Meet the Deans: Richard Stock

April 20, 2016

Richard Stock. Photo by Marget Long/The Cooper Union

Richard Stock. Photo by Marget Long/The Cooper Union

As May approaches, it will mark the end of the first full academic year for Richard Stock as acting dean of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. He accepted the position after being asked to take it by Bill Mea, acting president, in August 2015. To do that he stepped away from both his duties as chair of the chemical engineering department and as president of the Cooper Union Federation of College Teachers, the union for full-time faculty. Now that he has had nearly two full semesters under his belt, we decided to visit him in his office for a chat about how it has been going, what he sees as his role at the school and how his particular skill set meshes so well with his temporary position.

Richard Stock, 63, grew up in Frimley, a village, complete with manor house, on the Surrey-Hampshire border outside of London. The son of working class parentshis mother worked in below-stairs household service and his father went from pushing a broom to designing gear systems for tanksProfessor Stock took an early interest in math and science, eventually graduating from the University of Nottingham with a chemical engineering degree. After several years in the professional world, mostly with British Petroleum, he came to the U.S. in the early 1980s in a career tack towards academia. After earning his Ph.D. with a focus on biomedical research, he eventually came to The Cooper Union in 1994. He now lives in Forest Hills, Queens with his husband, Tadashi Mitsui, and three cats.

What drew you to study chemical engineering as an undergraduate?

In my final two years of primary school I focused on physics, chemistry and math. So I was planning on studying chemistry when I applied to University at Nottingham. There I learned about chemical engineering, and what I liked about it was that the prospects for what you could do with chemical engineering were so incredibly diverse.

How did you end up coming to the U.S.?

West Virginia University advertises in England in the Institute of Chemical Engineering magazine. I applied and they gave me money! So I went to West-By-God-Virginia. I thought at first I made the biggest mistake of my life. Most everyone is fresh off their undergraduate degree and seems so smart and so sharp. Most of the stuff I had forgotten. But I did fine my first year because that working environment teaches you to filter out all the noise. The experience you get in the workplace to see the wood for the trees is hugely valuable.

You ended up focusing on biomedical-related chemical engineering after working at BP. How are petro and biomedical chemical engineering related?

What we're interested in chemical engineering is not so much the chemistry. We're interested in how the molecules get to each other and how they interact. Because that allows us, for example, to design a reactor that will make the product that we want to make. And your liver is a massive, very, very complex reactor. The foundational models are the same. The equation that describes how an artificial kidney works is exactly the same as the model that describes how a heat exchanger works. 

After getting your Ph.D. in 1987 you decided to stay in the U.S. Why?

The U.S. has this siren song. It can be very frustrating. But it is always exciting. I've done a lot traveling in the U.S. It's absolutely fascinating. I had a ball in West Virginia. England is beautiful and lots to be admired there. But when I go home I get an inkling of the frustration and wanderlust that made me want to leave. After I graduated a guy at Carnegie Mellon asked me to come work for him. I told him I would if he got me a green card. So that was the deal that was set.

How did you end up at The Cooper Union?

The Carnegie Mellon lab I was working at moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts but I did not go with it. There was no movement in the job market. No one was hiring Ph.Ds. Those were a tough couple of years. So I worked in a newspaper printers, stacking papers and tying them with string. I did data entry. I worked for UPS in a distribution warehouse. Then I worked in bank's mailroom. That was a fantastic job. You could just put on your headphones and drift off. I was not tempted to return to the U.K. because they were going through their own difficulties at the time. I wanted to come to New York so I started cold-calling schools. I spoke with Professor Brazinsky for about three and a half hours. He told me they would be hiring soon so I watched for it and applied. That was a process. I couldn't start due to budgetary issues. Financial issues at Cooper Union? Say it's not so! 

How did your first years go here?

The adjustment to Cooper was fine but things happen differently here. I came from a lab where people say, "You need a new laser? Here's 120,000 bucks." That's not Cooper. And there is a heavy load of teaching. That was eye opening. But after a year or two I realized that this was the job I had come to the States to find. I did not want to go to a big research institution. I'm a very good experimentalist. What I mean by that is that if you have a problem that you want to experimentally investigate I'm really good at putting together the way to do the investigation. But I have absolutely zero interest in doing the investigation. You go do your measurements. I'm done. 

What was the process to becoming acting dean?

I was asked to be dean. I've been vice-president and then president of the faculty union for a long time. So in a conversation with Bill Mea in May, last year, he said, "One of the names that keeps coming up for the acting dean is your name. Would you do it?" I said, "If I was asked I would do it. But I'm not going to lobby for it and I'm not going to apply." Then that process went on and eventually Bill phoned me and said, "I think you should do it." And I said, "OK." I stepped down from the union and stepped away from the department.

So what has been your approach to the job?

When I took the position I said to Bill, "I'm not going to do the vision thing. That's going to be for someone who comes in and takes over this office. What I'm going to do is the stabilization thing." Basically we were broken. Our morale was broken. Our governance was broken. The programs were damaged and bruised. My goal was to hand over something that is functioning to a new dean. That’s how I started out. At the first faculty meeting I said, "Our job is to do the best we can to get these students prepared to be engineering graduates of The Cooper Union and able to contribute to society. Whether we charge for tuition or don't charge: we don't worry about that for now. There are committees and groups being formed to deal with that. Let's move away from that and do what we're supposed to do here."

So how's it going?

It's going pretty well. There's a lot more laughter in the engineering school. Which is pretty nice. Because of my background and who I am, I am honoring contract agreements and using governance. And I try to follow Bill's lead with the concept of transparency. So rather than make unilateral decisions I am involving the faculty as much as I possibly can. Getting advice. Getting feedback. When there are decisions that are faculty decisions, I write the proper committee and say, "I need you guys to look at this." They come back with a decision. I ask them to write a motion to present to the faculty. We present it. They debate it, vote on it and it's done. No one can say there hasn't been consultation. And especially over a curriculum issue or academic standards issues, the faculty are the people who have the bully pulpit and it should be their decisions.

How long do you expect to be in the position of Acting Dean?

My understanding is that there would be a process for the presidential search. That might take a year. It might take two years. Once a new president is found the new president will conduct a search for a new dean. So I may be here for two years. If the new president isn't found this summer, my position as acting dean might turn into a three-year stint. 

Will you put yourself forward as a candidate for the job?

No. I decided some years ago that 66 is when I retire. Right now I am 63. Retirement is a challenge. I would much rather meet that challenge when I am 66 than when I am 78. At 66 I have a chance of doing something fresh and new if I want it. I can still teach a course now and then at Cooper if I want.

Still, three years is a while. Do you have any long-term goals while in the position?

I've discussed some long-term things with the faculty. One thing we had to do and should have done years ago is change the numbering structure of our courses. So for example if you look at the current catalog and the chemical engineering program senior year courses, they are all 100-level courses. Which would indicate at another school that they are freshman level. But they are not. They are very advanced. It's just that because we didn't charge tuition we didn't have to worry about it. But now we do because we are in a market at least for the immediate future where we have to be recognizable to people comparing us to other schools. So we restructured our courses, basically, around 100-level courses are for freshmen, 200-level courses are for sophomores, 300-levels are junior and senior and 400-level is graduate.

Any other goals?

The next thing I would like for the faculty to do is consider the idea of introducing minors into the program. We have one official minor: math. But we have several people a year who, on a less formal basis, put together a minor in bio-engineering or maybe a minor in physics or a focus on chemistry. But there isn't a formal process. So we have had people graduate from the chemical engineering department and go on to a physics Ph.D. But the proposition I put to the faculty is: "Wouldn't it be nice if they could not only put that on their transcript but also on their certificate?" That would open the door a little quicker and a little wider for graduates.

In your experience, what sets the Albert Nerken School of Engineering apart from other undergraduate engineering programs?

Rigor. What we cover in a course in our undergraduate program is just amazing. Students think that what they do here is what everybody does. It's when they graduate that they realize they went somewhere very different. If they go to grad school, their work ethic is just amazing. And their expectations about what will be expected of them blow everybody else away. And in the workplace they can hit the ground running.

What do you do when not at The Cooper Union?

I was always very physical. I love hiking. I did years of martial arts. In England I used to play badminton. It's a great sport. I love it. I also love cooking, however. Especially over the last few years when some days have been bad, going home on the train and trying to work out a recipe in my head has been therapeutic.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

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  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.