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Brighter Future: Dr. Altenkirch leaves UAH in solid position as he prepares for retirement

Blue Origin president Robert Meyerson and UAH president Robert Altenkirch shake hands after the company's June 2017 announcement. Blue Origin, the spaceflight company started by Jeff Bezos announced it will manufacture its BE-4 engine in a new production facility in Cummings Research Park. The engine will power United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan rocket. (Michael Mercier/UAH)

Robert Altenkirch arrived at The University of Alabama in Huntsville on Halloween Day in 2011. He followed Malcolm Portera, who had spent seven months as interim president following the sudden departure of David Williams.

Dr. Altenkirch will be leaving for retirement this summer, but is leaving UAH in far better condition as a result of his leadership.

Blue Origin president Robert Meyerson and UAH president Robert Altenkirch shake hands after the company’s June 2017 announcement. Blue Origin, the spaceflight company started by Jeff Bezos announced it will manufacture its BE-4 engine in a new production facility in Cummings Research Park. The engine will power United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket. (Michael Mercier/UAH)

Dr. Altenkirch took his new assignment in stride with nine years of experience in leading a university, having been President of the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  His leadership was evident quickly, gaining support among the faculty and staff. He began carrying out his plan to move UAH forward through a strategic plan labeled “Expanding Horizons.”

The plan’s priorities: enrollment growth of a diverse student body; recruitment and retention of an outstanding and diverse faculty and staff; a broadening and expansion of research; recognition for education and research in Aerospace and Systems Engineering; Biotechnology; Cybersecurity and Big Data; Earth, Atmospheric, and Space Science; and Gaming and Entertainment Arts.

The plan established a direction for the future of UAH. During the next seven years, UAH had record growth in student enrollment, improvements through new and existing academic programs, growth in research, and major infrastructure improvements.

With enrollment at 7,200 on his arrival, the strategic plan called for 10,000 students by 2020. Today, there are more than 9,700 students on campus and projections for the fall of 2019 call for 10,400 students – a goal met a year ahead of schedule.

During Dr. Altenkirch’s tenure, research expenditures have been the highest in the school’s history at $99 million. Numbers from the National Science Foundation (FY 2017) showed UAH had five programs in the top 25 nationally, led by aeronautical and astronautical engineering at fifth. UAH ranked 11th in NASA expenditures and 28th from the Department of Defense.

Dr. Altenkirch initiated the formation of UAH’s Department of Space Science in 2013, Honors College in 2014, and College of Education in 2014. He also implemented a number of new programs. In the fall of 2014, Dr. Altenkirch proposed that Rise of Huntsville, a non-profit inclusion pre-school serving an equal mix of typical and developmentally challenged children, become the UAH Rise School. It had opened earlier in the year through a local church, modeled after the Rise School at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  The Board of Trustees approved this change and Rise of Huntsville moved to campus in October 2014. The UAH Rise School is now a service and outreach unit of the UAH College of Education.

He also formed the Division of Student Affairs and enhanced the position of Vice President for Research to include economic development. He secured conference affiliation for UAH’s Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and began Division II Men’s and Women’s Lacrosse in 2016.

During 2016, Dr. Altenkirch brought several construction projects on campus – a 400-bed residence hall, the D.S. Davidson Invention to Innovation business incubator, and a new sorority house.

Another major advance Altenkirch initiated is the purchase of Executive Plaza, a 58-acre office park across Sparkman Drive. His vision is to transform the property into a “town center” for UAH, complete with student housing, retail and office space.

The changes that have been set in motion by Dr. Altenkirch are having immediate impact on the university but the biggest impact of his success will be felt for generations to come.

Contributed by Ray Garner
University of Alabama in Huntsville


This article is published in our April 2019 issue of Initiatives magazine.