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Being Marginalized

Engineering has often been out of sight, out of mind on campus.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - The agricultural and mechanical arts seemed to be equally abhorrent to classics scholars. I am at the University of Maryland, waiting for my escort to come take me to the first of my day of meetings with faculty. Overnight, I stayed in the university’s inn and conference center, on the extreme western edge of this large campus. The engineering buildings, where I will have my meetings and then lecture later in the afternoon, are located on the eastern edge.

If I were visiting my own campus, I might have stayed overnight at the Washington Duke Inn, located off the extreme southern edge of Duke’s West campus, across from the entrance to the campus proper via Science Drive. That road dates from the mid-20th century, when our red-brick engineering building was the first to open on it — out of sight and out of mind of the core campus buildings. For decades, the humanists never had to set foot on this road, and the engineers and scientists hardly ever had to depart from it. Now, our engineering complex is located at the end of Science Drive, still a good distance from the inn and from the heart of campus.

I have noticed similar geographical patterns on other campuses. During my undergraduate years at Manhattan College, the engineering buildings were located atop the hill beyond the main quadrangle. The year after I graduated, Engineering moved into a renovated candy factory down the hill and even farther away from the rest of campus.

My graduate school years at the University of Illinois were spent mostly on the engineering side of Green Street. The only buildings to the north of the engineering campus were gymnasiums and sports fields, and we crossed Green Street mainly to eat at the student union and to take math and foreign-language classes.

Why is it that engineering seems so often to be at the margins of higher education, both physically and metaphorically? The reasons, like the reasons for so many things, are rooted in historical fact and accident. Before the mid-19th century, many free-standing mechanics institutes were founded to give working men and women the opportunity to better themselves through study. Introducing engineering onto more traditional college and university campuses was intended to bring the legacy of the industrial revolution into the mainstream of learning.

In 1862, the Morrill Act granted states the acreage on which to establish land-grant agricultural and mechanical colleges. The agricultural enterprise naturally required considerable tracts of land, and it was wise to allow for breathing room. This necessarily put the farms at or beyond one edge of campus, which not only provided space to grow but also took advantage of prevailing winds to take olfactory reminders of the farms’ existence away from the campus proper.

The heart of campus, where the long-established humanities were housed, became a virtual walled city. At Harvard, there were repeated attempts to push the Lawrence Scientific School, which was endowed in 1847 to educate engineers and chemists, off onto MIT.

If there was an old engineering department near the heart of a university campus, it generally had no room to grow. In order to expand, it had to relocate to the opposite edge of campus from the farms, thereby keeping at bay the sights and the sounds of the machine shops and laboratories. The agricultural and mechanical arts seemed to be equally abhorrent to classics scholars.

The physical layout of so many of our campuses tells us a lot about how much engineering has grown in the past century and a half, but many campus layouts also make it strikingly clear that engineers often still have a long way to go to reach the center of campus life.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His new book, An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings From the Softer Side of a Profession, is published by Cambridge University Press.




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