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Rupy Sawhney poses for a headshot

Remembering Rupy Sawhney

Former Students, Colleagues Share Their Stories

From the time he arrived as a student in 1976 until his passing in December, Rapinder “Rupy” Sawhney was a fixture of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE), staying on as faculty after his graduation and eventually becoming ISE department head and later Heath Faculty Fellow in Engineering. Ever the outgoing personality, the impact he had in those 46 years became readily apparent in the outpouring of memories shared by those whose lives he touched. Here are some of those thoughts.

Over a period of 17 years, I had the honor of working alongside Dr. Rupy Sawhney. Over that time, we became valued colleagues and the best of friends, with our families sharing many wonderful experiences together. One of Rupy’s favorite pastimes was spending time on my boat during the summer. Initially, he questioned the wisdom of investing in a boat, advocating instead for investing in real estate. However, he came to know the amazing benefits that the water had on one’s ability to relax and spend time with family. We would spend hours on the water, and when his family would visit from overseas, he always asked if we could take them out on the water. He wanted them to have different life experiences that were not possible because of the regions they lived in. He always enjoyed seeing others enjoy first-time experiences.

Rupy poses on the University of Tennessee's bridge with colleagues

Rupy changed lives. He was a dedicated educator who had a remarkable ability to see potential in every student he encountered. His passion for his work and his belief that every individual had something unique to offer drove his mission to help them realize their potential. He never judged anyone based on their academic performance or social background. Instead, he focused on their strengths and encouraged them to reach for their full potential. He would spend hours working with his students, giving them personal attention and guidance, and providing constructive feedback to help them improve. Through the Center for Advanced Research and Education (CASRE) we will continue his legacy and work by expanding upon the Sawhney Model emphasizing its commitment to placing people at the center of all operations and growing opportunities in workforce development, quality of life of people, servant leadership, and efforts in people centric operational excellence. He was a true inspiration to all who knew him, and his legacy lives on through those whose lives he touched and transformed.

Carla Arbogast, CASRE director

I met doctor Sawhney back in 2008. I was working for a university in Mexico, and we invited him and the interim department head at the time, Dr. Bruce Robinson, to make presentations in a program that brought professors from all over the world. As we were preparing for the logistics, we were setting up the pickup time at the airport and I didn’t have a picture of how doctor Sawhney looked, so, when I asked him to give me a reference if he could share a picture so that I could recognize him at the airport his response was, “I look like George Clooney.” He was always characterized by his charisma and how comfortable he was around people.

For me, Dr. Sawhney was a mentor and an example. I worked and studied with him more than 12 years, and there are innumerable stories to tell in this short writeup. He was a very driven person, and I always told him that he was the best negotiator I’ve ever met in my life. He would always get what he wanted even sometimes against all odds. He had a work ethic like no other. I always used to say that his hobby was to work.

Rupy posing with colleagues.

He’s leaving both a legacy with his teachings and his research, as well as big shoes to fill. From his characteristic phrases such as “continue the hard work,” “make me rich and famous,” “gladiators don’t get sick or take breaks,” to just listening to him talk about his ideas and vision, we will miss him very much.

He was a person that wanted to contribute to different environments, not only at the university as a professor, but also as a citizen, as a husband and parent, and as a friend. He would always feel attracted to participate in different committees that dealt with his profession, but also with his civic duty and his religious beliefs. I usually asked myself how he found time to do all he did. He will be remembered for his ability to identify opportunities for improvement, his vision to make things better, his tenacity to persuade others into his vision, his drive to execute and his work ethic. Wherever he is, I am sure he is finding ways to improve and already changing things around. May everyone that knew him remember and preserve what he started, may family and friends find peace with him not being around, and may he rest in peace!

Enrique Macias De Anda, CASRE research assistant professor and industry liaison, and former student

After a difficult week filled with work and challenges, Dr. Sawhney visited our graduate students’ offices and asked us to join him for a walk, encouraging us to turn off our computers. He took us to a nearby park and entertained us with his humor, aware of how stressed we were. On our return, he surprised us by bringing a soccer ball and inviting us to play with him in the parking lot. Although my team was winning, Dr. Sawhney’s goals counted for two since he was the boss, and we ended up losing.

Dr. Sawhney was a unique individual who inspired us to do our best while also caring for our well-being. He played the role of both a father figure and a leader, often teasing us by telling us to leave his office or that we would never graduate, but it was all in good fun. What mattered most was his dedication to making us feel like a family. We miss him dearly, and his kindness and leadership remain with us always.

Guilherme Zuccolotto, former student


I have the rare privilege of not only being a former student of Dr. Sawhney, but also returning to teach in the department as a colleague. I can still recall our first conversation when I sat down in his office as a new professor, when he asked, “Who are you, Laura?” and the sincere interest and attention he gave to my unprepared, erratic response. Moving from the student-instructor to a peer relationship during that exchange was effortless, and the difference in our paths over the almost 30 years apart melted away as we moved closer as mentor-mentee/friends during the past 5 years together. Our impromptu conversations (debates?) over motivation and teaching philosophies are some of my favorite in my most recent personal development!

Rupy was a strong personality, who never met an obstacle he could not best, and he expected the same quality work ethic and perseverance from those around him. That came across in his early years as he taught us simulation and production planning, but even more so as the driving force of CASRE with his leadership for achieving improvement through compassionate leadership and focusing on worker quality of life. Being part of the early stages of his vision as we developed the NINA Model is so satisfying as I watched his vision transform over the decades into the Sawhney Model, recognized world-wide and making positive change.

Dr. Sawhney has given us many memories and lessons, but the legacy of his hard work and dedication to his family at home, and his family on the Hill, taught us to never back down from any challenge, never settle for less than your best, and never, ever give up.

Thanks for everything, Rupy.

Laura Knight, Former student and current ISE assistant professor of practice and outreach and engagement coordinator

The passion for teaching came to me from Dr. Sawhney. He treated his graduate students as a family member. He was very open in sharing his thoughts to his graduate students. He motivated his students whenever students needed motivation.

The important thing to point out is that when there was a recession during 2009, the industrial engineering department was under scrutiny to be closed. But Dr. Sawhney handled the situation beautifully as he became department head. He had opportunities in other universities to be become a professor at that time, but he did not accept any opportunities. Having done his BS, MS, and PhD from UT, he had a special liking for the department, so he didn’t accept any offers.

He focused on hiring young assistant professors and graduate students at that time. As years passed, the department had grown mainly focused on research. Today, because of his leadership, the department has become one of the important universities offering degrees in industrial and systems engineering. I am very proud to say that I was his graduate student at that point of time. He was more than a mentor, advisor, and well-wisher. Today it’s shocking to hear that he passed away and no more. You will be missed Dr. Sawhney, and may his soul rest in peace.

Karthik Subburaman, former graduate research assistant

Dr. Rupy Sawhney was  advisor, mentor, and friend. He played such an influential role in my professional life, progression, and success. I first met Dr. Sawhney during my undergrad at the Tickle College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee. As a professor/advisor, he pushed me hard in school, would never accept regurgitated textbook answers, and always required original thought.

He was teaching critical thinking and constantly challenging the status quo, both skills I’ve leveraged throughout my career. He introduced me to lean manufacturing and suggested I read the book ‘The Toyota Way.’ This was a class and book that defined and shaped my entire career.

Rupy poses with TCE students 

Post-college, he was a mentor whom I could always call on for questions, advice, and support. He provided me with my first teaching job as a guest lecturer at UT’s International Lean Summer program. He honed my facilitation skills and taught me how to shape the next generation of lean leaders. Finally, he always viewed and valued our relationship as a friendship.

I was fortunate to cross paths with him at this year’s Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers conference in Seattle. Although it had been years since seeing each other, it was like picking up a conversation we had last week. We talked about family, life, and funny stories from the past. I’m so grateful I had this final conversation with you. Thank you, Rupy, for everything you have done for me and the profession of industrial engineering. You will be sorely missed. I know everyone you have touched will carry on your legacy.

Isaac Mitchell, former student


Dr. Sawhney was a professor that pushed his students beyond what they thought they were capable of while creating an environment where mistakes were welcomed and used in a way that improved every student’s experience.

Tucker Duncan, former student

I knew Rupy Sawhney as a freshman in one of my classes, as a colleague, and as a friend. He always called me “Dr. Upadhyaya” in spite of my insisting that he “just call me Belle.” Rupy was a hard-working person, highly innovative, and a kind individual. He was a great mentor to his students. I enjoyed working with him when I was on the ISE departmental review committee.

May Rupy’s legacy live on.

Belle Upadhyaya, professor emeritus of UT’s Department of Nuclear Engineering

In my 15-plus years at UT, I only have pleasant memories of Rupy. I honestly only remember him smiling and being kind and welcoming to all others, including me. This is true from the day I first met him until whichever committee meeting we ran into last. I will miss his positive energy and contagious smile.

Ivan Maldonado, professor in UT’s Department of Nuclear Engineering