Even Higher Education
By Marcia Faye
When you learned how to feed yourself, you probably put the food in your ear or in your nose a few times before you started putting it in your mouth,” offers Peter Kilpatrick, Illinois Tech’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, in a tone both comforting and paternal. “So, don’t be afraid to fail because if you are afraid to fail and that prevents you from doing something, you’ll never do anything worthwhile in your life.”
Kilpatrick’s advice, equally fitting for students as well as for most any other human being, is one of his many personal and professional guideposts gleaned from life lessons. The son of a West Point graduate, he recalls some early lessons, valuable yet bittersweet. Kilpatrick says that his late father, a former commander in charge of a base housing intercontinental ballistic missiles, took the fall for a direct report over a maintenance issue.
“That hurt his career, but he showed us the importance of teamwork, responsibility, and accountability,” says Kilpatrick. “My father never talked about it, but I learned a lot from him by his actions.”
As his father was assigned to various duty destinations—in Turkey and Guam, on the East Coast and the West, and in many cities in between—Kilpatrick had a chance to see the world but felt uprooted when he had to start over making new pals everywhere he lived.
“The good things are that I developed an appreciation that the world is a pretty small place and that we’re all in this together—we’re all alike in so many different ways. I learned that we need to be more tolerant of each other and collaborate a little bit better,” says Kilpatrick, before adding wistfully, “but I missed the opportunity to have some dear old friends, the kind who would know me as well as I know myself.”
What Kilpatrick might have missed in friends, he made up for in family. He and Nancy, his wife of 40 years and partner in watching British murder mysteries, raised four children and spend time with their three grandchildren. Son Charles, an astronomer, gained widespread recognition last year when, as a University of California at Santa Cruz postdoc, he was the first person on Earth to see optical photons (light particles) from a gravitational wave event, in this case, the collision of two neutron stars.
Kilpatrick’s extended family includes the many students whose lives he has influenced over his career in academia. After completing his education at Occidental College and the University of Minnesota, Kilpatrick served on the faculty of North Carolina State University before joining the University of Notre Dame, where he was professor and McCloskey Dean of Engineering. While he has a host of regional teaching and research honors to his credit, Kilpatrick says that the true goal of education is deeper.
“We all need to bring young people to completion by helping them become the best versions of themselves—and that’s more than just training their intellects and giving them their diplomas,” he explains, noting that what primarily drew him to Illinois Tech was the university’s founding story of the “Million Dollar Sermon,” given by Frank Wakely Gunsaulus. “If we’re going to succeed in America in closing the equality gap, it’s going to be because universities are focused on helping the underserved and first-generation kids, like Illinois Tech does.”
No wonder then, that a favorite Kilpatrick maxim is “what’s best for the students.” It hearkens back to his own days as a globe-hopping youth, learning lessons about teamwork and collaboration.
“If we take care of our students, being sincere and authentic, and reach out to help them, the rest will take care of itself,” he says. “The greatest desire of the human heart is to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We all want to be a part of something meaningful and know that our lives have made an impact.”