Having Fun

Dr. Robert Van Til, Pawley Professor of Lean Studies and chair of the industrial and systems engineering department, retires after 38 years at Oakland University.

A man and a woman sitting at the table

Dr. Van Til and his wife, Cindy, will be spending their retirement traveling, playing golf, and interchangeably residing in Michigan and Hawaii.


icon of a calendarDecember 18, 2022

icon of a pencilBy Arina Bokas

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To have fun is to love life, and to love life is to live in the state of joy and fulfillment. This mindset is what colleagues and students of Dr. Robert Van Til, Pawley Professor of Lean Studies, will remember about the chair of the industrial and systems engineering department, who announced his retirement in the spring of 2022 after 38 years at Oakland University.

“We are born with a propensity to have fun doing certain activities, and we are most productive, creative and relaxed when we're engaged in things that give us maximum fun,” Dr. Van Til elaborates on his life credo, which he has perfected throughout his entire life.

Looking back, engineering was not Dr. Van Til’s original career choice. As a high school senior, he had his heart set on becoming a history and geography teacher. However, at the time of his high school graduation in 1975, teaching had attracted many students who were seeking a deferment from a draft during the Vietnam War, and job opportunities were rather limited.

“On my ACT I had to declare a major. I went through a list of majors, and engineering caught my eye. My father was a mechanical engineer, and it seemed like something I would enjoy doing,” Dr. Van Til says, while elaborating on the decision that led him to Michigan State University (MSU) for his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and, later, Northwestern University for his engineering master’s and doctorate degrees.

While attending MSU, Dr. Van Til was securely employed as an engineer at General Motors, a rather lucrative position with a guaranteed financial future. His heart, however, longed for something else — a meaningful contribution to a larger purpose that often accompanies conducting research, while teaching new generations of engineers.

“OU gave me exactly what I desired — an opportunity to be a true professor. Big universities oftentimes prioritize research, leaving teaching to graduate assistants, while smaller schools don’t have a capacity for research. At OU, I could be a researcher and a teacher at the same time,” Dr. Van Til says.

In 1984, Dr. Van Til was hired for a full-time position at the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, teaching courses in controls. Soon after, he began teaching courses in robotics and manufacturing under the Systems Engineering program.

“This program didn’t make much sense to me, in terms of demand from companies and students. So, after a number of years, I got five members of our department to come together and form a new department, which officially became the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) in 2005,” explains Dr. Van Til. In 2007, its undergraduate program was accredited by ABET in both industrial engineering and systems engineering — one of approximately six programs in the U.S. with dual accreditation.

Initially, the new ISE curriculum was based on the existing systems engineering program in manufacturing, along with a few new courses. As time went by, more courses and programs were added, including a series of recent hands-on courses that focus on the operation and application of various digital twin tools. In cooperation with the Advisory Board, ISE faculty also developed a curriculum to emphasize Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0. The department, which graduated its first three students in 2007, now offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ISE, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in systems engineering. In 2022, more than 100 undergraduate and 150 graduate students were enrolled in the department’s programs.

ISE is a large part of the legacy Dr. Van Til leaves to Oakland University, but not the only one. As a teacher, Dr. Van Til believed the most important part of his job was to help students become successful.

“Academic material can be very hard to comprehend because the focus is often on too many technical details, making it difficult to understand a bigger picture. Not every undergraduate or master’s student wants to become a Ph.D. student, but almost everyone can be successful and enjoy learning. It is difficult to succeed unless you enjoy what you are doing,” Dr. Van Til says.

Kimberly Romstad, ISE ’14, industrial engineering manager at The TJX Companies, Inc., credits Dr. Van Til with the life-long lessons of perseverance.

“I can't begin to describe the impact Dr. Van Til had on me as a student and as a person. From my very first time in his class, to my graduation, he has been there for me, encouraging me to never give up on my dreams and goals. It is because of his belief in me, I kept applying for an industrial engineering internship at Disney World (my dream job at the time), despite being numerously rejected. The internship was finally offered to me during my senior year, and I had a lot of fun working there,” Romstad shares.

Since having fun is a key element of happiness, it extends well beyond Dr. Van Til’s research, teaching and leadership endeavors. It permeates all areas of his life. His childhood love of history and geography has resulted in extensive world traveling. Over his lifetime, Dr. Van Til and his wife, Cindy, visited 30 countries on five continents.

Dr. Van Til plans spending his retirement traveling, playing golf, and interchangeably residing in Michigan and Hawaii. His retirement goal is simple – to have fun!

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