Q&A with College of Computing Dean Dennis Livesay

Increase enrollment. Promote diversity and inclusion. Grow the research portfolio.
Michigan Technological University’s newly arrived College of Computing Dean Dennis
Livesay shares present priorities and future goals.

In the midst of settling in and setting up — from his campus office to the large portions
of his home dedicated to LEGO — Livesay (pronounced Lev-eh-see), shares the journey
that brought the inaugural
Dave House Dean of the College of Computing to this point in life and career, and the journey he expects current and incoming
students will embark on as he guides the College of Computing (CC) into the future
by building on its current success.

A CC First

Livesay is first to hold the Dave House Deanship in the College of Computing, a reinforcement
of the University’s commitment to computing. The gift from alumnus Dave House ’65
recognizes that computing is central to all disciplines and central to the future
of Michigan Tech.

Q: You just arrived in Houghton. What’s your first impression of campus and the Keweenaw?

DL: I absolutely love it! Michigan Tech was the original draw, but I simply love the region.
My family and I enjoy the outdoors. We can’t wait to explore.

Q: As an adult fan of LEGO (AFOL), you might be interested to know that numerous Michigan
Tech folks are involved in
FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Robotics teams here in the Keweenaw. What kind of community activities
are you and your family interested in, for both learning and fun? 

DL: We’re huge fans of LEGO! My son, Maxwell, who’s 10, loves to play LEGO — when he’s
not playing video games — and he and my wife Lauren did LEGO Mindstorms as well. Max’s
school [in Kansas] has a great Mindstorms robotics program in the middle school, but
not for his grade. So Lauren formed the team, learned the system and coached the team.
It was a great experience for everyone because they were learning together through
the journey. 

A man wearing glasses in front of a LEGO city he has constructed.
LEGOs aren’t just for kids. Like many adults, Livesay, here with his LEGO city, enjoys
the creativity and relaxation of one of his favorite hobbies. (Home and family images
courtesy Dennis Livesay)

We’re also a hockey family. Maxwell played travel hockey in Wichita, and I started
playing a little over six months ago. We’re both wingers — he’s pretty good, but I
suck (laughing). We’re big-time St. Louis Blues fans. Our last vacation was across
eastern Canada, following the Blues from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal. It was at
the start of last year’s season when they were the defending Stanley Cup champions.
We had a blast!

A dad and his son on a Kansas ice rink in hockey gear with the Midwest Championship sign behind them and the son holding a water bottle. They both are suited up in their hockey gear.
The Livesays will be getting acquainted with the Copper Country’s hockey rinks.

Other hobbies are outdoor activities. Lauren and I both used to race bicycles. She
still rides quite a bit, but I moved on to running. We love to hike and (car) camp.
And all of us are looking forward to learning how to ski. 

A mom, 10-year-old son, and dad outside a stone building with a blue sky. They are a smiling family wearing fall jackets..
The Livesay family is excited to explore the Keweenaw.

Q: Is there anything about the local area you’d like to know more about? What sparks
your curiosity here in the Keweenaw?

DL: Learning about cross-country skiing tops my list. I can’t wait to get started.

Q: That’s the perfect segue to your current priorities for the College of Computing,
including increased enrollment. Can you give us an if-then statement on each of the
CC’s undergraduate degree programs to help a future Husky think through choice of

DL: Computer Network and System Administration: If you want to create and manage the next generation of powerful, widely accessible
and secure computing and networking infrastructure for enterprise and industrial applications,
then computer network and system administration is the field for you.

Computer Science: If you love problem-solving and want to use that talent to create computing solutions,
then a CS major can give you the foundation for a career creating computing solutions
in a wide range of application areas.

Cybersecurity: If you feel the calling to do something about escalating threats in cyberspace and
to protect America’s computing and computer network resources, then consider opportunities
in cybersecurity, where there is a critical need for your skills.

Electrical Engineering Technology: If you like to work with your hands as well as your brain, and want to design, implement
and maintain the next generation of electrical systems for industrial control and
automation, then our electrical engineering technology program is the right fit for

Mechatronics: If you want to be part of the future of manufacturing, which lies in technologies
that bring together mechanical systems, electrical systems and intelligent computing
and control, then you will find a home in the exciting, highly valued field of mechatronics.

Software Engineering: If you dream of writing software applications or managing software projects that delight the user, then a software engineering degree will give you the
skills and knowledge you need.

General Computing: If you’re not sure what your specific computing interests are yet, then general computing
is the place to explore different options that will help you decide where you want
to focus. 

Q: A three-time dean who comes to MTU from Wichita State, your path to your current profession was not entirely linear or predictable. What can students who are still figuring
out their place in the academic and professional world learn from your experiences?

DL: Be curious. Be open to new experiences. Be willing to take chances. And most importantly,
follow your passions. My training is fairly typical for a chemist, but
my career has been anything but. I was always looking for ways to connect different topics
and disciplines, leading to novelty and important technological advances. This role
is a perfect example of that. I was very content at Wichita State and wasn’t looking
to leave. With that said, I love computing and one of my biggest passions is advancing
it on a broad institutional scale. This position affords me the opportunity to do
that, which is why I leapt at it.

Q: One of the earliest ways you reached out to students was a personal letter asking
them to share their experiences with diversity and inclusion so you can find out what’s
working and what needs to change to make the
College of Computing a place where everyone feels welcome and can thrive. Have students contacted you? What did you learn and what plans do
you have moving forward to achieve this goal?

DL: A few students have contacted me, but not as many as I would like. What I have learned
is that our students love Michigan Tech, but admittedly too many have experienced
bias and racism. To expand and elevate the discussion, we — faculty, staff, and soon
students — are starting a process I call Forward Together. It will be an ongoing College-wide
discussion of our challenges, opportunities and aspirations, ultimately leading to
a strategic plan. Diversity and inclusion will be a fundamental theme throughout,
along with student success, research and industry engagement. In fact, I’ve dedicated
our first structured Forward Together group discussion to diversity and inclusion
issues. I want us to move the needle here quickly. 

Q: What role do faculty, graduate students and programs, and undergraduate research
play in growing the College of Computing’s research portfolio? 

DL: Great question! Michigan Tech is a public research university and knowledge discovery
is a critical aspect of what we do. For example, PhD programs are the engines of innovation
and knowledge creation which support our unique mandate to advance the industry of
the state. Moreover, our
research successes draw in a world-class faculty and create new opportunities for students. I think the most compelling reason for
an undergraduate student to attend a research university like Michigan Tech is that
they, too, can be involved in the process of creating new knowledge. It dramatically
deepens the student experience and emphasizes learning in a way that reading from
a book cannot. 

“One of the things that has struck me the most during my time at Tech so far is the
passion and dedication of our students, faculty, staff and alumni. Everyone is dedicated
to achieving the promise of the College of Computing, and I couldn’t be more excited
to be part of that — because the future needs Michigan Tech!” Dennis Livesay, Dave House Dean of the College of Computing

Q: Beyond the core of the College’s six undergraduate degree programs and five graduate degree programs, you’ve said that you want to prepare students and researchers across campus and disciplines
with the computing skills they need.
Whether it’s health care data, sound design, corporate IT or climate change modeling,
most modern systems have a computing aspect.
What does a holistic, campuswide approach look like? 

DL: (Laughing) I wish I knew! In all seriousness, we need to partner with our colleagues
in engineering, business, social sciences and everything else to make sure that Michigan
Tech graduates have the digital skills needed going forward. For example, in finance,
the divide between the traders and analysts versus IT is shrinking. In the past, when
an analyst needed new info, he or she would have to submit a request for a new report
and wait on IT to create it. Companies that have embraced digital transformation have
the analysts write the code themselves, meaning they expect their functional groups
to also have a high degree of computing expertise. This is the future of business,
and ultimately all disciplines. 

Another great example is the importance of digital engineering to the design process.
Data and computing are ever-present in engineering — digital tools and modeling are
as important as physical models. Michigan Tech is way ahead of the curve on this already,
and we look forward to partnering with the
College of Engineering to strengthen this Tech differentiator.  

Q: Disruption is a word that gets thrown around a lot in regard to the ongoing data
revolution and equipping students to meet the challenges of the future. What does
disruption mean to you — is it what we do or what we’re responding to?

DL: I think a lot about disruption and the disruptive innovation theory developed by Clayton Christensen. But I’m actually more focused on digital transformation — a related but distinct
idea. History is full of disruptive technologies that obsoleted earlier ones, whereas
digital transformation is driving the
Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). 

A lot has been said about the 4IR, but to me the two most salient hallmarks are a
flattening of the spaces and the ubiquity of computing and data. The 4IR will be characterized
by a convergence of technologies, especially as related to distinctions between the
physical and digital worlds. As computing and data become more powerful, there is
less and less need for the physical. New designs will be approved based solely on
digital models and when physical resources are needed, they themselves will compute
and generate data that is shared via
the Internet of Things

Fundamental concepts of computing and data science will be intertwined in all aspects
of the economy and workforce. Everyone will have to have some baseline fluency in
computing, cybersecurity, data and privacy, and AI, in the same way that everyone
currently needs to be able to use Word, Excel and the internet. 

“I can’t understate the depth of this convergence that will happen soon, and I can’t
even begin to imagine what it will look like over the course of our current students’
lifetime.” Dennis Livesay, Dave House Dean of the College of Computing

Q: Michigan Tech consistently ranks high statewide and nationally in computing-related
degree programs. What do rankings mean to you? 

DL: I’m of two minds regarding rankings. On one hand, rankings are very important to recruitment
of faculty, staff and students, and can lead to new opportunities to partner on projects
with groups outside the University. On the other hand, I never chase rankings simply
for the sake of rankings. My goal is for us to do work that matters — to have a transformative
impact on our students and external partners. Using that as our guiding principle,
the results of our good work will make the state — and the world — a better place,
and the rankings will follow.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than
7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than
120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering,
forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.