Alan W. Cramb didn’t always think he would wind up as the president of a university, never mind any pre-set plans for the Illinois Institute of Technology. In fact, he’s regarded all of his career positions as just points in his life — never themselves the goal or self-defining — as a journey of sorts. The native of Saltcoats, Scotland, a small town about 20 miles out from Glasgow, went to lengths to remind us that there’s a person behind his job title, after all.
Cramb’s career journey has been a wild one at that, full of anecdotes and position changes that just happened to come together. Cramb doesn’t let the oddities bother him. After completing his undergraduate degree in his home country of Scotland, he made the leap to the United States for a PhD in materials science at the University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. Cramb didn’t hesitate to call this a “defining decision” in his life which made him who he is, arriving with no preexisting friends or family in the States at all. His parents back home were nothing but supportive, which Cramb was always incredibly grateful for. He reported their ultimate concern was “Will you be able to get a job after that?” He graduated in 1979 and, as it turns out, did go on to get a job with it.
Cramb eschewed the idea that young professionals should feel that “you have to do this particular thing at this particular time” in terms. He worked in private steel research for a number of years after graduation before an old friend from his PhD committee randomly reached out and invited him to interview for a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon. His research project funding had recently been scrapped and they let go of many promising younger members of his laboratory. The professional opportunity stars seemed to align for Cramb, so he figured “why not.”
Even future university presidents get rejection letters throughout their career. Cramb worked at Carnegie Mellon for a number of years, working his way up to department chair before developing the ambition for a deanship position at Carnegie Mellon. He applied. They said no — he came in second after the interviewing process — but he didn’t take it personally. Cramb recognizes this might be the case, but he sincerely advises students to not take job applications as an assessment of how “good” they are as a person or a scientist, engineer, developer, or whatever it may be. Instead, the applicant who won out “might just be better than you at that time, or have a better skillset, or fit better. It’s not a reflection of you. It’s more a reflection of them.” Cramb later took an offer for a dean position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute outside of Albany, New York.
President Cramb is not embarrassed to say that his time at Rensselaer simply did not work out. The location outside of a major city was too much for the then-growing Cramb family, and he civilly discussed some disagreements he had with some of the surrounding and higher ranking faculty there. Simply not being socially fulfilled or “happy” was more than enough for Cramb to warrant a move, and he took up an invite from John L. Anderson, former Illinois Institute of Technology president and an old friend of Cramb’s, to come to the school. He joined as a provost in 2008 and officially succeeded Anderson as president in 2015.
Outside of academic titles — professor to department chair to dean to provost to president — he identifies more as a father, husband, and vinyl fanatic than anything else. Cramb has been married for 36 years to Anna Cramb, who he met during his time in private industry. They are proud parents to Natalie and Liana Cramb, both of whom were adopted from China and have recently graduated from college.
“[I] always have music on,” Cramb proclaimed, being cited in a TechNews article as spinning The Beatles and Frank Zappa records at a special WIIT booth performance. At home, Cramb admitted to lately having some Jimi Hendrix, The Eagles, and Nora Jones albums on repeat, though his favorite bands and artists of all time would include The Beatles, The Doors, and the musical stylings of Miles Davis.
As a university president, we want to sincerely thank President Cramb for giving us the time for this interview as well as his work for the university.