Published: Jan. 13, 2020

On this edition of On CUE, Interim Dean Keith Molenaar talks about his priorities for the future of the college and how he feels about stepping into the new role. Although this job is new, Moleenar is far from being new to CU Boulder. He completed all three of his degrees here and has held several faculty and administrative roles. In this episode he outlines his priorities for the future of our college, including maintaining consistency with the goals, vision and culture that Bobby Braun put in place during his tenure here over the last three years.


Announcer: And now, from the University of Colorado Boulder, the College Of Engineering and Applied Science presents On CUE. 

Josh Rhoten:  Welcome this edition of On CUE. my name is Josh Rhoten. Today, we're talking with interim dean Keith Molenaar about a wide variety of topics. We we'll learn about his time here, dating back to his years as an undergrad and looking ahead to the future of the college. Let's get started.

Rhoten:  So I just want to start by congratulating you, Keith. Tell me how it feels to be in the job.

Keith Molenaar: Feels wonderful. I'm really excited. We have such a great community here in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. It's a chance that I get to give back after being here for quite a few years. So I feel comfortable with the administrative tasks and really looking forward to helping to build the community and working with all of our colleagues here.

Rhoten: So you've been with the college for quite some time now. This is sort of accumulation or a peak moment for you. So can you kind of maybe give me a little bio about what's been going on beforehand for people who are just tuning in and may not know you very well?

Molenaar: Sure, sure. Well, I'm originally from Chicago. I worked for my dad's construction company and went to community college just outside the city. So I've actually came here as a student back in 1987 and so started my degree in architectural engineering and finished up my last three years here. I got lucky enough to get a job here in Boulder with a startup construction management company and in fact, even worked on a few of the projects around campus, physically worked on the projects as an engineer while I was practicing. Really enjoyed that, but wanted to come back and get some more education. So I came back to pursue my masters, ended up just getting enthralled with the research and loving the research aspect and got my PhD here as well. So my undergraduates in architectural engineering, my master's and PhD are in civil engineering. So a buff through and through here.

Rhoten: You're a forever buff, right?

Molenaar: I am indeed, as are a number of my family members. My youngest daughter now has just joined us here as a buff as well.

Rhoten: What projects were you working on on campus?

Molenaar: So I actually got a chance to do early estimates on the ITLL building. I worked on the Dal Ward Center, which is right next to the Champions Center at the football stadium and some renovations in the engineering center itself. That was just some of our work. I also was working on local projects, Denver Performing Arts Center, Sunspot Lodge up in Winter Park. A lot of projects around Colorado high schools, worked on Buckley Air National Guard Lab. So those were the types of projects I was working on.

Rhoten: What's the Denver Performing Arts Complex. What did you do there?

Molenaar: So what I did there was a project, if you're not familiar with the Denver Performing Arts Center, it's a number of theaters that take on about two blocks. And to connect those, there's a large skylight that goes above the street. So I got a chance to do the construction management for those skylights that are up about six stories in the air and span a whole city block. It was a really, really challenging project, but it's still there. And I point it out to my kids every time, every time we go by and enjoy the climate down there and the sense of place that it's created when I get a chance to go down and enjoy the performing arts center.

Rhoten: Right. You've also worked on some international projects in the past, too. Right?

Molenaar: Yeah. You know, so as I said, when I had my undergraduate, I worked on local projects. And then after my graduate work and spending some time at Georgia Tech as a professor, I came back here to the University of Colorado. And my research area is in risk analysis, cost and schedule risk analysis for large projects. I've written some national guidance and worked on some standards for how engineers can can better control costs and schedules on large projects. So that's just afforded me the ability to work on some expert panels and help with risk analysis on projects like the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The Panama Canal actually brought our advisory board for a meeting down there when I was department chair working there, and that was good. Lately, I've been working in France, a project called ITER. It's the International Thermo Nuclear Energy Reactor. And it's a it's a fusion experiment that's being built by the US, EU, Russia, China, India, South Korea and Japan. And it's about a 20 year project. We're about 10 years away from finishing it. That's been really exciting and wonderful to contribute to that.

Rhoten: I think maybe it might be interesting to our listeners to hear about why you picked engineering as a career. Can you maybe give me a little background about what interested you about the profession and sort of how you got started in that way.

Molenaar: Sure. Well, as I said earlier, my father owned a construction company and I worked for him since I was a since I was a young child. I was always just enthralled and inspired by going into work and just having a concrete pad. And by the time we left, we would have walls erected or a roof put on. And so I always knew building things was something I wanted to do. My father wanted me to pursue education. He didn't finish college, didn't go to college. And so he really pushed me that way. And I loved architecture. So one of the things I found looking around the country was the architectural engineering program here where it focuses on buildings and building energy. And it just really inspired me. And so that's what got me into engineering to start with, was not just the influence of my family and the desire to create things and leave them for the next generation.

Rhoten: Listening to your discussion about your career flow into your education background. One of the things that I picked up on was that you're sort of a nontraditional student. You started with a community college and kind of made your way all the way up to a PHD and now all the way to interim Dean. Can you maybe put that into context a little bit for me or talk about that kind of path for you?

Molenaar: Oh, sure. I guess I just I love to learn. I do. I still do, even as interim dean. I'm taking continuing education classes today myself and enjoying learning every day. And I think that's why I didn't just stay in industry, why I did different, different things. I went to community college, one just that was more affordable and then came here and actually got my residency and stayed here. So that was an important thing. And I've always seen learning and my career is kind of intertwined and I like it. So I think that's important. I try to never forget that I tried never to get too caught up in administration or the projects that we're doing. And remember that we are in a learning environment and that's why why I'm here. And I just love that aspect of the university and my job.

Rhoten: That can be a difficult thing, right? For people who have been in administrative roles for a while or been in academia for a while?

Molenaar: Yeah it can you know we all have to balance our time welll, you know, improving ourselves and taking time to learn because it could easily be spending too many hours a day just focusing on work. So I think I'm more effective and more efficient when I try and look for that balance in that learning. And I can also tell you my my students in my class, I think, realize that they see me continuing to learn, continuing to change the class up, continuing to bring in things from outside into the classroom. I think it makes it a better classroom environment for them, but it does take work because there's a lot of administration and a lot of research and grading and all those other things to do.

Rhoten: So I've heard you talk about becoming an interim dean a couple of times in a couple different places. And one of things you constantly stress is consistency between Dean Bobby Braun's time and what's going to come forward. Is that accurate? Is that something that you're trying to convey?

Molenaar: Yeah, absolutely Josh. You know, it even goes beyond that. One of the reasons I got into leadership was Rob Davis, who was dean before Bobby, selected me with some other young faculty to get involved in our 2020 strategic plan. So that was 15 years ago and here we are. So I kind of got involved there and it's been wonderful to see that vision come through. And then when Bobby arrived, he led a group of us and the whole college got involved in developing a strategic vision. And I'm very, very committed to that. Mainly been working on the first of the four areas which has been increasing our research impact as associate dean for research. But I'm the second element of embracing our public education mission was actually one of the things that I really contributed to and felt strongly about as we put that together again as being a student here and loving the public aspect and the accessibility aspect. I'm going to continue that. The other thing we've been talking about is global engagement, and that's been a passion of mine. Working with students I'vehad a chance to go to Bolivia, working on Bridges to Prosperity. And I've worked with our Office of International Education and served on committees there throughout my career.

Rhoten: You mentioned earlier, too, about diversity being an important aspect of community building. We just recently were recognized by ASEE in that area. I know that's a priority and a thing that you wanted to highlight going forward, do you want to speak to that goal or that piece of the vision statement as it falls to you?

Molenaar: Absolutely. Again, I hate to sound like an old timer here, but one of the biggest changes I've seen in the college is just walking through the halls, teaching in my classes. The diversity in our student population. It's really wonderful. We're starting now to have the demographics of our state, which is where we should be as a state institution. So the fact that we can have engineers, male/female equity, that we can have underrepresented minorities, similar levels to what we have across the state here, I think is just testament to all the work that the faculty and the community, especially the BOLD Center. Rob Davis really started investing years ago and has taken years to change. And it's going to it's going to take continual investment. And we have to keep the long term view where we're working at hard now, where we haven't made strides we'd like to is in the diversity of our faculty. And so we're consciously putting in programs, consciously working with our peers, trying to do what we can to increase the diversity of our faculty. So it's closer to the diversity of our student population.

Rhoten: I think that's so valuable building the community aspect. Like you said.

Molenaar: And then finally and one of the things I really want to focus on in my own interim dean time here is working on enriching our professional environment. Bobby's done a great job putting together climate surveys. We as a team are trying to make sure that that is always at our forefront, making this the place you want to work, making this the place we want to be. And although we've made great strides, I want to continue along those lines and really try and help build our community here.

Rhoten: You've presided over a time of growth in terms of research dollars here at the college, and that's probably where a lot of people are going to recognize you from over the last couple of years. Can you talk about how your experience there will translate into your time as interim dean? 

Molenaar: Sure, sure. You know, I think when I was a new faculty member here, it used to be thought of that you had to prove yourself as an individual researcher. And while we have individual experts and exceptional extraordinary, in fact, researchers were much better as a community working in interdisciplinary and collaborative research. And I truly believe the reason for our growth is what we've done with our interdisciplinary research teams, what we've done with encouraging new faculty and our existing faculty to work more in groups. I think if you look at actually our research growth in dollars has grown, but our our number of proposals is actually smaller in some of the years. And that's because we're working on larger collaborative proposals rather than just so many individual P.I. investigator proposals. To me, that's just an analogy for how we work better as a community in education, in serving the public and our economic impact as a university. We can only do so much individually, and I think the more we can do together, the stronger impact that we're going to have. And so what I've learned there for research has definitely been just the power that we get when we work as a community.

Rhoten: And one of the things that you've talked about with me about the power of our communities is sharing the story of it and trying to get the word out. How important is it to you to get the word not only to The New York Times, but to The Denver Post and to these local outlets too to let people in Colorado know what's going on?

Molenaar: Yeah, well, we don't want to be the best kept secret in Colorado right now. I tell you, I love Boulder. I love our green space. But it also does kind of create a little bubble for us as most people have heard of the Boulder bubble. So we have to consciously work to to communicate with our constituents, with our peers. And that does take effort. But, Bobby, the communications team have done a great job. It's really wonderful to see how much recognition we're getting across the state, across the board with our peers in the Rocky Mountain region but even more so nationally. So we'll continue along those lines. I will work with the faculty to get them appointed to national positions as we can. But I think everybody needs to take that opportunity. We have a wonderful communications team here. We're investing in things like The conversation which helps us get Op-Ed's out. And then we have a comms team that can take some of our peer reviewed work and really get it out to the masses. And we do look at our alternative metrics, how much we're being pointed to by not just through our peer review articles, which are incredibly important, but also through the popular press and other other ways to get the word out.

Rhoten: The other piece that you mentioned before that I want to touch on that relates to community is the climate surveys that Dean Bobby Braun started. How valuable of feedback is that for you? And is that going to continue?

Molenaar: It's extremely valuable. We don't know what the climate is if we don't measure it. Those climate surveys are difficult to respond to sometimes they feel a little uncomfortable. But if we don't do that, we're not having the right conversations wer'e, you know, we're investing in our professional environment through programs, through physical spaces. We need that feedback, we need to know what's going on. Sometimes it's difficult to read some of the comments, I'll be honest. But those are the ones that help us to make changes. And so if we're not asking and we're not measuring, then we can't know if we're going in the right direction. Certainly not perfect. Those climate surveys are certainly not a perfect barometer of where we're going, but they're really important for making decisions at the program level and just really encourage everyone in the college to continue to respond to them and to be open and honest. And we also have other other venues to provide that feedback in between the climate survey.

Rhoten: So would you humor me here at the end of this interview to do sort of better, know your dean or speed round here with a couple questions? Sure. OK, so I know that you're an avid hockey player and avid fisherman, an avid bicyclist. Which of those activities would you be most excited about to blow off work and do for an entire day?

Molenaar: For an entire day? Let's see. It would definitely be fishing. Fishing is a real solace for me. If you've never been out on a river in Colorado, It's an incredible places where all the wildlife comes to. Just the beauty is astounding. And it's one of the few places where I can be where my phone can't ring. And I don't have a connection with the Internet and I truly lose track of time. So that's if I have a day to recharge and get some solace. That's that's what I would do.

Rhoten: I don't want you to blow up your fishing  hole or tell me where your spot is. But where's your where's your favorite place to fish? Is it in Colorado or somewhere else?

Molenaar: Oh, I you know, I enjoy the creeks. So I have a fishing rod in the back of my car and I'll sneak out on Boulder Creek and that's fun. But probably the Colorado River outside of outside of Silverthorne and outside of Vail is probably one of the best places in the country. And we live right next to it. So that's definitely when I can take the time to get up there. That's where I would go.

Rhoten: Who are your role models in engineering as a professor, as a leader?

Molenaar: It's a good question. I hadn't really thought about that I guess I would keep them local. My direct mentor, the person who really took me from undergraduate and inspired me to come back to graduate school was Jim Diekmann. And he's since now an emeritus professor and truly was a role model. I've been lucky enough and successful enough to be able to leave a lecture and make a donation to have a lecture in Jim's name, and I'll always remember what he's done.

Rhoten: So we've established pretty clearly that you're forever buff, but I want to test your memory here. Think back a little bit, what's one thing you learned in undergrad that you still apply today?

Molenaar: You know, I was really inspired to try and try and save the world at that time through creating passive solar design and energy efficient buildings. And so, you know, one of the things that I'll be working on now is are managing our space or several hundred thousand plus square feet of space here. And so one thing I'll always try and keep in mind is that how can we be sustainable with our energy and with our buildings? And so that's still my in my core thinking forward. And I learned a lot about that from our architectural engineering program and our professors here when I was an undergraduate.

Rhoten: Speaking of undergraduates or former students, what do you think that they would say about you as a professor?

Molenaar: You know, I keep in contact with a lot of them. A number of them have congratulated me. It's good to keep in contact. It's such a great community we have here and so many of my graduating class are extremely successful now extremely and there in their jobs. Some have stayed in engineering, some own construction companies and serve on our advisory board here. Others have left and gone into finance or other things, but still have that strong engineering background. We just had our fiftieth construction, engineering and management on part of our construction and during management program fiftieth anniversary. And I saw a lot of them there. And I think they would just, you know, just appreciate that I'm giving back to the to the college. That's what I've heard a lot of as I've talked to em.

Rhoten: All right. The last question I have for you is which single project have you worked on in the past that you're most proud of?

Molenaar: Wow. Wow. One project. One project that I've worked on... the fusion project out in France. I mean, it truly could change the world and bring us clean energy. We're still a long way away. But, you know, the project's about trying to harness the energy of the sun and the fusion plasma. And that's all contained within magnets that are cryogenically frozen close to absolute zero, all within a vacuum of a stainless steel tank that's six stories tall. So the imagination that the engineers and the physicists have had to even attempt this is just phenomenal. If it works, and it very well could, it could generate clean energy by 2050. We could have these all across the world. And still it's a nuclear fusion. But the half life of the waste is 10 years. We're not dealing with waste that we have to have to maintain for tens of thousands of years. We're really looking at clean energy and less than 10 years of radio of radioactive waste. So just to be part of that and again, just part of it, it's a team of tens of thousands of people working on it. Everybody from the engineers, through the scientists, through the laborers, through the supply chain and things coming from around the world. It's just a incredible sight and an incredible opportunity. I just really feel blessed to be part of that one and hopefully I'll see it finished. But that's just a testament to the imagination of engineers.

Rhoten: One of the ones you mentioned, you worked on the engineering center on this engineer center? Yeah, I've heard a lot of rumors that this place was made up randomly and that none of the doors actually go anywhere and there's no plans. Is that true?

Molenaar: No, no. There was actually a design competition for this building. It's you know, people look at it and it's not as architecturally pleasing as as they might think or they might want. But if you look at the history of architecture during that time, that kind of brutalist period, you know, me as a civil engineer, I love the board formed concrete on the outside of this building. You can see how the concrete was constructed through the physical building itself. And that was just what was going on at the time. If you look at another example of it NCAR, that actually turned out a little bit better. But, you know, they took the took the aggregate from the Flat Irons to make the concrete look the same color as the Flat Irons. And, you know, to me, just the master craftsman who worked on it. Actually, when you look at concrete, it's actually carpenters who built the concrete, just the form work and the care, the time that they put in the build. Those things are beautiful. So I see a lot of beauty in our our building. It is confusing. It's actually about eight buildings that's connected by the lobby when you figured that out it gets a little bit easier to navigate. But I've enjoyed enjoyed working on the different aspects of it. And like I say, I hope we can get the funding that we need to improve every corner of it, because I still think it's a wonderful building. And if we can do it in a sustainable manner and put an energy efficient renovation, create more light, create more air, I think we have a wonderful place here in Boulder and we'll continue to try and make it even more vibrant through our renovations.

Rhoten: Right. Either way, it's our home, right?

Molenaar: That's right. It is. It's our identity. That's our home.

Rhoten:  All right. Thank you very much for talking with me today. Keith, I appreciate it. It's a pleasure. Congratulations again.

Molenaar: Thanks.

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