A Chat with Dean Simmons

Duke Engineering legend retiring after 37 years of service

By Petek Sener, first-year Pratt student and projected BME major

Connie Simmons is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at the Pratt School of Engineering. She started working at Duke University in 1978 and has held various positions over the years. She was hired by Aleksandar S. Vesic (dean of engineering from 1974-1982) and has served under four university presidents and six deans. After 37 years at Duke, she will retire in February 2015. DukEngineer spoke with her about her memories and legacy of service to students, faculty and staff.

What do Pratt students come to you to talk about?

There are many different reasons students come to me, from help with their class schedules to personal problems or academic difficulties. A common theme is first-year students who are making the transition from high school to college. A lot of the students who come here were at the top of their class, making straight As, then they come to Duke and get that first C and are devastated, because for those students getting a C is like getting an F. So I try to tell them that there is a transition period—one C is not going to destroy everything and they can still graduate with honors. Some students also come here without a habit of studying because they didn’t need to do so in high school. Others might study for an exam but don’t get as good of a grade as they expected and start wondering if they really belong here. To those students I reaffirm that we wouldn’t admit a student that we thought would not be successful. During those moments I just try to build their self-confidence and advise them to use all the great resources that are available at the university for personal and academic support.

I also see a lot of upper-class students who come to the office for advice about career planning, study abroad, pre-medicine or balancing academic work with other endeavors. Often times we have students trying to do too much—for example, two majors plus a minor and/or a certificate and either pre-medicine and/or studying abroad! Other students who come to me are dealing with personal and psychological issues, or having academic challenges or need to find summer employment. And some come just to share their excitement about being selected as a Pratt Fellow or inducted into Phi Beta Kappa or receiving a post-graduate award like a Rhodes, Marshall, Churchill or Fulbright. I hear a little bit of everything!

What should we look for in the next undergraduate dean?

I think you need someone who will give sound advice, but is also dependable and caring. A math professor may call us saying that they haven’t seen this one student for a couple of days and are wondering if something is going on. You need someone who will contact that student and ask “Are you OK? Do you need to come in and see me?” Likewise, if a student is in the hospital, they should visit them and tell them, “I will e-mail your professor, I will let them know. You just focus on getting better.” I have always tried to let students know that I care, and would hope that the next upcoming dean will be just as caring. Of course there are times when you have to be a little firm. Students don’t like to hear the word “no” but the fact of the matter is sometimes you have to say it. For instance, if a deadline has passed, we have to tell the student that we’re sorry but no exception can be made for them, because in doing so, there are 1,200 other students that would not be able to have the same option. So you have to have a balance of being concerned and caring but also fair to all students.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I have just really enjoyed working with students. Earlier this week I talked to an alumna whose son is graduating from Duke this year, and I told her that I am just as happy as she is. I see students go through four years of college, and some of these students go through big struggles. At their graduation, I am just as happy as the parents because I have been there with the students through this time! When you see a student through four years of college and then 20 or 25 years later their son or daughter is here at Duke, that’s very special. Overall, this job is just very rewarding.

What is the biggest change you have observed during your time at Duke?

Well, Duke has grown so much over the years. I’ve been here long enough to see the changes in the outline of the campus as new buildings were built. I remember when some of the buildings that I can see from my window had to be approved by the Trustees! There has been a great increase in the student body. In 2005 when Kristina Johnson was the dean, the enrollment for engineering students was increased by about 200. I have also seen more diversity, with more female and minority faculty and students. I still remember when the first female faculty member and the first African-American faculty member started! The programming for the school has grown as well. When I first started working here Duke didn’t even have minors. Now we have so many organizations—HackDuke and many more programs that we never use to have. It is exciting to have witnessed all that change over the years.

When you first started working at Duke as a secretary did you had any idea how far you would go?

Definitely not, I had no idea that I would be where I am today. When I first started working here I had my degree and my plan was to work here for about three years. The secretarial job was a unique opportunity because I got to work with Associate Dean Marion Shepard. I would talk to students who came in and try to help them out with their problems. I took on many different positions over the years but with all of them I was interacting with students, which I really enjoyed. I had great bosses and my colleagues here at Pratt are amazing. So it followed that Pratt just became my family. I am very thankful and appreciative for the opportunities that all the deans I have worked under have given me.

What are you going to miss about Duke the most?

I am truly going to miss interacting with and helping students. After 37 years I have a lot of good memories, which I am grateful for. Also, I will miss the faculty and my colleagues in Pratt and across the university. Did you know Dr. G* was a student when I was here? He was the first student to do a double major with electrical and mechanical engineering. So when students ask about double majoring with ECE and ME, I tell them go see Dr. G. Of course it’s not only Dr. G, there are other faculty members who were students when I started working, like Dr. [John] Board, Dr. [Craig] Henriquez and Dr. [Dan] Sorin. Seeing them become graduate students and then go on to become professors is so exciting as I get to witness their growth. That’s just another example of why this has been an amazing journey.

*Associate professor of the practice Michael Gustafson