University of Alabama president visits his alma mater

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Dr. Stuart Bell, president of University of Alabama, talks with Dr. Andreas A. Polycarpou, mechanical engineering department head, during a visit to campus.

Don’t let the crimson tie fool you, Dr. Stuart Bell is very proud of his Texas A&M University roots. The Department of Mechanical Engineering recently honored The University of Alabama president with an Outstanding Alumni Award.

Bell graduated from Texas A&M in 1979 with a nuclear engineering degree before returning for his master’s in mechanical engineering and finally his Ph.D., also in mechanical engineering.

Bell spent 10 years as a student at Texas A&M — and they are years he fondly remembers. 

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During Bell’s visit to campus, he and his wife, Susan, sat down to talk about their experiences in Aggieland. She is a 1979 graduate of Texas A&M as well. The couple met their senior year, in 1978, at Fort Shiloh Grille, where Susan worked as a hostess. They attended Ring Dance together the following spring, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Becoming president of The University of Alabama

Bell’s path to success was paved with hard work and determination.

As president of The University of Alabama, Bell leads a university that is home to more than 37,000 students. It’s a tremendous accomplishment for the Abilene, Texas native, and not one he saw coming. Bell jokes that he fell into the administrative abyss — but it’s a job he enjoys.  

“I think I would probably argue that if you start off with the idea that you want to go into higher education administration, you may not be a very good administrator,” he said.

Instead, Bell’s career in higher education began in the classroom after working in industry for a couple years.

After completing his master’s degree, Stuart and Susan, who were newlyweds, moved to Dallas. Stuart took a job in research and development for Mobil. While he loved research, he realized he sorely missed the classroom. That’s when he decided to go back to Texas A&M for his Ph.D.

“What you can’t ever forget is what really makes a university great are the people,” he said. “If you go back 100 or 200 years ago, if you go back over to Europe when universities were first formed, it wasn’t buildings. It was the handful of philosophers that students gathered around to learn from.”

The road to success

In 1986, Bell accepted a position as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Alabama. He remained there until 2002 when he became dean of The University of Kansas School of Engineering. In 2012, he became chief academic officer and chief operating officer of Louisiana State University. Last June, Bell was named president of The University of Alabama.

“I have the best job in the world,” Bell said. “These young people have a lot of dreams and aspirations.”

Bell said students today have a different mindset than when he was a college student.

“When I got out of school, I wanted to be an engineer,” he said. “These students, when they come out, they want to change the world. There’s a very different focus, I think, with this generation.”

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How Bell’s engineering degree paved the way to success

If something is not working, engineers assess the problem before coming up with a solution, Bell said.

“It’s kind of in your nature to do that,” he said. “Certainly Texas A&M does a great job in preparing kids to think that way. Engineers rock. You learn how to approach things.”

Bell has some advice for engineering students heading into the workforce: Work hard.

“My dad always said ‘The harder you work, the luckier you’ll get,’” he said, adding that there isn’t a lot of luck involved in success. “I can think back to a lot of folks that have been successful in their careers and companies that have been successful. You need to understand what you’re doing, and I think engineering provides a great basis for that.”

Bell said students need to understand how business works, too.

“Learn that business, and then learn the people,” he said. “I would say if you want to be a leader, learn to work with people well, appreciate what they do, learn your core business, and you better have a business plan to move that forward.”

Bell said Texas A&M helped set him up for a successful, rewarding career.

“I think A&M is going to give these students a great foundation to work off of, just like they did me,” he said.