The list speaks for itself:

First female dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

First female dean of the College of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

First female chair of an engineering department at UMBC, and before that, her department’s first female to be awarded tenure and promoted to the rank of full professor.

Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering, has not only witnessed many firsts in the course of her career — she’s lived them. For these accomplishments, coupled with her strong leadership and advocacy efforts to support other women in higher education, Ross has been named the 2022 Outstanding Woman Leader in Virginia Higher Education.

The award, presented by the Virginia Network for Women in Higher Education, was announced on June 10 at the American Council on Education’s (ACE) 2022 Virginia Network Annual State Conference. Now in its fourth year, the accolade honors women who serve as role models to other women; display a commitment to developing and fostering the empowerment of women leaders; and exemplify leadership, success, and service.

“Julie is very deserving of this award, and we are delighted to see her honored in this way,” said Virginia Tech Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, who supported Ross’s nomination. “In addition to being an outstanding leader of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and advocate for its faculty, staff, and students, Julie is a highly respected and valued member of the university’s leadership team and serves as a role model for faculty and academic program leaders at every stage of their careers. She has also been an unwavering advocate for the recruitment and advancement of women in STEM fields and their development as empowered leaders in higher education.”

The Virginia Network is one of more than 50 state networks created and supported by what is now known as the American Council on Education Women’s Network. In 1977, ACE initiated an effort to identify and prepare more women for presidential positions, and since that time, the organization has expanded its outreach to support women who are interested in other senior leadership positions, such as deans, provosts, and vice presidents.

Virginia Network for Women in Higher Education Award Ceremony
Julie Ross (second from left) receives the 2022 Outstanding Woman Leader in Virginia Higher Education award at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center on June 10. From left: Karen Campbell, state chair, ACE Virginia Network of Women in Higher Education; Ross; Donna Price Henry, chancellor, University of Virginia’s College at Wise; Betty Adams, executive director, Southern Virginia Higher Education Center; and Towuanna Porter Brannon, president, Thomas Nelson Community College. Photo courtesy of the American Council on Education Virginia Network.

Ross joined Virginia Tech in her current role in 2017 and has led the College of Engineering to many notable milestones. In the past five years, the college’s total enrollment has grown by 18 percent, led in part by the expansion of computer science and computer engineering in support of the state’s commitment to tech talent development.

Working closely with partners in the college and throughout Virginia Tech, Ross has led tremendous growth on several fronts:

  • The college’s research expenditures have grown by 16 percent (to $264 million in fiscal year 2020).
  • The value of the college’s endowment has increased by 31 percent (to $238 million).
  • The college’s alumni giving rate has grown by 54 percent.
  • Engineering’s physical footprint is undergoing a significant expansion.

In support of these capital projects, Ross worked with university and college advancement partners to help secure the largest ever gift to Virginia Tech from an alumnus ($35 million).

But perhaps most impressive to Ross, the college also has seen an important increase in the diversity of the engineering community – both in college leadership and in the student population.

“Today, the college’s leadership team of department heads and associate deans is about 50 percent female,” said Ross. “And there has been nothing magical about making that happen. We’re just committed to hiring the very best people, one search at a time. It starts with being intentional in our search processes, using best practices, and building diverse pools of talent.”

College leadership isn’t the only area where engineering has made progress in representational diversity, which is also a university priority for both faculty positions and the overall student body.

Through Ross’s tenure, and according to recent first-time in college numbers for accepted students (which tend to change slightly before the fall semester), the number of underrepresented minorities entering engineering in 2022 has increased to almost 25 percent of the student body compared with roughly 11 percent in 2017. The number of underserved students has also risen from 23 percent in 2017 to a current 27 percent, putting the combined percentage of underrepresented and underserved students entering the college at 41 percent – 1 percent above the university’s overall target of 40 percent by the start of the fall 2022 semester.

And for a discipline in which women are notoriously less present than men, the college expects to see a population consisting of about 25 percent female students this fall.

These numbers reflect significant progress not only for the College of Engineering under Ross’s leadership, but are also positive signs for the field of engineering, which she has pushed to make more accessible for much of her career – and it’s what the discipline desperately needs, she said.

“The easy problems have already been solved,” said Ross. “What’s left are the really hard, complex problems – the ones that take a lot of creativity and different kinds of thinking and collaboration to address. Engineering excellence for the future requires a workforce that can think about a problem from many perspectives and angles. From women and underrepresented minority students to those who are underserved like first-generation or Pell-eligible students, as well as students from rural backgrounds and veterans – it’s all about building a community with a broad distribution of life experiences.”

For these reasons, increasing representational diversity and strengthening a culture that supports student, faculty, and staff success are a key components of the college’s strategic plan, said Ross.

While Ross’s recognition as this year’s Outstanding Woman Leader in Virginia Higher Education is a strong testament to her leadership and accomplishments, it certainly isn’t the first. Among other notable awards and terms of service, she was honored by her alma mater, Purdue University, with a 2022 Distinguished Alumni/Alumnae Award and was highlighted by the Society for Women Engineers magazine in their “Women Engineering Leaders in Academe 2020” feature. She is currently serving a second, three-year term on the executive committee of the Global Engineering Dean's Council, working closely with engineering deans from around the world to advance engineering education, research, and service globally.

Ross, whose research interests focus on the role of fluid mechanics in infection formation in the cardiovascular system, is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. In 2013, she also received the American Council on Education fellowship, the nation's premier higher-education leadership-development program preparing senior leaders to serve American colleges and universities.

For all of the external recognition Ross has garnered, it is perhaps the respect of the Hokie community that resonates the loudest. “The example she sets for faculty, staff, and students is inspiring,” said Clarke, “and should serve as a guide for current and future leaders at Virginia Tech.”

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