Alumnus Orr named provost of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

5/14/2008 Lauren Eichmann, ECE Illinois

ECE alumnus John Orr has been appointed provost and senior vice president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of Worcester, Mass., after a yearlong, nationwide search. Orr received both his bachelor’s and PhD from ECE Illinois.

Written by Lauren Eichmann, ECE Illinois

John Orr. Photo courtesy of WPI.
John Orr. Photo courtesy of WPI.

ECE alumnus John Orr has been appointed provost and senior vice president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of Worcester, Mass., after a yearlong, nationwide search. Orr received both his bachelor’s and PhD from ECE Illinois.

"It was certainly pleasant to hear that among the candidates, I had been selected," said Orr. "There will always be the question, ‘Gee, this is a large job. Am I eager to take it on?’ The answer there is yes."

Orr has built a career at WPI over the past 31 years, beginning in 1977 after being named assistant professor in electrical engineering, and eventually becoming head of the department from 1988 to 2003. This past year he was WPI’s provost ad interim. In his new role, Orr will be responsible for the university’s academic research programs, and as senior vice president, will serve as a senior member on the president’s staff. According to a WPI press release, he will primarily be in charge of "reviewing the undergraduate curriculum to ensure its excellence, strengthening core academic and research areas, recruiting and retaining outstanding faculty, and broadly supporting the university’s continuing increases in quality and stature."

Founded in 1865, WPI is a small, private, technology-focused university that prides itself on its undergraduate education with an important research component. "My job as provost is to help us maintain and enhance the quality of our undergraduate programs while also substantially increasing the scope and depth of our graduate and research programs," Orr said. WPI’s motto ‘theory and practice’ serves as a parallel to Illinois’ own words on the University seal: ‘learning and labor,’ he added. Orr believes both translate into the idea that students should not learn merely for learning’s sake, but for the sake that something useful will be done to apply such learning.

Orr said he will use his great undergraduate experience at Illinois as a foundation for serving in his new role. "The specific knowledge I gained in the classroom (on the Urbana campus) was definitely extremely important. But beyond that, the sense of educational quality, the number of excellent people who are fully accomplished and enjoying their accomplishments both in teaching and research at Illinois - and involving the students in their programs - all let me as a student feel my own sense of accomplishment," he said. "And upon graduation, I felt that really anything was possible."

Orr was the first PhD student of ECE Professor Chester Gardner, who has served Illinois at the college-level as associate dean, campus-level as vice chancellor for research, and most recently as vice president for academic affairs through University administration.

Orr said Gardner had an excellent set of qualities as an adviser. "He certainly had high standards and expectations, but not in any domineering sense," said Orr. "He was very helpful toward my own next step after earning my PhD, that being toward academia. One piece of general advice I remember from Chet in terms of time management, is when you are trying to figure out what to do, and you have too much to do, do the least pleasant task first. And that’s good advice."

Gardner said he has faith in Orr’s own abilities. "I'm pleased and proud of (John’s) career accomplishments," said Gardner. "John had served for many years as head of ECE at WPI and by all accounts he was a talented and respected administrator as well as a productive scholar." He also said he has no doubt Orr will fulfill his duties with distinction in a challenging but important administrative role.

"Provosts serve as both the chief budget and academic officers of the university and so they are involved in all the core issues," said Gardner. "John will be very busy, but his organized approach to his professional life will serve him well. I know he will enjoy getting to know and interact with faculty and staff across the WPI campus, not just engineering."

In addition to his ECE Illinois degrees, Orr received a master’s degree in 1970 from Stanford University. He started his career at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the late 1960s, working on PicturePhone. His PhD dissertation focused on multi-path fading effects in code division multiple access (CDMA) communications systems.

"While CDMA is widely used in digital cell phone networks today, it was a new technique in the mid-70s when John worked on the problem," explained Gardner. "Then, its use was restricted largely to experimental systems being developed by the military for covert communication applications."

Orr has co-authored a textbook on information engineering, and his most recent research work focuses on the area of precision personnel location systems. His research and teaching interests also include digital signal processing; image analysis/pattern recognition; power quality; and communications.

Orr is a member of Eta Kappa Nu, a Fellow of IEEE, and a member of the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission. He is former chair of the IEEE Committee on Engineering Accreditation Activities and member of the Educational Activities Board of IEEE, as well as past president of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association.

Share this story

This story was published May 14, 2008.