"This is an opportunity for those who recognize it. The window is open, but it will close if we don't take advantage of it."
Richard Koubek sits at an oversized conference table in an undersized conference room. Laptops and cellphones clutter the surface; lighting equipment and video cameras clog the aisles. From the hallway, phones ring and voices emanate.
If Koubek finds it all distracting, he doesn't let it show. He's focused on the people in the room, the question at hand.
What excites you about Michigan Tech?
"This is a unique moment in time," he says. "We are truly in the fourth industrial revolution. In the Renaissance, we celebrated the individual. But when we moved into the Industrial Revolution, we lost that sense of individuality a little bit. We focused on automation. And with the emergence of information technology, humans were encouraged to interact with and think like computers.
"But that's all in the past now. The value of the individual is no longer eclipsed by technology. Today, the Renaissance meets the Industrial Revolution. Technology is sophisticated, but it's here to help us."
And a school like Michigan Tech is primed to lead, Koubek says, on a global scale, because we understand not only the technology, but it's implications for society and our environment.
In other words, Richard J. Koubek—the tenth president of Michigan Technological University—is ready to seize the opportunity.
Born outside Chicago in Berwyn, Illinois, Koubek spent time growing up in California's San Fernando Valley and Farmington Hills, Michigan, before returning to the Chicago area during his high school years.
"I couldn't afford to go to a four-year institution right out of high school," Koubek says, "so I went to a community college and worked at a local hardware store."
"I cannot imagine a person better prepared to lead Michigan Tech into the future than Rick Koubek. Rick is a true servant leader who will be a wonderful role model for students and a fantastic ambassador for the university. He understands the power of technology and how technology can be applied to solve complex problems. His intellectual curiosity drives him to seek always a new and better way, and his humility gives him the confidence to thoughtfully consider diverse opinions when reaching a conclusion. Rick will set a powerful vision for the university and inspire the entire Michigan Tech community to reach its full potential."
After two years, Koubek transferred to Oral Roberts University. He started out as a chemistry major, but soon realized he wanted to work with people. He switched to a biblical literature major with a minor in chemistry, and after graduating with his first bachelor's degree, Koubek headed to Trinity Divinity School in northern Illinois.
It was there that he had a surprising realization about his true passion.
"I woke up one morning and said to myself, 'It's the math!'" Koubek laughs at the memory. "I wanted to work with people, but I also really enjoyed math. I wanted a career that included both."
The realization led Koubek to Northeastern Illinois University, where he completed a second bachelor's in psychology, with a focus in engineering psychology. Following the eight months it took to complete his degree, Koubek worked as a research assistant in human-computer interaction.
"I have an unusual educational background. One you wouldn't expect for an engineer. My first degree in is liberal arts, and my second is in social sciences."
From there, he moved on to Purdue University, where he received his Master of Science and PhD in Industrial Engineering. His research focused on expertise and human factors in advanced manufacturing— "designing systems to fit the person, not persons to fit the system."
In 1988, Koubek joined Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where he taught and conducted research in usability engineering, human factors engineering, and human-computer interaction as an assistant professor. He was the College of Engineering's Teacher of the Year in 1991. "Wright State is located near Wright- Patterson Air Force Base," Koubek says. "It was a hotbed of human factors engineering. In fact, at the time, it was the only bachelor's program in human factors engineering."
After three years with Wright State, Koubek joined the faculty at his alma mater Purdue, where he was an assistant and then associate professor in the School of Industrial Engineering. He won the Pritsker Outstanding Teaching Award in 1995.
In 1997, Koubek headed back to Wright State to serve as professor and chair for the Department of Biomedical, Industrial, and Human Factors Engineering. Over the course of four years, he established the university's industrial engineering program, earned the "Click-It" Award for Innovative Use of Instructional Technology, and was named Department Chair of the Year in 2001. He was also associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Computer Science from 1999 to 2001.
"Super experts are the ones that, when you ask them the big questions, they say, 'It depends.' They have deep knowledge, and they know all the implications. They understand every piece of the puzzle and how those pieces fit together. I developed a passion for understanding expertise and how to develop it for educational purposes. It's the reason why I believe experiential learning is so important for students."
"Then I went from the newest industrial engineering program in the nation to the oldest," Koubek says. In July 2001, he was named head of Pennsylvania State University's Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. Penn State's industrial engineering program ranked as one of the best in the nation during his tenure.
Callin' Baton Rouge
After seven years at Penn State, Koubek was appointed dean of the College of Engineering and Bert S. Turner Chair at Louisiana State University (LSU). During his six years in this position, Koubek expanded the college's undergraduate enrollment by 53 percent, elevating it to the 17th largest college of engineering in the United States. The number of doctoral degrees awarded nearly doubled.
"Rick is a true visionary who knows intuitively how to move an institution forward. Not only is he a strategic thinker and planner, but he is also excellent at engaging with people on so many levels. Rick's boundless energy and thoughtful approach, combined with his vast experience, will allow him to make an immediate impact. I know he and Valerie will be a real asset to the MTU community."
Koubek also pioneered an innovative public-private partnership with Louisiana Economic Development and IBM to contemporize the curriculum in the Department of Computer Science. The effort helped earn him the 2013 Governor's Technology Award for Outstanding Leadership in Technology.
In 2015, Koubek was named LSU's executive vice president and provost. During his three-year tenure, he guided the university through an extensive strategic planning process and launched the LSU Strategic Plan 2025.
"LSU wanted to realign its course structure to better prepare students to be problem solvers and leaders, and of equal importance, to be global citizens and think of themselves as such."
It was this global perspective that brought Koubek to Michigan Tech.
"Everybody has the same goal— to advance the institution. There may be different opinions about how to go about it, but a good leader will respect those different opinions and figure out how to knit them together. That moves the institution forward at a rapid pace without compromising integrity."
On a Mission With a Vision
Koubek points out that Michigan Tech's vision statement demands that the University be a global leader, not just in technology, but in understanding the impact technology has on society, individuals, and the environment. "Michigan Tech wants to lead," he says, "not to benefit itself alone, but to benefit the state, the nation, and the global community. Our goal is to improve quality of life for everyone, and to promote mutual respect and justice."
"We have to understand not just what the technology is, but what it means. If you throw a rock in the pond, you see a big splash, but it's the ripples that rock the boat."
For Koubek, the first step toward realizing that vision is to keep his focus on the people around him, and listen.
"It's going to take our collective wisdom to determine the best path forward, to take advantage of this unique moment in time," Koubek says. "We're in uncharted territory. And that's why I'm excited to be at Michigan Tech. These are the people I want to be on this adventure with—the students, the faculty, the staff, the Board. I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and work with every member of the community. We have what it takes to be a leader in the fourth industrial revolution.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.