Meet NYU Tandon’s New Dean, Its First Female Chief

Why the university chose this Carnegie Mellon professor to head its rising Brooklyn tech school

Jelena Kovačević, who will take charge of NYU Tandon in August (Photo courtesy of NYU)

NYU Tandon School of Engineering, which has made a priority of bringing gender diversity to the ranks of its undergraduates, is now bringing that approach to its top leadership. New York University announced this week that Jelena Kovačević has been named the new dean, making her the Brooklyn-based school’s first female chief since its founding in 1854.

Kovačević, who will take charge in August, comes to Brooklyn from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she serves as the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. “She impressed us not just with her scholarship, but also with her thoughtful approach to strategy, leadership, and execution; the future of the engineering profession and education; and the promise of Tandon’s Brooklyn location and NYU’s global outlook,” stated NYU President Andrew Hamilton in making the announcement.

Indeed, at Carnegie Mellon, Kovačević has shown a remarkable range of scholarship, applying data science in domains from infrastructure to medicine. In one study, she worked with academic colleagues to test new technology on Pittsburgh’s light-rail system, using sensors and data analysis to detect problems and prevent accidents. In another, she conducted research into using algorithms to help doctors distinguish between middle-ear infections in children that require antibiotics and those that don’t.

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Student research underway in the labs at NYU Tandon (Photo by Arden Phillips)

“Her achievements as head of a top-10 department in a top-10 engineering school make her uniquely qualified to be the next leader of our school,” stated Tandon professor Kurt Becker, who headed a search committee that considered many candidates.

As an administrator at Carnegie Mellon, Kovačević worked to bring gender parity to her department by focusing on outreach and follow-up, much like efforts underway at NYU Tandon. “It’s really important to understand that you can’t do anything in isolation, so we look at it at all levels: from middle school and high school to when they come on campus to visit, to admissions and once they enroll, to diversifying faculty ranks,” Kovačević said in a 2016 interview with the school’s news site.

Kovačević arrives at a school on the rise. NYU, which had been without an engineering school since the 1970s, affiliated with Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University in 2008 and formally merged with it in 2014. Thanks in part to a $100 million grant from the Tandon family, the school has committed $500 million to improving Tandon’s facilities and programs, giving rise to an engineering hub along Brooklyn’s Jay Street. In the last decade, the school has more than quadrupled its research funding.

“I am thrilled to be joining a community widely known for its venerable history in the field of engineering, its deep connection to Brooklyn, its vibrancy and diversity, and its upward trajectory,” stated Kovačević in the school’s announcement. She will be succeeding Katepalli Sreenivasan, who has been Tandon’s dean since 2013.

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NYU Tandon has actively pursued gender parity among its students, attracting a growing number of female undergraduates (Photo courtesy of NYU)

Kovačević is a native of Belgrade, now the capital of Serbia. She earned her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Belgrade and then her master’s and PhD in electrical engineering from Columbia University. She worked at Bell Laboratories as a researcher in signal processing as well as a member of the Mathematics of Communications Research Department.

In 2003, Kovačević joined Carnegie Mellon, where she is currently the Hamerschlag University Professor and a professor of biomedical engineering, in addition to her role as department head. She is an authority on multi-resolution techniques, such as wavelets and frames, which can be applied to signal processing and data analysis. She is the author or co-author of several books, including Foundations of Signal Processing (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and Wavelets and Subband Coding (Prentice Hall, 1995). She has 21 patents to her name.

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Besides NYU Tandon’s growing research muscle, the new dean will be able to leverage the school’s outward reach as well, which ranges from K-12 STEM education to its NYU Tandon Future Labs, a fleet of four incubators to foster startups in the realm of digital technology.

While Kovačević is a serious academic, NYU President Hamilton pointed out in the announcement that it’s not the only side to her personality. “We were also struck by her down-to-earth manner, her resolve, and–a crucial requirement for life in New York–her warm sense of humor,” he said.

In the 2016 interview, she talked about how to keep students engaged once they arrive on campus. “We have made … a concentrated effort to increase contact students have with faculty, especially in non-classroom settings so they have a feeling that we are people, too, and we can have fun,” she said. “To give you an example, I hosted two puzzle nights with dinner; we all loved it. Took us four hours because it was 1,000 pieces. Students were passing by on their way from the labs in the evening and would stop by to put in a few pieces. It was really a fun thing to do.”

In a Carnegie Mellon video, Kovačević explains research into the diagnosis of middle-ear infections in children (Video via YouTube)

Arden Phillips is a New York-based writer and a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she received a degree in Television, Radio, and Film.