It is the week preceding Chicago’s annual Air and Water Show, and the blue-sky view from Alan W. Cramb’s office on the 19th floor of IIT Tower is more spectacular than usual. The unobstructed view stretching all the way to the Loop by way of the Mies Campus is further heightened by a bird’s-eye perspective of a Blue Angels air squadron flying in formation, coupled with the sound effect of the occasional jet as it roars by directly over the tower. The aerobatic warm-ups, much like the conversation taking place in Cramb’s office, signify important and exciting things to come.
“It was my wife who reminded me that when I decided to give up being a professor and move into administration, I told her I was going to work toward becoming president of a university,” recalls Cramb, who on August 1 began his new position as ninth president of Illinois Institute of Technology, where he served as provost for the past seven years. “I like the world of administration, thinking about how to move a large organization forward. Plus I really like our university and I want to be part of its future—and we have a great future. This is the job I want to do until it is time for me to retire.”
"My one word for Alan is charismatic. He is a very engaging individual, and a good and kind man.” -Byrne
The roots of Cramb’s passion for higher education as well as his sense of community lie in Saltcoats, Scotland, in a home where he and his two older sisters grew up considering nearly everyone in the town family. His grandmother raised 10 orphans and his mother made every visitor feel welcome.
“We used to say that she could make friends in an empty room,” Cramb says, with a laugh, as he leans back in the office’s comfortable couch. “So I had a lot of aunts and uncles who were not related to me through blood but just by being there. I grew up in that type of community, where family was much bigger than who you were related to; we had this very interwoven dynamic where many people were involved.”
Both his parents valued education, and at the age of 11 Cramb was one of four local students who passed the national qualifying exams ensuring admission to Ardrossan Academy, a college-preparatory high school. Knowing that the young Cramb excelled in mathematics, chemistry, and physics, the school’s headmaster suggested that he consider the metallurgy program at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. An American professor on sabbatical from the University of Pennsylvania encouraged Cramb to become his doctoral student; he was accepted into the program on a full scholarship. Cramb says that his parents were very supportive of his educational decision and that he even had his travel ticket paid for—with money earned during the three years he was a professional disc jockey while pursuing his undergraduate degree.
“My father was an absolute music aficionado. My parents allowed me to buy albums when I was growing up and they would listen to them, too—all types of music from the big bands to punk rock,” he explains. “Someone asked my friend and me to play records at a local hall for people to dance, which was new then because people were used to dancing to bands. So we put our money together and bought a double record player and amplifiers. The next thing you know, we were playing at a bar on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at lunchtime and on Saturday nights. We stopped only when I decided to go to America. I also have a very nice acoustic guitar that I bought when I came here in ’75. I moved into my apartment and had $400 left, so I bought the guitar because I liked to play. I haven’t played in a long, long time, though.”
After graduate school, Cramb spent the first part of his career at Inland Steel Company and at Bethlehem Steel Corporation, both now defunct, conducting and managing research as well as teaching technology best practices to steel workers. He entered academe in 1986 at Carnegie Mellon University and obtained his first departmental administrative position through a man who would become a “great mentor” to him: John L. Anderson, Illinois Tech Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and former president.
“John is an amazing person with an amazing empathy for people; I’ve learned a lot about that from him,” Cramb acknowledges. “Earlier in my career I was less empathetic and didn’t listen as much. I’ve learned by watching him and others that you need to listen a lot and really get beyond the words to what people mean. I’ve also learned from him the need to understand the position of the university in the community and the position of the university within other universities.”
Before coming to Illinois Tech, Cramb served as dean of engineering and John A. Clark and Edward T. Crossan Professor of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Then as now, students remain his focus. Even though he is widely credited with making significant contributions to today’s steel-casting process, Cramb is quick to include the students who were also involved in that research. He adds that his greatest accomplishment in metallurgy was that he mentored 19 doctoral students who are now living across the globe and making their own contributions to the field. And, as a father of two, Cramb says that observing his daughter Liana navigate her way through her first year of college gave him an intimate view of how important being a real member of the university community was to her. It all starts with a sense of belonging.
“One of my goals as president is to make sure that the university values all of its people, from the faculty to the staff to the students, and knows how important it is that we work together,” says Cramb. “We also need to connect our future alumni with our past alumni to develop networks so that when a student comes to our university they’re not just here for four years; they’ve joined a club for life. We need to think about not just what happens during the years they are here but what happens with their relationship with the university over time.”
Michael Byrne—fellow countryman, university roommate, wedding best man, and godfather to one of Cramb’s daughters—says that his friend of more than 40 years is the right person to encourage teamwork and further promote IIT esprit de corps.
“The university has made an admirable choice with Alan. As I think back to the highlights of his career, he has what I always thought of as star quality,” says Byrne, senior manager for technology and strategy at TimkenSteel. “He’s particularly good at building relationships. When I worked with Alan in the industrial world, one of the things I noticed about him is that he can work across all levels of an organization, meeting with people and relating to them very, very well. My one word for Alan is charismatic. He is a very engaging individual, and a good and kind man.”
Speaking as Cramb’s predecessor, Anderson concurs.
“Good academic leadership is grounded in decision-making skills, respect for the institution and its people, high standards of performance for himself and the university, and a full understanding of the mission and culture of academe,” Anderson says. “Alan Cramb has all of these qualities. Furthermore, international recognition of his technical and professional achievements, including membership in the National Academy of Engineering, will bring widespread attention to IIT. The university is in great hands going forward.”
View a photo gallery and watch a video of Alan W. Cramb’s inauguration at https://web.iit.edu/inauguration