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New engineering department head brings world of experience

Experience gained from teaching at four universities in two countries during the past quarter century makes the new head of the Department of Construction and Operations Management well-suited to tackle the challenges at South Dakota State University.
Syed M. Ahmed began work Dec. 15 in the department housed within the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering.
College Dean Bruce Berdanier said, “I am very pleased that Dr. Ahmed accepted this leadership opportunity with the Lohr College of Engineering. He has significant experience as a department head already, which will help him managing the diverse programs in the construction and operations management department. 
“Additionally, he comes from a civil engineering and construction management background, which helps fulfill our vision for investing in the construction management and concrete industry management components of the department as well as growing research collaborations and opportunities throughout the college and especially with civil engineering.”
Ahmed replaces Teresa Hall, who retired in April after 18 years. Professor Suzette Burckhard filled the position on an interim basis.
Ahmed, 61, comes to SDSU after serving the past 11 ½ years at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, where he led the Department of Construction Management until March 2020, when he stepped back to a faculty role.
The SDSU position was enough to lure him back into administration.
Ahmed ready for new challenge
“A friend of mine forwarded this job opening to me. I looked at the program. It is very unique. You usually don’t have construction and operations management together and there are new programs in concrete industry management and heavy highway construction.
“I felt there were a lot of things I could bring as a department head having already served as department head for 10 years. I like to grow things, bring things to fruition and work with something that offers challenges,” Ahmed said.
Challenges he sees in his new job are growing enrollment, increasing faculty research and adding to the 12 now on the faculty.
There are now about 300 majors in six undergraduate programs—construction management, operations management, electrical engineering technology, engineering technology, construction technology and concrete industry management—and two graduate programs—Master of Engineering and Master of Science in Operations Management.
Plans to grow department
Within five years, he would like to see 500 majors in the department. “I don’t see that as a problem at all. There is growth potential in every program we have,” Ahmed said.
Nowhere is that potential greater than in concrete industry management, which just completed its first semester of classes in December with two students. The program was launched too late to attract many students for the fall, but its director, Tim Hostettler, has been visiting concrete plants in the region to get the word out within the industry.
The plan is to have 100 students in concrete industry management within five years, which accounts for a lot of the 200-student increase Ahmed hopes to see.
Growing faculty research and faculty numbers go hand in hand. With eight programs and 12 faculty members, the focus must be almost entirely on teaching. “There is one replacement faculty search now in the works. I hope to get two more tenure-track faculty members in place. If you want to grow, you need faculty,” Ahmed said.
In the past school year, a specialization in supply chain management was created that required establishing two new courses—supply chain management and logistics—that the department needed to find adjunct faculty to teach.
But Ahmed acknowledges, “You’re never going to have all the resources you need. You just have to find a way to make it work.”
Success at East Carolina
At East Carolina, Ahmed made great strides in increasing enrollment in construction management. In 2012, he took a long overdue overhaul of the curriculum, eliminating redundant courses and adding new ones. The result was a streamlined program in which students could graduate within four years instead of five or six.
“The program became very attractive to new and transfer students. Our enrollment, which had gone down to less than 250, started to gradually go up,” he said.
Ahmed set up a task force in 2018-19 to “critically review our courses … with the basic goal to make the curriculum as cutting edge and state-of-the-art as possible. The resulting changes turned out to be very beneficial. Program enrollment nearly doubled from 357 in fall 2015 to 633 in fall 2019,” Ahmed said.
The construction management program at SDSU has about 160 majors with about 50 in operations management and 30 electronics engineering technology. The online Master of Engineering program has 22 students. Ahmed believes that has the potential to triple.
Founded int’l construction conference
In addition to his academic work, Ahmed is the founder and Chair of the Construction in the 21st Century Conference.
The 12th annual conference will be May 16-19 in Amman, Jordan. The conferences have been held throughout the world since its 2002 debut in Miami. It attracts 150 to 200 academic and industry professionals in the fields of construction engineering and management, technology, civil engineering and architecture, Ahmed said.
“The best thing it has done is produce knowledge. Over 1,200 papers have been published in an indexed publication from the conference,” he said.
The second-best thing would be building relationships. “Professors meet Ph.D. students and other professors. There are people who met 20 years ago and are still meeting at the conference. It has become a family even though people are living thousands of miles apart,” Ahmed said.
S.D. new experience for Ahmed
Right now Ahmed is about 1,400 miles from his family.
His wife, Humera, and his daughter, Saba, are in the Raleigh, North Carolina, suburb of Wendell. Saba, 20, is a junior at Meredith College in Raleigh studying art education. His son, Hassan, 33, lives south of Phoenix. The University of Miami engineering graduate creates apps for companies that run sky-diving operations.
This is Ahmed’s first experience in small town and a northern climate.
The Pakistani native was born in Lahore, a city of 10 million and raised in the capital of Islamabad. He came to the United States in 1986 at age 26 and spent 6 ½ years in Atlanta, earning his master’s and doctoral degrees from Georgia Tech in construction engineering and management in 1989 and 1993, respectively.
Then it was off to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he taught from 1995 to 1999. Ahmed then spent 1999 to 2010 at Florida International University in Miami.
While a little leery of South Dakota winters, Ahmed has been impressed by the Brookings community. “People are very friendly. Everybody is willing to help. People are more relaxed and less stressed out” than in a big city, he said. That includes his department staff, which he has found “dedicated and hardworking.”
Outside interests include swimming, traveling, reading and playing squash, a game he will be hard pressed to find competitors here.
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