Joseph Bordogna

Whoever said that engineers have no social conscience never met Joseph Bordogna (EE'55,GrE'64).

Bordogna, who is awaiting his Senate confirmation as deputy director of the National Science Foundation - a job he has performed as acting deputy director for the past two-and-a-half years - deeply believes in the need for scholars and researchers to cross the traditional disciplinary boundaries to solve today's and tomorrow's pressing problems.

The former dean of SEAS goes back to the future, where Penn has been preparing all along for an age when the traditional disciplines blur.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

This belief led him to promote a number of interdisciplinary programs between the School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he served as dean from 1981 to 1990, and other schools at Penn. And it has led him to actively promote the idea that the cutting-edge research the NSF sponsors should ultimately find its way into the private sector, where it can then benefit society as a whole.

Bordogna came "back home" April 16 to deliver this year's Technology, Business and Government Distinguished Lecture at SEAS. Before the lecture, he took some time to reflect on his past and our future.

Q. Have higher education and industry always worked hand in hand in developing new technology?
The answer is yes and no. When I was a professor here, I got money from RCA to fund some students. RCA gave the school the RCA Professorship of Artificial Intelligence. Why did that happen? ...The RCA company, 20 years ago or a little more, was asked to design a radar defense system for a fleet of ships, which exists today, so they can detect missiles and aircraft coming in.
   To make a long story short, we convinced them that if they gave us money for a chair, that would yield graduates they could hire and so on. So that's a partnership between a university and industry. These things have happened before, but mostly in ad hoc ways.
   Now what's the difference today? The Cold War is over, economic strength is of value, and how do you get there? Well, you need new knowledge. And you build new knowledge up in universities.
   Places like RCA, Bell Labs and so on, used to have these great labs in which they did their own knowledge development. Well, they're not doing that anymore, because in a global economy, they have to build profits.... So they're coming more close to universities in a more formal way, to make a partnership, saying, We want to invest because we want new knowledge to create which we can use out in the marketplace.

Q. Prior to going to the NSF, you had a long career here - faculty master of...
Stouffer College House. First faculty master of Stouffer College House - I'm very proud of that. Also, by the way, I was chairman of the Council of Masters when Meyerson was here, that developed the college house system. You know a guy named Ira Harkavy?

Q. Yes.
He's my best friend. In 1971, they had, I guess, Ware - the first college house - and Stouffer was the second, in '72. And Ira was involved with a group of people selecting a master of the house. So I got a call from Ira one day, Do you want to be master of a college house? That's how I got involved with it. I'm an engineering professor, and I thought this sounds like what a professor should do.
   I understand it's now robust.

Q. Well, it's now the housing model at Penn. But there must have been some other changes during your time here.
First of all, the world changes all the time, and it changes rapidly.
   Companies don't know national boundaries any more, and nature never knew disciplinary boundaries. Disciplines are a human construction to parse off knowledge into pieces. And new knowledge is being created increasingly where these boundaries hit, like bioengineering or management and technology.
   So back in the '70s, a lot of us met in the Admissions Office, from the four undergraduate schools especially, and we began to think about the strengths of Penn. What do we have to offer? What contribution do we make to society as Penn? And how do we attract good people here, the best people?
   And the best people might not just be analytic; they might be people who can connect across boundaries, too. So [we created] the Management and Technology Program.
   Back in those days, people said, What would you want to do that for? Now, it's de rigueur. We're number one in that.
   Another was bioengineering. Penn gave the first Ph.D. in bioengineering in 1960. And so we have that tradition, we have a strong bioengineering effort on campus, let's make it formal. So we created the bioengineering department in the middle '70s. And it's big now. So these connections take advantage of this possible synergy, which will be in the 21st century very, very important.

Q. Is there room for this sort of integrationist thinking at the NSF?
Yeah, sure. NSF has four major goals. The first one is discoveries at and across the frontier of science and engineering. We give money to people courageous enough to take risks and try to get the frontier pushed ahead.
   The second one is connections to use in service to society. That wouldn't have been there 10 years ago, by the way. We're not going to do applied research, but we have to make sure in partnership with academe and industry, that it gets pulled off.
   It's taxpayers' money. Our obligation is to try to help, to be part of the team that makes something on it, even though we don't.
   The next has to do with education. We want to be able to help produce a world-class engineering and science workforce.
   The fourth is, we want to make sure every citizen is capably literate in math and science. So we're into K-to-12 education now, in math and science.
   So it's very holistic, it's not just reductionist.

Q. I just read where someone said, "You can know the past but you cannot influence it; you can influence the future but you cannot know it." Even so, would you care to speculate on the future?
[Management guru]Peter Drucker was asked a question recently: How come you're so good at predicting the future? And he said, Well, I can't predict the future. Nobody can. But what I can do is look out the window and see what's visible but not yet seen.
   Now, what he was saying was, We're not looking carefully enough. It's right in front of our eyes. And we'll take an example. The university of today has been sort of department-centric. The university of the future is going to be topic-centric.Institutes, centers and things like that are an attempt to overlay or get into the fabric of the university a new way of doing cross-organizational work, whether it's education or research.
   Another thing you see is campus-centric vs. global. Will the University of Pennsylvania be an empty hulk 25 years from now, when the Internet takes over? Well no, but we don't know what the outcome's going to be yet. We'd better be party to it, or we'll be left behind in the dust.

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Originally published on April 29, 1999