Embattled engineering dean to step down

Sam Guzik
Sam Guzik

Fewer than two years after she was named dean of the Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science, Mary Sansalone has announced her intention to step down at the end of the academic year amid considerable controversy-including faculty and alumni petitions for her removal.

According to a statement released on Tuesday afternoon by the University, Sansalone intends to remain at the University after her resignation to devote herself to “teaching, research and other forms of University service.”

The University did not immediately announce a successor to Dean Sansalone, though a letter from Chancellor Mark Wrighton to the engineering student body stated that Dean Sansalone’s successor would be named as soon as possible.

Neither Sansalone nor Wrighton were available for direct comment, and the University’s Office of Public Affairs referred media inquiries to their press release.

During her deanship, Sansalone supervised the creation of a roadmap for the future of the school, which she called the “Plan for Excellence,” and developed a comprehensive plan for a new 600,000-square-foot engineering complex.

“[Dean Sansalone] has initiated many important and positive changes during her deanship,” wrote Chancellor Wrighton in his e-mail to the engineering students. “These changes are ones that will serve well current and future generations of faculty and students.”

Neither the Chancellor’s e-mail nor the University press release made mention of the controversy that has surrounded Sansalone’s tenure, focusing instead on the highlights of the last year.

“There was no mention of all the problems she caused [in the e-mail],” said Alex Jeffrey, a senior and mechanical engineering major. “A lot of people are happy about this announcement.”

For many students, the announcement represented the culmination of an effort to ensure that their voices were heard within the school.

“I definitely feel favorably towards [her resignation]. We’ve been waiting a little while for it, my friends and I,” said sophomore Alex Kahler, a mechanical engineering major. “There was a petition out at some point last semester. It went around between students and faculty, and it got a fair number of signatures, but then when [Chancellor] Wrighton vetoed it, basically there was a fair amount of disappointment.”

Throughout her tenure, Sansalone had come under fire for several controversial changes, including the merging of several departments and budget cuts in response to the school’s financial situation.

Both students and professors from the engineering school have criticized Sansalone for what they say is her unilateral managerial style and poor communication with the community.

At the start of the fall semester, the tenured faculty within the school submitted a petition to Wrighton calling for Sansalone’s removal. Of 66 tenured engineering faculty members in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 29 signed the petition and an additional 14 expressed their verbal support.

On January 24, the Engineering Council (EnCouncil)-the engineering undergraduate student body-passed a resolution outlining a series of changes meant to fix perceived deficiencies in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Although Sansalone is not mentioned by name in the resolution, many of the actions included within it are related to her policies.

On Feb. 8, University alumnus and former technical writing instructor Eric Ratinoff circulated a petition among engineering alumni that cited eight grievances against the dean and called for the Board of Trustees to intervene in the situation. The alumni petition also stated that “I plan to withhold any financial contributions to the University until action is taken.” In about two weeks, 422 alumni signed the petition.

Throughout the year, a group of graduate and undergraduate students calling itself Concerned Students for Wash. U. Engineering (CSWUE) has met with the administration to lobby for policy changes, has garnered support among alumni and has led a flyering campaign to draw attention to the narratives of students by the Dean’s policy changes.

“They were part of a group of people arranging faculty and alumni who were displeased with the current environment in the engineering school,” said Forrest Rogers-Marcovitz, a senior in aerospace engineering. “They helped bring that knowledge to the people who make the decisions, out in the open air.”

Sansalone was selected to lead the engineering school in April 2006 and assumed office at the start of the 2006-2007 academic year.

Prior to her arrival at Washington University, Dean Sansalone served in leadership positions at Cornell University and New York University.

Within the engineering school, many are hopeful that Sansalone’s replacement will be able to accommodate the voices of students and faculty in the decision-making process.

“Most likely, a successor would be from within the University,” said senior Elaine Cheng, a student involved with CSWUE. “Most people are hopeful that someone who already speaks the language of the University will be more successful.”

-With additional reporting by Puneet Kollipara and Ben Sales

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