Peter McFadden: Teacher, Administrator, Friend

Dr. Peter W. McFadden has worn virtually every hat possible during his long and affectionate relationship with UConn: student, junior faculty member, professor, dean, Provost and Academic Vice President, chief fundraiser, “go to” problem solver and two-time alumnus.

The relationship first began in 1950 when he arrived on campus intent on earning an engineering degree. At that time, UConn was a much smaller community and engineering was smaller still, with fewer of the disciplinary borders that exist today. “When I was a student at UConn, it was a much smaller institution. There were only about 5,000 students, total.  And the undergraduate programs in engineering were closely integrated with a common curriculum through the junior year. We all took the same thermo, statics and mechanics classes, for example, and split off only in the senior year for more discipline-specific courses.” he says.

Because of this curricular streamlining, during his junior year Dr. McFadden remained uncertain about his choice of engineering disciplines, until he had the good fortune to take a thermodynamics course with Dr. Win Hilding, whose superb teaching style and mastery of his subject made thermo come alive for Dr. McFadden. From that point on, he was a mechanical engineer with a life-long affinity for thermodynamics.

Recalling his undergraduate years, Dr. McFadden says there were many other great teachers as well, including Charles Coogan, Wendell Davis, Eric Stefan, Victor Scottron, Jack Stephens, Henry Samuelson, Ed Gant, Ron Brand, Dave Fischer and Doc Bartholemew.

After earning his B.S. in 1954, he decided to stay on at UConn while pursuing a master’s degree.  Graduate students today typically complete their coursework at the Storrs campus, but back then graduate courses in mechanical engineering were taught mostly in Hartford, and UConn did not offer a doctoral degree program in engineering.  “The program was set up primarily for engineers from Pratt & Whitney who wanted to get their master’s degrees while working full-time.”

Furthermore, a Ph.D. was not a necessary prerequisite for teaching.  So, equipped with a B.S., a sharp mind and an eager interest in academia, Dr. McFadden accepted a full-time position as an Assistant Instructor, teaching mechanical drawing to freshmen, and also junior and senior lab courses while taking coursework in Hartford toward his master’s degree. He notes: “The campus was so homey back then that everyone knew each other. In fact, UConn’s President, Albert Jorgensen, knew even a lowly Assistant Instructor – me – by name!”

Another major difference in the academic culture 60 years ago was that UConn was almost exclusively focused on education, with research largely absent from the academic environs.  There were, however, two projects in Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. McFadden was involved in both while engaged in the master’s program.  “The so-called ‘Fox Project’ had to do with a proposed nuclear powered airplane and was led by Win Hilding. This research project involved heat transfer to internally finned tubes. The other project involved properties of titanium and was overseen by Dr. Bartholemew, a metallurgist.”

On to Indiana

He finished his M.S. degree in 1956 and then, intent on augmenting his credentials, he enrolled at Purdue University to pursue his doctoral degree.  He found that he was fully prepared for the challenges of the much-bigger, better known university and its renowned engineering program.

“When I came to UConn, a number of my friends chose to attend ‘prestigious’ schools with big names. I caught grief from them. But when I began the Ph.D. program at Purdue, I found that my education at UConn prepared me very well to compete against students from any of the big name schools.  Our undergraduate education in those days was as good as that of the best schools.”

Still, it was a big transition to go from a university with 5,000 students to a school four or five times that size; and to a Mechanical Engineering program that was far larger than the entire School of Engineering at UConn. “During my Ph.D. program, I worked full-time in the exalted position of ‘Instructor,’ (having advanced from the lowly role of Assistant Instructor), while taking two courses per semester and three classes each summer.”  He settled into the Midwest and Purdue, and in 1959 Dr. McFadden received his Ph.D.  He loved research and relished the opportunity to stay on as a faculty member with expertise in thermodynamics, and there he remained for 12 years.

It was a good fit, and he ascended to the administrative post of Head of the School of Mechanical Engineering.  In 1970, he says, the University of Connecticut was looking for a Dean of Engineering to fill an expected vacancy.  He had maintained ties with UConn, and Dr. Hilding recommended him for the position.  That led to an interview, and in the summer of 1970 he was offered the job.  It took him half a year to finish up his duties at Purdue and to pack up his family and move back to Connecticut.  The McFadden’s arrived in December, and although the national turmoil over the Vietnam War and the draft was still breeding national fervor across much of the country, in Storrs the protests and unrest had largely passed.

UConn Rewind

He served as Dean from January ‘71 until 1985; it was the longest tenure of any Dean in the School’s history.

When he accepted the position, he said, “One of the major tasks the University wanted me to assist with as Dean was to secure a new building.  When I was interviewing for the position, I was told that the Connecticut legislature was set to review a new engineering building at Storrs, so I arrived planning to pitch for it. But the new governor at that time (Thomas J. Meskill) cancelled capital projects, including the engineering building, because – like now, it was a time of austerity and the state was in a mode of financial belt tightening.  This was constant theme throughout my years as Dean.”

Since UConn could no longer rely on state support for infrastructure improvements then, fundraising was seen as critically important. He noted that UConn began its first capital campaign in the 1980s, and he began working with the UConn Foundation to identify ways to raise the money needed for a new building.  Someone came up with the idea of having a public/private match, but there was a strong sentiment against constructing new buildings.  Dr. G. Michael Howard, then Associate Dean of Engineering for undergraduate programs (’74-’88), “had a brilliant idea,” says Dr. McFadden, “He said, ‘Peter, let’s not build a new building; let’s add onto an existing building.’  The idea took hold and we were given permission to proceed.”

But additional obstacles crept into the School’s plans, delaying the process until an inspired group of generous alumni stepped in to help catalyze things. Dr. McFadden credits fellow alumnus Richard Gamble, (Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, ’49), then president of Hamilton Standard, with championing the cause among UConn engineering alumni within all of the United Technologies Corporation businesses, helping to “grease the skids” so that Dr. McFadden could make presentations before alumni groups with the goal of securing donations.

At the time, UTC provided a 2:1 match for employee donations. Generous alumni at UTC, Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky and Hamilton Standard (now Sundstrand) met the challenge with extraordinary generosity that, together with additional donations from UTC and many other generous alumni and businesses, led to the “addition” (UTEB connects to the Engineering II building) known as the United Technologies Engineering Building, or UTEB in 1987 at a cost of $6 million ($4.6 million in state bonds and over $1.5 million from UTC, its employees and many other generous donors.

In 1987, the new Provost and Academic VP had been hired, but because his arrival on campus would be delayed, Dr. McFadden was asked to serve in a six-month interim capacity. During that time, he discovered to his dismay that the long-awaited renovation of Engineering 1, the F.L. Castleman Building, had been removed from the list of buildings slated for capital improvements. “Timing is everything…so I put it back on the list.” The renovation of Castleman was finally completed in 1995.

Also during this time, he implemented the new administrative structure that increased the budgetary authority of the Provost; this is among his most satisfying accomplishments, since it empowered the chief academic officer.

After completing his six-month interim term, Dr. McFadden filled a series of posts within the University, as a faculty member, School of Engineering Development Director, Executive Assistant to the President and Executive Secretary to the Board of Trustees. He then retired in 1997, but his golf clubs and sailboat had barely seen regular use before he was lassoed into heading up the UConn Alumni Association from 1998-99.

Dr. McFadden worked for seven UConn presidents across his long and accomplished career, beginning with  Albert Jorgensen followed by Homer Babbidge, Jr. (‘62 -‘72), who hired him as Dean, and concluding with Philip Austin (‘96 –‘07). In addition to his successes in facilitating the UTEB construction and the Castleman Building renovation, he notes that it was extraordinary to closely watch as the transformative 20-year, $2.3 billion UConn 2000 state investment in UConn’s infrastructure was made real.  His final post-retirement official duties were to serve as Director of the Environmental Research Institute from 2001-02.

As his UConn duties decreased, Dr. McFadden was able to spend more time with his family and on his varied avocations. While his children were growing up, he introduced them to sailing; retirement allowed him to share this love with his grandchildren. Now that the great grandchildren are enriching the family, he notes that he’ll pass on the family sailing legacy to them as well.  In addition to sailing, he and Shirley enjoy fishing, golf and traveling.

Dr. McFadden has received numerous awards for his service to the university, including the Engineering Alumni Award (’85), the Distinguished Service Award (’94), UConn Club’s Outstanding Contribution Award (’98), Alumni Association’s Service Award (’99) and University Medal (’04), among UConn’s highest honors – recognizing outstanding professional achievement, leadership, and distinguished public service at a community, state, national or international level, and an extraordinary commitment to the University.

An accomplished and popular administrator, Dr. McFadden was also known for his charm and sense of humor.  Dr. Nejat Olgac, professor of Mechanical Engineering, recalls, “I remember vividly his relaxed interactions with the faculty at all levels.  He is a true gentleman and an avid sailor.”

Dr. G. Michael Howard, who served as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education under Dean McFadden, remarks of his former colleague: “Peter had a light touch in dealing with people. He was always cordial, even when the subject matter was very serious and potentially divisive. It was a pleasure working for him because I felt like I was working with him.  He listened to suggestions and was willing to consider other points of view.  Peter also gave people a chance to do it their way.”  Dr. Howard also recalls that during the planning and design of the UTE Building, Dean McFadden was closely involved in the day-to-day plans and weekly meetings with the architects and builders, and he was often on-site during the construction phase meeting with the construction supervisor. “I really credit Peter with the construction of UTEB.”

Dr. Kazem Kazerounian, Associate Dean for Research & Strategic Initiatives, said Dr. McFadden hired him as an assistant professor in 1984. He quipped, “What I remember most about Peter is that he was always an extremely good judge of people.”

Published: April 16, 2012