Qu says he will keep his twin priorities always in mind: the student experience and the societal impact of the research enterprise.
"Think about it," he says of students. "Families are entrusting us with their children’s college educations. They are expecting us to deliver a valuable life experience to their children, and we have a duty to meet that expectation; to help enable their children’s intellectual development, emotional maturity and personal growth.
"Yes, it is partly about the outcome — such as graduating with good standing and getting gainful employment afterwards — but equally important are the years spent here on campus, because these are the most formative period in a person’s life. We must lay a foundation for our students to join society as happy and productive members, fully engaged in their communities.”
"This is what I want to keep building upon: always keeping the student experience and student success central, always trying to make it ever-richer."
Some of the new initiatives Qu is currently working on include the potential creation of a new core curriculum across all Stevens' colleges and majors, and a new first-year seminar course to deliver digital skills (and life skills) to incoming undergraduate students — two key initiatives articulated in the newly approved Strategic Plan.
"This is where the future will be," he says. "We want to produce happy, well-rounded students."
Engaging industry, developing research with societal impact
With regard to Stevens' growing research enterprise, Qu says one key will be increased involvement with industry partners.
"Corporate partnership, in my experience, can take time to develop — but it is critical to make the effort. We need to find ways to work together more closely with more industry players, and there are so many potential partners in this region."
Qu will also oversee the creation of several new interdisciplinary Stevens research centers with a common goal: pursuing research that improves lives. He names healthcare as one area Stevens should invest in.
"No nation in the world has solved healthcare yet," he notes. "There are many challenges in areas such as genetics, biology, cancer and brain research in which scientists have barely scratched the surface. Stevens is doing very exciting things in many of these disciplines."
"There is also useful research to be conducted with regard to the nation's healthcare systems, examining political, legal and policy questions. Again, we have strong faculty working in these areas."
Additional newly created centers, Qu adds, will focus on key emerging fields such as sustainability, quantum science and technology, automation, and financial technology — all areas of Stevens strength.
"It's not just about publishing or perishing," he summarizes about Stevens' rising research profile. "To my mind, research must improve the lives of everyone in society. That is its ultimate purpose, and that is what we do here."