Skip to main content

Robertson to step down as College of Engineering dean

April 22, 2024 By Renee Meiller
Portrait photo of Ian Robertson

Ian Robertson, Grainger Dean of the College of Engineering at University of Wisconsin–Madison

After more than 11 years steering one of the nation’s top engineering programs through a period of growth, Ian Robertson, Grainger Dean of the College of Engineering at University of Wisconsin–Madison, announced today he will step down from his post once a successor has been chosen.

Robertson became the college’s ninth dean in 2013. He will continue to serve as a faculty member in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UW–Madison, where he studies how extreme conditions alter the microstructure of materials.

“At its core, the practice of engineering focuses on innovations that make the world a better place, and I hope that people remember my tenure as dean for impact that centers around people,” Robertson says. “I am profoundly grateful for the privilege of leading this extraordinary college.”

As dean, Robertson presided over a growing campus, making strategic investments in the college’s educational portfolio, in hiring and recognizing outstanding faculty at all levels and through major upgrades to its existing facilities for both research and education — among them a new engineering building. Not long after Robertson became dean, the university launched its most ambitious comprehensive fundraising campaign, during which the college brought in more than $300 million.

“Dean Robertson has been an exceptional dean, and I am grateful for his outstanding leadership and dedication to ensuring that our students receive a world-class engineering education,” says UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin. “His commitment to the growth and success of the College of Engineering over the last decade, by investing in the people and infrastructure necessary to its success, will continue to be felt across Wisconsin and beyond for many years to come.”

Among Robertson’s top priorities has been to ensure an excellent engineering education is accessible to even more talented students at UW–Madison. He has overseen intentional increases in the size of the college’s undergraduate student body.

These increases were met with many new investments in the student experience, including significant commitments from key donors, creating a matching gift program for scholarships, endowing and expanding the college’s Undergraduate Learning Center and funding scores of undergraduate-focused facility upgrades. This included complete renovation of Wendt Commons, transforming it from an underused library building into a campus hub for engineering students, with collaborative classrooms, study areas and a two-story makerspace.

“Our students are nothing short of inspiring,” says Robertson. “Their creativity, integrity, passion, work ethic and leadership are the true markers of our achievements, and we have worked tirelessly to elevate the quality of their education and to ensure we can accept many more talented students.”

Robertson has also long appreciated the pivotal role that high-quality faculty play not only in educating the next generation of engineers but in pursuing a bold and innovative research enterprise. As such, he has been relentless in identifying new ways to attract and retain talented faculty.

During Robertson’s tenure, the college hired more than 130 faculty — including both promising young faculty and those with established research programs — bringing the total number of engineering faculty to nearly 220. Robertson has also overseen expansion of the number of professorships the college offers faculty, from 13 to more than 100, enabling the college to recruit, retain and reward the best faculty at all levels.

“I am exceptionally proud of the incredible faculty we’ve hired,” Robertson says. “They are accomplished, passionate and engaged, and they have contributed as much to the growth of our research enterprise — and thus, the global impact of their inventions — as they have to the excellence of our students’ educational experiences.”

Provost Charles Isbell praised Dean Robertson’s leadership, saying, “I had known of Ian long before I had the pleasure of working with him. The evidence of his leadership and impact on the College of Engineering during the 11 years of his tenure as dean is clear. I’ve been impressed with his vision for advancing research across rapidly changing areas, and I know he is deeply committed to students of engineering at all levels.”

Noting a new campus-wide effort to focus faculty hiring, research and education in key areas that address significant and complex global challenges (called RISE, for the Wisconsin Research, Innovation and Scholarly Excellence Initiative), Isbell adds that Robertson’s “recent engagement in the development of the RISE-AI initiative was invaluable.” The first area of focus to be launched is centered on artificial intelligence.

Additionally, Robertson has championed improvements to the college that have been aimed at developing a more inclusive and welcoming culture. This includes initiating college-wide community-building events; hiring the college’s first-ever associate dean for inclusion, equity and diversity in engineering; and supporting creation of a family leave policy for graduate students.

Robertson believes that fostering a collegial culture takes commitment from all members of the College of Engineering community, on and off campus, including the college’s staff and alumni.

“I am thankful for our staff, who are the backbone of our college; their broad expertise has been vitally important in the college’s ability to fulfill its mission,” says Robertson. “I have also met thousands of incredible, successful alumni who attribute the trajectory of their entire careers to their foundation in engineering, and who desire to give back to the college that afforded them so much.”

Prior to joining the College of Engineering as dean, Robertson enjoyed a 28-year career at the University of Illinois, where he was the Donald B. Willette professor in materials science and engineering. He served that department as head from 2003 to 2009. He also served for two years as the director of the National Science Foundation Materials Research Division. Robertson earned his bachelor’s degree in applied physics from Strathclyde University, Glasgow, Scotland, in 1978; and doctor of philosophy from the University of Oxford, Oxford, England, in 1982.

The full list of Robertson’s accomplishments is long. Read about them on the College of Engineering’s website.

The university will conduct a nationwide search for a new dean. Details about the search will be forthcoming.

Enjoy this story?

Read more news from the College of Engineering