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Meet Mike Bragg



By Jennifer Langston

New UW Engineering dean Mike Brag

Michael B. Bragg
Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of Engineering,
University of Washington

Age: 59

Hired from: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Positions held there: Interim Dean; Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs; Associate Dean for Research and Administrative Affairs; Head, Department of Aerospace Engineering; Professor, Department of Aerospace Engineering

Education: PhD, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, The Ohio State University
BS and MS, Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Research Focus: Aircraft icing

Selected Awards: Fellow, American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics; AIAA Aerodynamics Award; Current federal posts: NASA Advisory Council Aeronautics Committee

Hobbies: Skiing, hiking, fly fishing, golf, flying

Mike Bragg arrived as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1972 when the aerospace industry was in an epic slump, just one year after the Boeing bust spawned the iconic “Will the last person leaving Seattle – Turn out the lights” billboard.

But he loved airplanes, enough to earn his pilot's license days after he turned 17. He grew up on a Central Illinois farm with a grass runway. His entire extended family flew planes, for transportation or income or fun. So he chose to study aerospace engineering, against all evidence that he might never see a paycheck.

Bragg, who began his new job as the dean of the University of Washington's College of Engineering in July, tells this story to illustrate a point. By the time he graduated, the industry was recovering, and he has been gainfully employed ever since.

“It's what I really wanted to do, so I went ahead and did it. Like a lot of things, engineering students have to follow their passions. It's hard work being an engineering student. Certainly, I think there are enormous benefits and payoffs that make it worth it. But you have to love it,” Bragg said.

Bragg taught aerodynamics and flight mechanics at The Ohio State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, authoring more than 200 research papers and mentoring more than 50 graduate students. Though his research has taken him into hypersonics, engine work, wind turbines, sonic boom mitigation, and other fields, he has nationally recognized and sought-after expertise in airplane icing and unsteady aerodynamics.

Since 1999, he has held numerous leadership posts in the top-5 ranked College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, including interim dean, executive associate dean for academic affairs, associate dean for research and administrative affairs, and head of the aerospace engineering department. The Trend recently sat down with Dean Bragg for a conversation about his background, his career highlights so far, and his move to the Northwest.

After many years teaching and conducting research, what drew you to administration?

I think you do it for the same reasons that faculty do research, because you want to have an impact. As an administrator you do that in a different way, by providing resources and facilitating so faculty and students can be successful.

Being in a college at any major research university you also begin to have a broader view of engineering. There are different cultures, differences in the ways aerospace engineers do things versus civil engineers or computer scientists. I really enjoyed learning about all that and taking the best ideas to help improve the college.

What are some personal career highlights?

I’m proud of the fact that my students and I have done a lot of things to make air travel safer. You’re always proud of your graduate students, who are sort of like your children too, and all the wonderful things they do. I’m proud of the people I hired. And at the college level, we really changed the culture from every department looking out for itself to people thinking more of the college as a whole.

You have deep roots in Illinois, why move to the Northwest?

I'm an aerospace engineer. It's always been special for me to fly into SeaTac and drive by Boeing Field, usually on my way to Boeing. A good friend of mine who was head of the aero department at MIT used to say, “When I'm looking to hire faculty members, if an airplane flies over and they don't look up, I know they're not right for the department.” I always look up. The UW has a world-class college and university here, and the connection not only to aerospace but also to the other high-tech industries here is really special and a draw for me.

What opportunities at the UW really excite you?

When I started college in the '70s and began studying engineering, I was just fascinated by technology and cool gizmos. Today, our students want to change the world. They want to figure out how to get clean water in Africa, or produce low-cost artificial limbs. They really come to engineering because they want to help create solutions so people can live better — and that all gets to impact.

One way you have impact is to move things out to industry. It's so much more important for engineering students, faculty, and colleges to not only do their research but also to connect with industry, to spin out companies, to really get engaged. There is such a wonderful high-tech community here in the Northwest. It's not just aerospace; it's software, medical devices. That was a major driver for me.

There's a very good startup culture at the University of Illinois, but it's in a small community. When things really get going, someone buys it and the company moves to Silicon Valley or someplace else. That doesn't have to happen here.

What are the challenges?

There are lots of very highly qualified students who aren't able to earn engineering degrees at the UW because there just isn't enough capacity. So we have a College of Engineering that needs to be significantly larger than it is.

young graduates in caps and gowns

The challenges have been budget-driven, and we have facilities that are stretched to the limit. So how do you grow facilities and capabilities and infrastructure in what is still a very resource- limited environment? It's going to depend upon the high-tech sector here, alumni and friends, and on the state as well.

What role can alumni play?

Alumni are so important. It's amazing what percentage of UW Engineering graduates are still in this area. That's a big difference from where I came from. It's great for them because they can stay connected, and it's great for our students who can benefit from their mentoring, support, insight, and connections.