In today’s complex world, engineers are seen more and more as imaginative problem-solvers. Philippe Fauchet, the new dean of Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, is a perfect example. Most of his career has been spent talking and working collaboratively. He’s enthusiastic, energetic and engaged—as demonstrated by these facets of his biography that don’t necessarily appear on his C.V.
Fauchet came from the University of Rochester, where he had been department chair of electrical and computer engineering and founded key research groups.
Fauchet earned a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University, a master’s degree in engineering from Brown University, and an undergraduate engineering degree in his home country of Belgium.
Fauchet is motivated by ideas, people and opportunities. “This perhaps relates to my very diverse interests—I don’t feel I’m bound by a narrow definition of engineering.”
He sees his position as dean as a connector. “[rquote]A good part of my role is bringing people together,” he said.[/rquote] “Then my job in many cases is to move away and let them talk and dream their dreams together.”
Fauchet wants to expand and forge collaborations within and between the School of Engineering and other schools across the university quickly. “Some of those new connections will need to be nurtured to be successful and will take quite a while, so the earlier we get started, the better off we are.”
Having been in the classroom until a few months ago, he believes the most powerful thing professors can do is engage students in ideas. “What you find is that, very often, the most successful researchers are the most engaging teachers. Simply by bringing the enthusiasm and the success that they have in the lab into the classroom has a huge impact on the students.”
Fauchet believes universities have a moral responsibility to be the engine of innovation. “We may be the main research arm of society today.”
He wants Vanderbilt’s research to have a high profile. “[rquote]The quality of what’s going on here in terms of research is so fantastic that not sharing it with others would be almost a criminal act.”[/rquote]
As a professor, Fauchet has mentored more than 40 Ph.D.’s. “I found over the years that I also like to nurture young faculty members.”
10. Change Agent
He sees engineers as world changers. “I wish we had more engineers in government and in Washington because I think we’d have—no matter what their political leaning—people who could look at a problem and break down a problem in a reasonable way and then provide or propose solutions.”
11. Students First
Fauchet wants to connect with students even though he won’t be teaching this year. “I always knew I wanted to be in academia because I absolutely cherish the interaction with students. I always have,” he said. “Their quote unquote naïve questions turn out to be the most profound questions. I get older every year, but they are always 18 to 22 years old and the enthusiasm that they have, that they bring, is just fantastic.”
12. A New Country
When Fauchet finished his undergraduate degree, Europe was still in the Cold War and opportunities were limited. “You had to sort of wait in line, essentially, until somebody retired or died,” he said. “I felt I should come to the States, which was much more vibrant and much more open.”
At Brown, he was friends with students from Japan, China, Libya, Ireland, the United States and Palestine. “[rquote]For my personal growth, that was perhaps one of the most critical points in my life.[/rquote] It was eye-opening to the fact that the world is multicultural, a very diverse world,” he said.
Growing up, he wanted to be a history teacher. “History was my passion—still is my passion, actually. My history teacher talked to my mother and said, ‘Don’t let him do that,’” Fauchet said. His father recommended he use his math and science skills to become an engineer. “I went to engineering school and I loved it.”
He and his wife, Melanie, have 13 adopted and biological children ranging in age from almost 3 to 23. Four are in college and one is finishing her senior year of high school in Rochester.
The eight youngest are adapting to Nashville. “The biggest surprise for them has been that school starts so early in Tennessee compared to New York,” Fauchet said. “They lost three weeks of vacation in the summer. But they have already found friends.”
His 15-year-old daughter has the transition thing down. “She loves Tennessee because you can start driving at 15, whereas in New York state it’s 16. Which, of course, makes my wife and me very nervous.”
18. On the Ball
The Fauchets could be called a tennis family. Melanie Fauchet is both a nurse practitioner who has worked with at-risk adolescents and adults and a tennis pro. One son is consistently the University of Richmond’s No. 1 or 2 player, and their 14-year-old son is beginning to play in national tournaments. Fauchet himself used to play two to three times a week, but he has yet to find a tennis group here.
Fauchet is fluent in English and his native French. He learned Dutch in high school but never practiced it.
He used to be able to read Spanish, which he taught himself so he could devour books on chess theory. When he was a young competitive chess player, the best chess books on theory were published in Russian. Spain at that time didn’t obey copyright law, and the Soviet books were translated quickly. “If you wanted to have a leg up on the competition, to find the new theories, you had to be able to read Russian, which I did not, or Spanish,” he said. “I never was able to speak Spanish, but I was able to navigate those books.”
21. Feet Up
For relaxation, Fauchet plays chess online and reads history. “I like history of any stripe. I think it’s fascinating to see what happened to human beings and how they reacted and how they behaved and what problems they had to face.”
by Nancy Wise
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