Founding engineering professor forged a path for student success
Irina and the late Leslie Cromwell.
In his first years on campus, the late Leslie Cromwell sat on a wooden crate and worked off a desk made of a piece of plywood across two trestles.
It was the 1950s, that was what was available in the fledgling engineering program—and student advising had to get done, Cromwell recounted in the 1987 book, Being Here: An Autobiography of California State University, Los Angeles. As many of his colleagues, friends and family recounted, Cromwell was devoted to helping students achieve access to higher education and the professional opportunities that are born from learning. Cromwell, an emeritus dean and professor of electrical engineering—and the first assistant professor in the Department of Engineering—died in June after a brief illness.
“He was always a leader in everything he did,” said Cromwell’s wife, Irina. His leadership, she said, extended beyond campus to include founding a choral group, participating in theatrics and local politics. “And, of course, at Cal State L.A. he started all sorts of things. He spent his lifetime there, and it meant a lot to him.”
In his 30 years of working on campus, Cromwell not only helped to father the University’s engineering program, but he forever changed the landscape of the field—and the campus. He helped bring a new generation of engineers, who learned in an environment that emphasized mentoring and student-centered, hands-on education, into the conversation.
“Our main achievement is that we have put professional engineering education within the grasp of many low-income and disadvantaged students who would not have had the chance otherwise,” Cromwell said in Being Here.
Cromwell came to Cal State L.A. by way of the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a faculty member at the university when he was told of the unique opportunity to help build across town an engineering program from the ground up. A year later, Cromwell had designed the new program’s curriculum and began what would be decades of service to the University, students and community. The other professors who made up the founding quartet were Bill Eggers, Bill Plumtree and Harold Storch.
“The early days were hard work and challenging, but it was truly an exciting environment,” Cromwell recalled in an interview after his retirement in 1980.
During his tenure on campus, Cromwell served many roles. Among them were professor, dean of the then School of Engineering, acting chair of the engineering department, and director of the cooperative education program. He also published curriculum biomedical and medical instrumentation textbooks still in use today, and was honored by the campus community as one of its Outstanding Professors in 1968.
“People really liked working with Les because he seemed to genuinely care about people,” said Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering Martin S. Roden. Roden also served as Cromwell’s associate dean of the School of Engineering. “He always took other’s opinion into account,” Roden continued. “He was humble, and gave a lot of credit to others.”
In fact, many note, it was Cromwell’s compassionate and thoughtful leadership that laid the groundwork for the successes of the nationally recognized college today. In his first years of leadership as the head of the engineering division (1955-1964), for instance, Cromwell saw enrollment grow from 25 students to more than 1,000, Roden noted in an obituary published in the University’s Emeritimes. Today, the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology enrolls close to 2,000 students and it’s recognized as having a nationally competitive, top-tiered undergraduate engineering program. Last year, the engineering program was ranked No. 36 in the U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 “America’s Best Colleges” issue.
Even after retirement, Cromwell maintained his commitment to the campus and its mission by donating time, counsel and financial support when possible. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the College, the Cromwells established a charitable gift annuity in support of the College.
“Dean Cromwell is the exception,” Roden wrote in the obituary. “He receives universal praise for all of his contributions to the development of our programs.”