College of Engineering Dean Manos Maragakis: A retrospective on a distinguished tenure

The NSF Grand Challenge research project attracted worldwide attention. A delegation of professors and engineers from Japan traveled to the University to observe the final high-amplitude test.

“The grand challenge was a very competitive project and I consider its funding and successful completion one of my greatest achievements,” Maragakis said. “At that time it was the largest NSF project funded in the university. I had the opportunity to learn a by assembling a leading a group of renowned universities and industry partners and a project that contributed to changing the state-of-the- art. We received major international attention and it contributed to the enhancement or our reputation. I will never forget the many competitive, collaborative and technically challenging experiences and using our renown earthquake lab to conduct testing that drew the attention of researchers from around the world. “

Itani added, “It was a crown jewel in a career that saw Manos recognized as a top researcher in terms of NSF funding and expenditures.”

Itani credits his own success in seismic research not only to Maragakis’s direct mentorship but to his ability to build research capacity.

“Manos did a wonderful job increasing the capacity of UNR to hire senior faculty members,” Itani said, citing Buckle’s arrival in 1999 and the subsequent development of the Earthquake Engineering Lab, which Itani believes helped put the College and the University on the map . But according to Itani, Maragakis’s vision did not end with faculty and facilities.

“You can have the best faculty and equipment, but you have to have good staff, too,” Itani said. “Technicians help faculty reach their goals.”

For Itani, this combination of increased capacity, strong support staff, and the opportunity to perform high-impact research on competitive grants prepared him to play a critical role in the safety of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area Bridge.

Professor and now Associate Vice President of Research and Innovation Ahmad Itani visits the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge where he worked on retrofits and improvements to the bridge.

“With the new facilities, I could test large scale structures like the Bay Bridge,” Itani explained, “and develop guidelines for the Bay Bridge seismic retrofit.”

But Itani is quick to note that Maragakis’s mission always included student success.

“He increased enrollment, and with it, advising and mentorship of students,” Itani said. “Differential tuition was really important for helping build instructional labs to mentor students by hiring more TAs. And this is an important point: You can have funding from NSF for research equipment, but differential fees are key for expanding undergraduate education.”

The holistic approach to the College is, Itani believes, the legacy Maragakis will leave: “Excellence in teaching, discovery, and research,” Itani said. “[His stepping down] is a big loss for the University, and it is important to honor Maragakis and his contributions.”

Professor Ian Buckle, who served as the director of the Earthquake Engineering Labs, worked closely with Maragakis to develop the world-class facilities capable of diverse applications of testing large structures to make them safer. He echoes Maragakis’ sentiments about the team and the importance of working together.

Buckle said that he learned from Maragakis “that people matter. With the right people, creative ideas and resources will follow. He recruited and hired me in 1999. A decision I have never regretted.”

“As Civil and Environmental Engineering Chair, and later as Dean, he totally supported my efforts to propel Earthquake Engineering at UNR on to the world stage and keep it there, with unparalleled experimental facilities. This we have done and even today we are close to Commissioning the 400-ton soil box and dedicated shake table for large-scale soil-structure interactions. This has never been attempted before at this scale in the US, and if successful will cement our position as the preeminent US laboratory in earthquake engineering. Thank you, Dean Maragakis!”

With Maragakis stepping down, Buckle said his legacy as Dean, something people will remember him for, will be “lifting everyone’s boat. To the point where every department in the College now has an active, research-led, teaching program.”

A leader in the College

“When Manos came in as dean, it was fireworks,” Folmer, who joined the University in 2006, said. “He had passion and a clear vision for the College.”

That vision for the College can perhaps be summed up in a single word: Excellence.

“For Manos, ‘Excellence’ is a statement of purpose,” Sally Casas, Maragakis’s Executive Assistant, said. “He always says, ‘If we’re going to do something, we have to do it well.’ These standards show in the way the College is today. This focus on excellence is Manos’s influence.”

Through a desire to innovate and to excel, Maragakis quickly showed he was open to new ideas to support the College. Casas herself led the charge to advance the communications efforts in the College.

“We didn’t really have PR materials then,” Casas reflected. “Our newsletter was in black-and-white, and it looked like it was from the 1960s.”

When Casas brought these concerns to Maragakis, he gave her the greenlight to develop new materials, including the Nevada Engineering magazine. Since its first edition in 2009, the magazine has grown to a 32-page annual full-color publication with a print run of 12,500.

Casas’s experiences founding the magazine are part of a common theme described by those who know Maragakis’s leadership style best.

When Krishna Pagilla was his first search for a faculty member in his role as chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, he had a list of three finalists who were all going to be in high demand. Believing that he wind up losing all three if he had to make offers sequentially and go through negotiations individually, he shared his concerns with Maragakis.

“Manos said, ‘Offer it to all three of them,’” Pagilla recalled. “I said, ‘What if they all want to come?’ He said, ‘We’ll create a position for them.’ That is what it is like to work with Manos: If you have a good opportunity, Manos will support you.”

Although Maragakis and Pagilla both come from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pagilla is quick to point out that Maragakis always looked out for the whole College: “He has not played favorites with civil, not even once. I tried!” Pagilla said with a laugh, “but it didn’t work. In the six years I have been here, I haven’t heard anything negative about Manos from anyone who has known him for a while. That is the hallmark of character—you might disagree, but he never rubbed anyone wrong, and he was never hurtful.”

“He has an ideal leadership skill: He takes the blame, while giving credit. And this is because, on the inside, he’s a person who really cares. He cares about everybody, and he deeply cares about the College.”

Eelke Folmer

Volmer expressed similar sentiments: “I really trust him. When we run into difficult situations, Manos will take care of it. He has an ideal leadership skill: He takes the blame, while giving credit. And this is because, on the inside, he’s a person who really cares. He cares about everybody, and he deeply cares about the College. He is a great guy who takes care of his admin staff. I respect him for that.”

Shelly Madalinski, former Fiscal and HR Officer for the College, corroborates Folmer’s assessment.

“He has the ability to pick the right people for the right jobs. Then, he is hands off—in a good way,” Madalinski said. “He trusts me to make decisions, and he encourages exploring new ideas while allowing his staff to grow professionally.”

In addition to laying the foundation for the success of his staff and faculty professionally, Maragakis’s tenure as dean will also be remembered for the human touch he brought to his work. Casas, Madalinski, Folmer, and Johnson all remarked on his sense of humor—“he has a great sense of humor and knows when it’s appropriate,” Madalinski said—but Casas got to the crux of the matter:

“We are all here to work and do a job, but he’s very supportive when there’s family matters,” Casas said. “As a single mom, I was the only one who could stay home when my son was sick. He was always understanding and supportive. He is down to earth and approachable. He’s a really good guy.”

Engineering Advisory Board

Maragkis, cognizant of the need to engage engineering industry and community, developed the Engineering Advisory Board. It has been one of the important connections for faculty, students and administrators as Maragakis pursued and developed job creation and economic development programs in Nevada.

“It is such a different College today than it was when Manos took the helm,” Sara LaFrance a long-time member of the advisory board, said. “It has been truly transformed. During my time as a member of the Engineering Advisory Board, Manos was the acting dean and then the appointed dean under whom I served. Under his leadership, the number of students in the College increased, their outcomes rose , the major and minors being offered expanded and the reputation of the College grew. The culmination was the completion of the new engineering building which has elevated the College’s image and provided much needed quality space.”

Jeff Ceccarelli, who also served on the advisory board, agreed.

“Under Manos’s leadership the College of Engineering has prospered,” he said. “Enrollment has doubled, national rankings and recognition have increased significantly, he has created an incredible team of faculty and staff, and possibly the crowning achievement (and a big part of his legacy) is the completion of the new Pennington Engineering Building. We congratulate him on his well deserved retirement from the Dean’s position.

A collaborator and builder

Marc Johnson, who served as the 16th president of the University from 2012 to 2020, joined the University in 2008 as the Executive Vice President and Provost. In both of these roles, he worked closely with Maragakis as he pursued his vision for the College.

“Manos is a very driven person with high expectations. He demonstrated pride in the College, which under him, was highly productive,” Johnson said. “As dean, he gained the respect of his faculty, and he did an excellent job forming an advisory committee—the most effective on campus. He had a way of explaining to the engineering world and industry partners how the College could help them.”

Maragakis’s ability to engage industry and the community was key to the pursuit of a new engineering building, resulting in what Johnson described as “a groundswell of support for the new building, from industry and community partners.”

The vision of the building became a reality, though, when Maragakis was able to demonstrate how it would dovetail with the objectives of the economic initiatives for the State of Nevada and the objectives of the University.

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