“At the end of the day, you want students to say they had a great experience at Rutgers.”
The turbulent sixties might have initially contributed to Fred Bernath’s pursuit of advanced degrees in chemical engineering, but he put his training to excellent use as a School of Engineering faculty member and academic dean, impacting the lives of thousands students over the course of his long and distinguished career at Rutgers.
On the occasion of Dean Bernath’s recent retirement, we sat down with him to look back on his more than five decades with SoE.
Why did you choose Rutgers and engineering?
My father worked in a machine shop and his bosses were engineers so engineering was what seemed like a good fit for me. Chemistry was my favorite subject in high school and then at Rutgers I was so impressed with the ChemE presentation by Professor Joe Stett during the engineering introduction course (which we still teach, by the way) that I decided to study chemical engineering.
Why did you decide to pursue graduate school?
I graduated in 1966 and was in ROTC so I knew my chances of being sent to Vietnam were high. I also didn’t know what I wanted to do as a chemical engineer, so I stayed in school another year to get my master’s degree. After that, I worked in a research center of a chemical company in Wilmington for four months before I went on active duty and was sent to Vietnam. That experience convinced me to pursue a Ph.D. after active duty since I thought at the time that I wanted to continue working in R&D.
I served in the 101st Airborne Division as an MP Lieutenant providing security on the base and in the local village which was about 6 miles north of the historic city of Hué. That experience of managing a platoon of MPs from a variety of backgrounds, interacting with my platoon sergeant who was a career airborne soldier and with my superiors, and getting to know the Vietnamese people in and around the village helped develop my people skills in ways that have helped me throughout my career.
The Army had a program that if you enrolled in a graduate program you could be discharged up to 3 months early, which would have been mid-October for me, past the start of the semester. Burt Davidson, who was one of my favorite engineering professors, was very supportive and worked out a deal for me to start the fall semester in late October ensuring my early return from Vietnam.
Let’s talk about the changes that have taken place during your time at Rutgers, starting when you returned for graduate school in 1969. What were some of the most significant and impactful events?
The day after I returned to Rutgers in October 1969, I was involved in an anti-war march and subsequently got very involved in the peace movement. In May 1970 after the Kent State shootings there were student strikes at colleges all across the country including here at Rutgers. It was during that strike that I formed Rutgers Veterans for Peace along with other vets on campus and in the local community. We subsequently became affiliated with the national organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). One of the major actions on campus during the strike was the student takeover of Old Queens. As an observer (and supporter) on the grounds of Old Queens I remember so well being impressed by how then President Mason Gross was able to defuse the situation and meet with the students to hear their concerns, which wasn’t something that was happening on other campuses. In retrospect, that was a big influence on how I have viewed relationships with students during my career.
I also remember when the first women were admitted to Rutgers in 1970 and when the new Engineering Building opened on Busch campus (then known as “the Heights”) in 1964. That felt like a big step up from the little rooms in Murray Hall. We now had a three-story chemical engineering pilot lab with industrial sized equipment. That became a real selling point for the program.
You played football while at Rutgers. Were you recruited?
I played football in high school, but had no intention of going out for the team at Rutgers. I played freshman baseball and thought that would be my sport. I dated the daughter of the receivers coach and was over at his house one day when he suggested I try out. I ended up being a pretty integral part of the team and was a starter in games my senior year.
How do you feel about academics and athletics?
I support big time athletics and see no reason why you can’t have academic excellence along with a strong athletic program. From my experience at SoE, we know that when the football team started getting better our enrollment increased. Obviously there were many other factors including working hard to build a high quality engineering program, but the added national exposure from televised games (especially exciting games like the 2006 win against Louisville) definitely have helped.
What made you decide to move from your faculty position in ChemE to becoming associate dean for student services?
As a young associate professor, in addition to teaching and research, I was the chief advisor for 300 students, which was a big job, but I enjoyed the student association and was good at guiding them and encouraging them to stick with our challenging program. I felt it was my responsibility to assist them as best I could with all of the issues they faced outside of the classroom, whether with housing, financial aid, or registration, so they could deal with their academics. In 1986, when the associate dean position opened up, because I liked student advising aspect of my job more than research I decided to move my career in that direction.
How would you describe your job?
The associate dean’s job is everything—recruiting, academic counseling, creating and administering scholarships, financial aid, establishing corporate connections, career placement, program development, professional accreditation, and more. The job is primarily problem solving, which is what we are trained to do as engineers and what I love to do.
What were some of your achievements in that role?
Each year we worked to make the student experience that much better from streamlining the registration process to centralized student advising. Registration in particular has improved vastly from the days when students stood in line for hours waiting to get registered. And I’m happy to see more support in academic advising with expanded drop-in hours and access to advisors. At the end of the day, you want students to say they had a great experience at Rutgers and a strong undergraduate team can help make the difference.
How have students changed during your more than 50 years at Rutgers?
There are definitely differences in how students learn and the tools they have at their disposal, but the curriculum today is still much the same as when I was a freshman—calculus, physics, chemistry, statics, intro to engineering. I think what’s changed is how we support students. In my day, many professors took pride in how tough the program was and that some of us wouldn’t make it past that first year. Today, the courses have stayed the same, but the classes are more engaging and we support those students who are struggling or wondering what they got themselves into that first year. As dean, I would tell them, if you stick with it once you begin taking courses in your major you’ll remember why you wanted to be an engineer.
If you weren’t an engineer, what would you have been?
I interned during the summer after my freshman year for the U.S. Public Health Service collecting and testing water samples and thought at the time about changing my major to biology or becoming a doctor. But I liked research and then discovered how much I enjoyed the human relationship aspect of my job. So I guess I ended up in the right place.
What do you do to relax?
I’m an avid mystery reader. I don’t have a favorite author, what I tend to do is find a writer I like and then read everything they’ve written. Recently I’ve been reading Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben and anxiously awaiting the next book by Michael Chabon. There is also a cadre of Swedish crime writers I’ve really enjoyed, including Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson.
I’m looking forward to my Class of 1966 50th reunion in April, which is also Rutgers 250th celebration. We were the Bicentennial Class and now we get to celebrate 250 years. Some family responsibilities have limited my involvement in the planning process, but I am an avid supporter and I’m hoping for a big turn out from engineering alumni.
Dean Bernath pictured at his retirement party with (l to r) Associate Dean Peng Song, Associate Dean Ilene Rosen, Bernadette Farris, Assistant Dean Lydia Predergast, Fred Bernath, Dean Tom Farris.