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After overseeing UMD's science boom, dean to step down

James Riehl, dean of UMD’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering, stands above the high bay area of the James I. Swenson Civil Engineering Building on Wednesday afternoon. The building opened in 2010 and was built during Riehl’s time as dean. He is retiring this year after 14 years. (Steve Kuchera /

Undergraduate enrollment in the University of Minnesota Duluth Swenson College of Science and Engineering has grown by nearly 50 percent since James Riehl, dean of the college, began his tenure in 2000.

Increased enrollment, the addition of two new science buildings on campus and millions in research funding for faculty are some of the things Riehl had a hand in during his time as dean. He will retire June 30.

“He’s recognized that as the campus has changed, he wants to maintain the emphasis we have had and our ability to have a balance between teaching and research,” said Robert Carlson, a professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department.

The college maintains a high level of research funding, he said, but faculty bring in undergraduate students to help do the work; something unique to UMD and something Riehl fosters.

“I have tremendous faith and trust in my faculty,” Riehl said. “When I talk to entering freshmen and parents, I say you have chosen a place where you are going to be challenged. To pick a study area in science and engineering; it’s not the easiest place.”

Swenson college faculty care about both research and their students, and that’s not always the case, Riehl said.

Riehl, a Philadelphia native, came to UMD from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, where he was head of the chemistry department. During his time at UMD, the Swenson college has earned at least $6 million a year in research funding, and both the Swenson Science and Swenson Civil Engineering buildings were constructed in part with major donations from alumnus James I. Swenson. The number of degrees awarded grew from 298 to 552, and 18 new tenure-track faculty members were hired. Twelve programs were added to the college, including the pharmacy program, which Riehl said is something he’s most proud of.

“It was challenging,” he said of the work, which he did with Marilyn Speedie, dean of the U of M College of Pharmacy. “We both worked very hard and realized the impact a pharmacy program here could have on our state.”

Another change within the school has been the number of engineering students, with the addition of mechanical and civil engineering majors. The engineering student population has grown from 400 to 1,200, he said, since 2000.

“When I travel to the iron mines, to Cirrus; UMD engineers are in middle management engineering positions,” he said. “It already is and will continue to have an amazing impact on Northeastern Minnesota.”

Riehl has been working recently to gain funding for a new chemical sciences and advanced materials building. Carlson said between 200 and 250 qualified students are turned away annually in recent years because there isn’t enough space. State money for the building wasn’t included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s project proposal, but it is included in the House of Representatives capital bonding bill.

“The next decade will be the decade of materials; building a Cirrus jet out of composite polymers,” Riehl said. “We need to be a part of this.”

Riehl’s efforts for the new building poise UMD to educate more students in the science, technology, engineering and math field, said Andrea Schokker, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“James Riehl has led the college to unprecedented growth and reputation,” she said. “He has truly been a game changer for UMD and the college.”  

A search is underway for Riehl’s replacement. He said he will help the new dean transition into the position.

Riehl, a professor of chemistry, said he plans to teach part time at UMD beginning in January. He’s also going to work on a book he’s writing about chemistry.

“I started because I like to teach but I haven’t taught in 14 years,” he said. “It’s what a professor should be doing.”