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Alumna Becomes First Female Dean through Perseverance and Servant Leadership

Written by: Leslie Lestinsky

“I’m fortunate I stuck with the rigor of graduate school at the University of Notre Dame. Now I look back, 12 years later, taking this dean position, and see the struggle was all worth it.” This is the reflection of Department of Electrical Engineering (NDEE) alumna Ying Shang who recently became the first female dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Evansville (UE). As she prepares to take office, her strategy as the new dean is not to impose her views, but to remove obstacles for students and faculty that keep them and the college from moving forward. She wants to take the time to hear from them what they need and she’ll work to get it done, offering support rather than dictating. While increasing enrollment is important, Shang believes it’s not everything. She wants to focus on quality of students versus quantity, much like her alma mater does.

Her background is a mix of mathematics, art, and engineering. "These disciplines require a strong imagination. Electrical engineers create devices without moving parts and manifest activity with very little visuals. A good artist combines small but important details into one wholesome and profound statement,” explained Shang. She chose to specialize in control engineering because it is all about putting your imagination to work with different components in the system to achieve desired performance.

Shang credits a large part of her success to the mentorship of the NDEE faculty. “The faculty provided a great support system for graduate students. They were very welcoming from the start and worked to create an atmosphere of home for their students.” When Shang was a teaching assistant for NDEE professor Ken Sauer, she observed his dedication and the ample amount of time, attention and care he gave his students. That inspired her to be an educator like him. “She was probably one of my best teaching assistants,” recalled  Sauer. “I'm not surprised she's having a successful career as an educator.” Shang remembers Professor Yih-Fang Huang (NDEE chair while Shang was earning her NDEE degrees) encouraging her to stay a little longer when she wanted to quit. “Notre Dame sets the bar high, which makes its graduates stand out in competitive markets. Anyone who earns a degree from Notre Dame doesn’t come away with a just piece of paper. It has years of sleepless nights, tears, laughter and many good memories attached to it, it’s not easily earned,” said Shang.

Ying Shang PhD graduationHer research involved discrete-event systems, max-plus linear systems, and hybrid systems with applications in queueing networks, manufacturing systems and transportation networks. Shang was advised by the late Professor Michael Sain. They worked on Sain’s fundamental, founding theory for systems using only positive numbers. It’s fitting that Shang’s entire graduate career was based around positive numbers given that she is so positive in personality as well. Shang reflects on the impact Sain had on her, “I knew that I wanted to be an educator and help more people pursue engineering. However, I did not have the vision, experience, and confidence then to even imagine that I could become an academic administrator in the future. Before my graduation, professor Sain, with his warm-hearted, Midwest roots said to me, ‘Ying, I think you have the potential to become a dean someday.’ I was not aware of the potential he saw in me. I will be forever grateful for his mentorship and guidance.” 

Shang’s first job after graduation was as an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her thesis work landed her two visiting professor positions in France at the University of Angers, working with Professor Laurent Hardouin. There, she worked on max-plus linear systems with applications to high-throughput screening systems in drug discovery. In 2015, she became chair of the Department of Electrical and Computing Engineering at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). Shang took on this role when her son was just six months old.

Introduce a girl to EngineeringShe is the mother of two children, now ages nine and three. “Female professors tend to put their careers on hold to take care of family. Mothers don’t have to give up their careers,” said Shang. She is optimistic that more and more female engineers will be able to achieve balance as companies start to recognize the value of allowing women flexibility in their schedules so that they can care for their careers and families.

During her time as chair, Shang created the Introduce a Girl to Engineering event and was also faculty advisor for SIUE’s Society of Women Engineers Student Chapter. Her leadership led to the recruitment of more female engineering majors. She also secured ABET accreditation, established industrial partnerships and created a process of launching entrepreneurial incubator/accelerator for startups while at SIUE.

Shang’s career goal has not been to climb the academic ladder. She has obtained leadership positions in order to help others achieve their goals. “I want to do great things for the people. It’s not what I can get, it’s what can I give,” said Shang.

This past year, she was encouraged by colleague, Professor Andy Lozowski, to put herself out there in the market. She found she had locked her thinking in a box of what the typical dean stereotype might be, that she had to be of a certain age and have a 20-page resume to be dean. She decided she should at least try and see how people respond to a non-traditional, female, Asian professor. She was pleasantly surprised to discover she was well-received in the market and was encouraged by the observation that society was receptive to a young, female dean.

Shang is optimistic about her new role as dean. The previous dean held the office for over 20 years. “I’m coming in with fresh eyes,” explained Shang. Her goal is to facilitate synergy between UE faculty, staff and students so that the college can grow its capabilities. That growth will enable recruitment of high quality students and the synergy will open access to external funding and other resources to support the needs of the university and community.

Shang’s advice to undergraduate students: Get involved in extra curriculars. Be a student leader, a student worker. See how an institution is run from behind the scenes. Learn those soft skills such as interpersonal communication and leadership through these extra steps, they will develop your character and personality, which is key in the workplace. B and B+ students are overall more successful than the 4.0 students because they took the time to get outside their academics while working on their education. “This is the best time of your life, you can write whatever you want on this blank white paper, make your tuition worthy for you,” explained Shang. “Once you get out into the real world, the 4.0 isn’t as important as being able to stand out as an extroverted engineer.”

Her advice to graduate students: Think through what you want out of this. “It’s hard to put 100% into your studies when you’re not 100% sure what it is you want to do,” explained Shang. “This can be a very emotionally low time, don’t worry about when you will graduate, you will graduate! Work on what you need to work on and it will get done, but also spend time thinking about the future, what you want to do with your degree.” Academia may not pay as much as industry, but PhD recipients have the opportunity to impact the lives of others through education. “Make decisions for yourself and be confident in those, no regrets.”

Being from the state in China of Confucius, Shang gleans from her Chinese roots for wisdom. “We all have finite time to do infinite good. The more you do good things, the more long-lasting impact you make and you leave a legacy. You didn’t waste your time, life or resources. Don’t worry about short-term losses and gains, in the end, being a kind and decent person is the most important thing in life.”