Q&A with Faculty Director Mac McKeen
Fondly referred to as the “make-stuff degree,” the Manufacturing Operations Management (MM) undergraduate degree program offers students the skills to apply continuous process improvement in the vast and versatile manufacturing discipline. MM alumni have found success in a variety of industries, from medical devices to homebrew kits. Now, as the major is being discontinued due to a lack of sufficient interest in the credentials and no increase in enrollments, the program’s faculty director, Mac McKeen, reflects on the past 18 years.
When we interviewed him recently about the degree, McKeen reminded us that the MM degree used to be called Manufacturing Technology, originating in 2002 with four courses developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota Rochester and IBM. Three of those courses have remained in the core curriculum until present. The degree began admitting students in 2003, as a BASc. in CCE (the College of Continuing Education). McKeen—with more than 30 years of experience in medical device manufacturing—joined the program as an instructor in 2009 and became its faculty director in 2010. Under Mac’s leadership, the degree was renamed Manufacturing Operations Management in 2012 to recognize the fact that its focus on management process and quality overshadowed the technological aspects. His energy and enthusiasm for the MM degree made an impact on every student who passed through the program. We asked McKeen a few questions about his experience leading this influential program over the years.
Reflect on when you first came onboard to lead the MM program in 2010. What was that like?
At the time, as an industry guy in medical technology manufacturing with 20 years of experience under my belt, being asked to serve as the faculty director for the degree was a unique challenge. Partnering with the University was an opportunity for me to translate my private-sector experience into the bones of a degree. I remember doing a gap analysis when I first came onboard to improve the program, to make it more meaningful and attractive to young professionals. At the time, I was already doing a fair amount of mentoring and advocacy within the industry—I think teaching is in my DNA. I'm very passionate about manufacturing operations management, and I’ve been grateful for the MM degree because it gave me a way to give back to the up-and-coming professionals, developing talent. I helped to come up with five new core courses, and I found the subject matter experts to teach, too. There was a lot of energy around the coursework; it was an exciting time.
What did you envision for the MM program?
I had an elevator speech to recruit students. It went something like this: Whether you’re making a bottle of water, cell phone, or pacemaker, the MM degree will teach you the skills and process to actually produce it. It’s the “make-stuff degree.” That's the speech. I think it does a nice job of defining what this degree consists of. And in terms of the curriculum, we translated the total product life cycle across the courses, which was brilliant, in my opinion, because students learned all the essential steps and principles that go into manufacturing operations management, no matter what you’re making. I also wanted to make sure students were learning practical applications, like the kind of eye-opening insight I learned when I got my MBA. That real-world learning was what really solidified my comprehension of the material. I wanted the MM program to have that practical approach embedded in the coursework.
What have you enjoyed most about teaching your class, “Mastering the Product Life Cycle in a Regulated Industry”?
Telling the stories and seeing the students' reactions. Teaching a class has been an outlet for my passion. By week four, I’d see students really get interested because they’d realize this process is responsible for making their grandma’s pacemaker, you know? It changes how you think about the world. In those first couple years of teaching my course, I tried to pack in everything I knew. Then I realized it was too much, so I refined my teaching and gave students the most essential information. One thing manufacturing operations teaches you is that everything is a process, even teaching my course was a process to optimize! And I made it more functional and efficient over the years. The only thing that’s remained constant is my energy level, which is exactly the same today as it was in the beginning.
And what have the students taught you over the years?
The students validate my passion for this subject matter. They validate that the content I give them is valuable, and they’ve shown me that the MM degree makes a meaningful difference. It's been a privilege to be in the Twin Cities, to teach at the U, and to introduce students to this magnificent industry. As I think about it, I’ve probably learned the most from the students who challenged me, the students who weren’t interested in the material at first, but who became as passionate about it as I was by the end of the semester. My teaching is not about ego. Like I’ve said, I'm just so passionate about this industry that if I didn't have this teaching outlet at the University of Minnesota, I think I'd explode. So, I have to thank the students, because they’ve saved my life, in a way, by giving me this outlet.
What are you most proud of as you reflect on the major over the past 18 years?
I’m most proud of the students. Hearing about MM alums’ accomplishments and professional successes over the years, I’ve felt almost like a proud parent. These accomplishments are our deliverables. The lives we change in a positive way are why we teach. It’s the reward that we as educators get for all the work we do behind the scenes. So, I have to say, it’s been a privilege to have had a hand in students’ success in manufacturing.