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Campus: Conversation with Joe Shepherd (PhD ’81), VP of Student Affairs

About the Event

Alumni are invited to join in conversation with fellow alumnus, Joe Shepherd (PhD ’81), Caltech’s vice president for student affairs and the C. L. “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at an evening hosted by the Caltech Alumni Association.

  • Learn more about Caltech’s current undergrad and grad students—who they are, what are they studying, what they do for fun and where are they going after Caltech.
  • Hear some of the significant ways Caltech is working to enhance the personal, academic and professional development of our students.
  • Find out how alumni can help be a part of and support the student experience. 


Event Schedule

  • 6:00-6:45pm – Mixer with heavy appetizers, beer and wine at Alumni House
  • 7:00-8:00pm – Conversation with Joe Shepherd at Beckman Institute Auditorium
  • 8:00-8:30pm – Dessert & Coffee
  • Casual Business Attire

Questions about the event? Contact Elizabeth Emerald

About the Speaker

Joseph E. Shepherd (PhD '81)
C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering;
Vice President for Student Affairs
Engineering and Applied Science
Joe Shepherd is the C. L. “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. He was Dean of Graduate Studies from 2009-2015 and is currently Vice President of Student Affairs (2015-). He has been on the faculty at Caltech since 1993 and he served on the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 1986 to 1993. Prior to that, he was a staff member at Sandia National Laboratories from 1980 to 1986. He received his PhD in Applied Physics from Caltech in 1981, and his BS in Physics from the University of South Florida in 1976.

During his career, Prof. Shepherd has taught and carried out research on a wide range of topics in fluid dynamics, structural mechanics, and combustion chemistry with an emphasis on explosions and high speed flow. He has led projects to investigate and improve the safety of nuclear power plants and waste storage or treatment facilities in the United States, Europe and Asia, including the March 2011 events at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. He has investigated the causes of aircraft and industrial accidents including the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800. He has assisted industrial organizations and government agencies in assessing or mitigating flammability and explosion hazards.

Information on publications resulting from research in these laboratories can be found on this webpage. The activities of the research groups are described on separate websites.

Interview with Shepherd

July 7, 2016

Q: What does the vice president for student affairs do?

A: Student Affairs includes the offices of the undergraduate and graduate deans as well as obvious things like the registrar, undergraduate admissions, fellowships and study abroad, the career center, the health center, and the counseling center. It also includes things you might not think of—athletics; performing and visual arts, which includes the music programs, the theater program, the various arts programs, and all of the faculty and instructors that make these programs possible; and a whole group of organizations lumped under "auxiliaries."

The term "auxiliaries" is misleading, because they're central to student life. Housing and dining are the biggest parts, but there are services like the C-Store, the Red Door Café, the Caltech Store and Wired.


Q: What makes this role exciting for you?

A:  People speculate about what it is that makes Caltech a great school. A lot of folks say, "Well, it's because it's so small." But I think it's also because we work with people instead of creating some bureaucratic mechanism to solve problems. We say, "All right, what's the issue here? How can we resolve this?" instead of, "We need to create a rule. And then we need to create a group to enforce the rule." My approach is to ask, "What do we want the outcome to be?" In Student Affairs, you want the outcome to be something that supports the students, supports the faculty, and then you make sure that it's not going to adversely affect the Institute.


Q: Are there any changes coming, any initiatives you want to establish?

A: We need to think about how we build on the strengths we have and improve the things that we're weakest at. Before you make any changes to an organization, you need to understand those two things. There are a lot of parts to Student Affairs, so I need to understand the strong points of those organizations, and then get them to help me formulate what's important to do.

You always have to be careful of unintended consequences. As they say in chess, you want to think several moves deep. All right, suppose we do that. What will it mean for different parts of our population? Do we make this choice based on the data we have, or do we need more data? Will there be effects on people we haven't thought about? Maybe we need to go talk to those people.

When you have the authority to change things, you also have the responsibility to ask, "Are these the right changes?" Nothing happens in isolation. Anything you do is invariably going to wind up touching quite a few people.


Q: You've been dean of graduate studies since 2009. Did you consider taking a breather before jumping into this new role?

A: Well, much to my surprise, I found that being the dean of graduate studies was rewarding in many different ways. Sometimes you had to do some difficult things, but I actually liked being the dean. I was able, to some extent, to continue my research. I did some teaching—although last year I taught a major course all three terms, and I had my research group—and I was the dean of graduate studies. That taught me a lesson: a man's got to know his limitations.

So when I was asked if I would take this position, I did think about taking a break and not doing it. I enjoy my research and I enjoy teaching. I enjoy working with students, but I also enjoy trying to help the Institute as a whole. Here at Caltech, we pride ourselves on the notion that we have this very special environment. We have this small school, and we have dedicated professionals that work together with faculty to nurture that environment—having faculty who are invested in participating in the key administrative roles is essential.

When I was a graduate student here, my adviser was Brad Sturtevant [MS '56, PhD '60, and a lifelong faculty member thereafter]. Brad was the executive officer for aeronautics [1972-76]. He was in charge of the committee that built the Sherman Fairchild Library and he was on the faculty board. He emphasized to me that being involved in administration was just as valuable as all the other aspects of being a faculty member. He was a dedicated researcher, but he also felt strongly that you should be a good citizen. You should contribute.


Q: It seems like this is more than just a duty to you, though.

A: I'm also very conscious of the responsibility. I think it's going to be important for us all to think about how we maintain the excellence of the Institute and that we imagine how this place is going to evolve. As society evolves around us, we will naturally wind up changing. We need to do that in a thoughtful way so that we continue to be the special organization that we are.

At the end of the day, I'm counting on help from the faculty and staff. Caltech works because of the committed individuals within our organizations, the personal connections we form as we work together and the cooperation across the campus that these connections enable.  It's a collective enterprise.

I think administration is not something that's done to people. It's being responsible for making sure that folks have the right work environment, the right job assignments, and the right resources. It's making sure we're doing the right things with the finite resources we have. One of our former presidents said something that's always stuck with me: an administrator's goals are not about their own career so much as helping the careers of others. You need to think about how you're helping the people working for you, because they have goals and aspirations. That's where you take your satisfaction.

From caltech.edu
Written by Douglas Smith

Questions? Contact: events@alumni.caltech.edu

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