Taking Action

Dr. Michael Polis, professor of industrial and system engineering, retires after more than twenty years of serving SECS faculty and students

Flowers in vase on table


icon of a calendarDecember 10, 2020

icon of a pencilBy Arina Bokas

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“If you are not upsetting anyone, you are not changing the status quo.” These words by Seth Godin best capture the essence of Dr. Michael Polis’s educational leadership and academic career.

“I believe in challenging what doesn’t make sense and in taking action,” says Polis, Ph.D., professor of industrial and system engineering, who announced his retirement in the spring of 2020, after more than twenty years of serving SECS faculty and students.

This philosophy of taking action was honed by years of Polis’s professional and personal journey. Born in New York, into a family of an engineer, he recalls moving from New York to Connecticut so his father could open a new nuts and bolts business: The excitement was short-lived, however. In August 1955, two back-to-back hurricanes saturated the land, and several river valleys in the state, causing historic flooding that completely wiped out the business and most of their city. Looking for opportunities to start again, the family relocated to Florida.

“I always enjoyed tinkering with things, and I was good in math. Engineering seemed like a natural career path for me,” says Polis, who earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida, Gainesville, in 1966. “Right after I graduated, there were so many engineering jobs — mainly due to expansion of space programs — that I think I received an offer from every company where I applied,” he adds.

Regardless of the promising job market, Polis decided to get his master’s and doctorate degrees, which he accomplished in 1968 and 1972, respectively, earning both his M.S.E.E. and Ph.D. from Purdue University. By that time, the space programming industry was downsizing and engineers were being laid off.

“My only opportunity came from the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal in Quebec, Canada, where I was promised a position on one important condition — I had to teach engineering in French,” recalls Polis. “I had to give it a try, and I taught in French for eleven years as a faculty member in electrical engineering.”

Polis made his move back to the U.S. in 1983 to direct the Systems Theory and Operations Research Program with the National Science Foundation. In 1987, he joined Wayne State University as the chair of electrical and computer engineering; from there, he came to Oakland University as the dean of the School of Engineering and Computer Science in 1993.

“I felt that this geographic area had an advantage of being close to the leading national automakers, but the university didn’t capitalize enough on it. At the time, it was dominated by arts and sciences, and engineering had to grow to give the University something unique — an automotive focus,” says Polis, who will likely be remembered as a strong advocate for growing engineering at OU. “There was very little funding for our school, maybe about a hundred thousand dollars; by the time I left the position of the Dean in 2001, SECS was receiving more than a million dollars in funds. Even though I had to be very outspoken at times, I feel very proud of what I did,” Polis explains.

As an educator, Polis is proud of encouraging his students to always take action that would allow them to succeed. “The courses I teach tend to be very theoretical, and some students are lost at first. I tell them that I am here to help but they have to take this first step and ask for it. Those who do, tend to do much better after they get started,” Polis adds.

Polis's advice to his students is to not give up before they start and to always do their best.

Polis plans to spend retirement in his new house in the Georgia Mountains, close to his three children and two grandchildren. He will continue serving on the IEEE Periodical Review and Advisory Committee and taking action to make a difference in anything he does.

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