Hermann Viets Leaves a Legacy at URI

From left: Hermann Viets, John Grandin and Heidi Kirk Duffy at IEP’s 30th anniversary event.

By Neil Nachbar

The University of Rhode Island lost one of the most significant figures in the history of the College of Engineering this fall. Hermann Viets, co-founder of URI’s International Engineering Program (IEP), passed away on Oct. 1 at the age of 74.

Viets, who was married to Rev. Pamela (Deane) Viets, was dean of the College of Engineering from 1983-1991, before leaving URI to become president of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). In 1987, he established the IEP with John Grandin and Heidi Kirk Duffy.

“Hermann was very much ahead of his time,” said Raymond Wright, dean of the College of Engineering. “He understood that the world of engineering was quickly becoming more global and he established the International Engineering Program, the first of its kind in the U.S. Hermann also understood the importance of connecting the College to industry in unique partnerships, which was a foundation for the many corporate connections we have today.”

Grandin, who taught German at URI and later became the IEP’s first director, recalled what it took to set the program up for future success.

“Hermann and I visited companies and government agencies together in the U.S. and Germany, which enabled us to send students to their internship experiences,” said Grandin. “As the program grew in numbers of highly qualified students, Hermann’s prediction that the IEP would be good for engineering, good for languages, and above all, good for the students, would became reality.”

Students in the IEP graduate with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a bachelor’s in a foreign language. At the IEP’s 30th anniversary event earlier this year, Grandin and Viets shared with the attendees the first conversation the two colleagues had about the need for such a program.

“We talked about how things are becoming very international,” Grandin told the audience. “Nobody was talking about globalization then, but things were getting international and this was impacting engineers. We felt nothing was being done in higher education to prepare engineering students to work internationally.”

After tossing ideas back and forth, Viets and Grandin developed the basic framework of the program, which included five years of study, two degrees and an internship abroad.

Starting with just six students, and German as the only language component, 405 students have since enrolled in the program, 668 internships have been completed, and six different languages are now offered.

“I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to kick off the IEP with a man of such vision, inspiration, commitment and enthusiasm,” stated Grandin, who was greatly saddened by his friend’s passing. “Hermann and I both recognized the timeliness of our idea, but it is clear to me that the IEP would not have evolved without his ability to convince his colleagues in engineering of its value and importance.”

Current IEP executive director Sigrid Berka credited both men for their foresight and for working so diligently together for the betterment of the College.

“It took an entrepreneurial pair such as John and Hermann to not only conceive an innovative interdisciplinary program such as the IEP, but also implement it at URI, with partners across the world,” said Berka. “John Grandin pioneered a new pathway for the humanities from the bottom up, and his partner, the visionary former Dean of Engineering Hermann Viets, guided its development from the top.”

Berka added, “Dean Viets’ keen business sense of adding value to engineering education and vision of how the IEP could set URI’s College of Engineering apart from its competitors explains why he was open to this unusual, yet brilliant concept.”

In recent years, a plethora of academic institutions have implemented this concept at their universities.

“They all see the IEP at URI as the gold standard to model their own IEP programs after,” stated Berka. “Hermann Viets would be extremely pleased to know that his personal commitment to the cause of international engineering education had such an impact on campuses throughout the United States.”

Viets also made a great impact at MSOE, where he served as president from 1991-2015. During his tenure, he led the school’s campus expansion and helped establish the Rader School of Business and MSOE School of Nursing. With Viets at the helm, MSOE added six new bachelor’s degrees and multiple new master’s degrees.

After Viets retired from MSOE, he maintained the great rapport he established with Wright early in their careers.

“As a faculty member while he was dean, I can say that Hermann had incredible respect within the College,” stated Wright. “In recent years, after he retired from Milwaukee, I looked to Hermann for guidance on our many improvements, such as our new facilities and programs. I will truly miss my conversations with him and his unique insight.”

Born in Germany during World War II, Viets came to the United States with his family when he was four years old. He was raised in New York City and was a graduate of New York’s Polytechnic University, where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.