Q&A with College of Computing Dean Dennis Livesay

A man wearing glasses and a dress shirt and jacket smiles at the camera seated outside on a college campus with walkway lights and trees in soft focus behind him
A man wearing glasses and a dress shirt and jacket smiles at the camera seated outside on a college campus with walkway lights and trees in soft focus behind him
Dennis Livesay, Dave House Dean of the Michigan Tech College of Computing, began his work at the University in February and made the move to Houghton in March.

Increase enrollment. Promote diversity and inclusion. Grow the research portfolio. Michigan Technological University’s newly arrived College of Computing Dean Dennis Livesay shares present priorities and future goals.

In the midst of settling in and setting up — from his campus office to the large portions of his home dedicated to LEGO — Livesay (pronounced Lev-eh-see), shares the journey that brought the inaugural Dave House Dean of the College of Computing to this point in life and career, and the journey he expects current and incoming students will embark on as he guides the College of Computing (CC) into the future by building on its current success.

A CC First

Livesay is first to hold the Dave House Deanship in the College of Computing, a reinforcement of the University’s commitment to computing. The gift from alumnus Dave House ’65 recognizes that computing is central to all disciplines and central to the future of Michigan Tech.

Q: You just arrived in Houghton. What’s your first impression of campus and the Keweenaw?

DL: I absolutely love it! Michigan Tech was the original draw, but I simply love the region. My family and I enjoy the outdoors. We can’t wait to explore.

Q: As an adult fan of LEGO (AFOL), you might be interested to know that numerous Michigan Tech folks are involved in FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Robotics teams here in the Keweenaw. What kind of community activities are you and your family interested in, for both learning and fun? 

DL: We’re huge fans of LEGO! My son, Maxwell, who’s 10, loves to play LEGO — when he’s not playing video games — and he and my wife Lauren did LEGO Mindstorms as well. Max’s school [in Kansas] has a great Mindstorms robotics program in the middle school, but not for his grade. So Lauren formed the team, learned the system and coached the team. It was a great experience for everyone because they were learning together through the journey. 

A man wearing glasses in front of a LEGO city he has constructed.
LEGOs aren’t just for kids. Like many adults, Livesay, here with his LEGO city, enjoys the creativity and relaxation of one of his favorite hobbies. (Home and family images courtesy Dennis Livesay)

We’re also a hockey family. Maxwell played travel hockey in Wichita, and I started playing a little over six months ago. We’re both wingers — he’s pretty good, but I suck (laughing). We’re big-time St. Louis Blues fans. Our last vacation was across eastern Canada, following the Blues from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal. It was at the start of last year’s season when they were the defending Stanley Cup champions. We had a blast!

A dad and his son on a Kansas ice rink in hockey gear with the Midwest Championship sign behind them and the son holding a water bottle. They both are suited up in their hockey gear.
The Livesays will be getting acquainted with the Copper Country's hockey rinks.

Other hobbies are outdoor activities. Lauren and I both used to race bicycles. She still rides quite a bit, but I moved on to running. We love to hike and (car) camp. And all of us are looking forward to learning how to ski. 

A mom, 10-year-old son, and dad outside a stone building with a blue sky. They are a smiling family wearing fall jackets..
The Livesay family is excited to explore the Keweenaw.

Q: Is there anything about the local area you’d like to know more about? What sparks your curiosity here in the Keweenaw? 

DL: Learning about cross-country skiing tops my list. I can’t wait to get started.

Q: That’s the perfect segue to your current priorities for the College of Computing, including increased enrollment. Can you give us an if-then statement on each of the CC’s undergraduate degree programs to help a future Husky think through choice of major? 

DL: Computer Network and System Administration: If you want to create and manage the next generation of powerful, widely accessible and secure computing and networking infrastructure for enterprise and industrial applications, then computer network and system administration is the field for you.

Computer Science: If you love problem-solving and want to use that talent to create computing solutions, then a CS major can give you the foundation for a career creating computing solutions in a wide range of application areas.

Cybersecurity: If you feel the calling to do something about escalating threats in cyberspace and to protect America's computing and computer network resources, then consider opportunities in cybersecurity, where there is a critical need for your skills.

Electrical Engineering Technology: If you like to work with your hands as well as your brain, and want to design, implement and maintain the next generation of electrical systems for industrial control and automation, then our electrical engineering technology program is the right fit for you.

Mechatronics: If you want to be part of the future of manufacturing, which lies in technologies that bring together mechanical systems, electrical systems and intelligent computing and control, then you will find a home in the exciting, highly valued field of mechatronics.

Software Engineering: If you dream of writing software applications or managing software projects that delight the user, then a software engineering degree will give you the skills and knowledge you need.

General Computing: If you’re not sure what your specific computing interests are yet, then general computing is the place to explore different options that will help you decide where you want to focus. 

Q: A three-time dean who comes to MTU from Wichita State, your path to your current profession was not entirely linear or predictable. What can students who are still figuring out their place in the academic and professional world learn from your experiences?

DL: Be curious. Be open to new experiences. Be willing to take chances. And most importantly, follow your passions. My training is fairly typical for a chemist, but my career has been anything but. I was always looking for ways to connect different topics and disciplines, leading to novelty and important technological advances. This role is a perfect example of that. I was very content at Wichita State and wasn’t looking to leave. With that said, I love computing and one of my biggest passions is advancing it on a broad institutional scale. This position affords me the opportunity to do that, which is why I leapt at it.

Q: One of the earliest ways you reached out to students was a personal letter asking them to share their experiences with diversity and inclusion so you can find out what’s working and what needs to change to make the College of Computing a place where everyone feels welcome and can thrive. Have students contacted you? What did you learn and what plans do you have moving forward to achieve this goal?

DL: A few students have contacted me, but not as many as I would like. What I have learned is that our students love Michigan Tech, but admittedly too many have experienced bias and racism. To expand and elevate the discussion, we — faculty, staff, and soon students — are starting a process I call Forward Together. It will be an ongoing College-wide discussion of our challenges, opportunities and aspirations, ultimately leading to a strategic plan. Diversity and inclusion will be a fundamental theme throughout, along with student success, research and industry engagement. In fact, I’ve dedicated our first structured Forward Together group discussion to diversity and inclusion issues. I want us to move the needle here quickly. 

Q: What role do faculty, graduate students and programs, and undergraduate research play in growing the College of Computing’s research portfolio? 

DL: Great question! Michigan Tech is a public research university and knowledge discovery is a critical aspect of what we do. For example, PhD programs are the engines of innovation and knowledge creation which support our unique mandate to advance the industry of the state. Moreover, our research successes draw in a world-class faculty and create new opportunities for students. I think the most compelling reason for an undergraduate student to attend a research university like Michigan Tech is that they, too, can be involved in the process of creating new knowledge. It dramatically deepens the student experience and emphasizes learning in a way that reading from a book cannot. 

"One of the things that has struck me the most during my time at Tech so far is the passion and dedication of our students, faculty, staff and alumni. Everyone is dedicated to achieving the promise of the College of Computing, and I couldn't be more excited to be part of that — because the future needs Michigan Tech!" Dennis Livesay, Dave House Dean of the College of Computing

Q: Beyond the core of the College’s six undergraduate degree programs and five graduate degree programs, you’ve said that you want to prepare students and researchers across campus and disciplines with the computing skills they need. Whether it's health care data, sound design, corporate IT or climate change modeling, most modern systems have a computing aspect. What does a holistic, campuswide approach look like? 

DL: (Laughing) I wish I knew! In all seriousness, we need to partner with our colleagues in engineering, business, social sciences and everything else to make sure that Michigan Tech graduates have the digital skills needed going forward. For example, in finance, the divide between the traders and analysts versus IT is shrinking. In the past, when an analyst needed new info, he or she would have to submit a request for a new report and wait on IT to create it. Companies that have embraced digital transformation have the analysts write the code themselves, meaning they expect their functional groups to also have a high degree of computing expertise. This is the future of business, and ultimately all disciplines. 

Another great example is the importance of digital engineering to the design process. Data and computing are ever-present in engineering — digital tools and modeling are as important as physical models. Michigan Tech is way ahead of the curve on this already, and we look forward to partnering with the College of Engineering to strengthen this Tech differentiator.  

Q: Disruption is a word that gets thrown around a lot in regard to the ongoing data revolution and equipping students to meet the challenges of the future. What does disruption mean to you — is it what we do or what we’re responding to?

DL: I think a lot about disruption and the disruptive innovation theory developed by Clayton Christensen. But I’m actually more focused on digital transformation — a related but distinct idea. History is full of disruptive technologies that obsoleted earlier ones, whereas digital transformation is driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). 

A lot has been said about the 4IR, but to me the two most salient hallmarks are a flattening of the spaces and the ubiquity of computing and data. The 4IR will be characterized by a convergence of technologies, especially as related to distinctions between the physical and digital worlds. As computing and data become more powerful, there is less and less need for the physical. New designs will be approved based solely on digital models and when physical resources are needed, they themselves will compute and generate data that is shared via the Internet of Things

Fundamental concepts of computing and data science will be intertwined in all aspects of the economy and workforce. Everyone will have to have some baseline fluency in computing, cybersecurity, data and privacy, and AI, in the same way that everyone currently needs to be able to use Word, Excel and the internet. 

"I can't understate the depth of this convergence that will happen soon, and I can't even begin to imagine what it will look like over the course of our current students' lifetime." Dennis Livesay, Dave House Dean of the College of Computing

Q: Michigan Tech consistently ranks high statewide and nationally in computing-related degree programs. What do rankings mean to you? 

DL: I’m of two minds regarding rankings. On one hand, rankings are very important to recruitment of faculty, staff and students, and can lead to new opportunities to partner on projects with groups outside the University. On the other hand, I never chase rankings simply for the sake of rankings. My goal is for us to do work that matters — to have a transformative impact on our students and external partners. Using that as our guiding principle, the results of our good work will make the state — and the world — a better place, and the rankings will follow.

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.