All That Glitters is Not IIT
The article"Jewel in the Crown" (October 1999, p. 20) says nice things about the Indian Institutes of Technology, but there are some unfortunate comments I wish you had ignored—in particular, those from R. Natarajan, director of IIT Madras.
There are several Indians who are doing extremely well in the U.S. who did not graduate from the IITs. In fact, there is a larger number of Indians in academia in the U.S. who have graduated from schools other than the IITs. The article also confused proficiency in mathematics with rote learning of basics, like multiplication tables, that any mathematician will tell you has nothing to do with real mathematical skills. As an IIT alumnus, I am perfectly aware of the emphasis on memorizing.
The quality of the IITs gets highly exaggerated in U.S. magazines. Most people of Indian origin do not want to contradict anything that eulogizes their institutions, but the article (like many others) actually hides facts and presents a distorted picture of the reality. I do not blame the author. Unless you live in India, it is difficult to get the true picture. Yes, the students who graduate with bachelor's degrees from the IITs are good, but that is because of the high entrance examination standards. Those graduates would do well anywhere. The tough Indian high-school system, not the IIT professors, deserves the praise.
The professors at the IITs do notcompare with those in the best U.S. institutions as far as their research output or teaching skills are concerned. One has to understand that there is no tenure system or any serious student feedback system in the IITs—an important point that the article missed—and there is little pressure on the professors to excel in any way.
The contribution of professors in any institution really shows in weak undergraduate students (who do not exist in the IITs) and in the graduate students. If you get the best students in the country, it is no great feat to produce good graduates. And so the complacent attitude of the chair of IIT Madras is something that, in my opinion, deserves criticism, not praise.
Thomas Grose's article, "Jewel in the Crown" fails to mention the important role that U.S. engineering faculty played in cutting and setting one of those jewels. From 1962 to 1972, development of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur was assisted by a consortium of nine leading U.S. universities, including CalTech, MIT, Berkeley, and Michigan, and administered by the Educational Development Center. The Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP) benefited from early support from the Ford Foundation, followed by support from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Norman Dahl, an engineering professor at MIT, was the first KIAP leader. U.S. engineering faculty from several universities spent time teaching and working at Kanpur, in collaboration with Indian colleagues. At the time, there was considerable interest on the part of U.S. engineering faculty in international engineering education and institution building. ASEE members were very active through an International Education Committee, which eventually became the ASEE International Division.
The article emphasizes the demand for IIT graduates in the U.S. It is also important to focus on the contributions that Kanpur and the other IITs are making to the development of the country in which they reside. The needs in India and of its one billion people are great. The extent to which the IITs are helping to meet those needs is something that I, for one, would have liked to learn more about from the article. Have they, as Dahl wrote in 1972 about IIT Kanpur, been "an irrelevant factor in the industrial and social progress of India . . . a kind of isolated island of academic excellence, but not a part of the mainstream of India's development"? Or, as I would hope, has the generation since he wrote those words seen the IITs and their graduates assume important roles in India's progress?
Robert P. Morgan
The Master's Debate
In the September 1999 Prism, the discussion of mandating the master's degree as a requirement to enter professional practice in engineering ("Should We Mandate the Master's?" p. 20) brought back many memories. This argument has been going on for several years, and it is no nearer resolution than when it first started. My opinion is the same now as when I started my engineering career more than 40 years ago. That period included 35 years in engineering education.
The premise is based on academic hopes to continue engineering education programs that include only scientific principles and procedures, and let the profession supply whatever engineering principles and procedures may be needed by graduates. This mistaken shape of engineering education took root in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Grinter report suggested that engineering education had to have a scientific basis for the four-year degree, with practical aspects moved to other programs. What resulted was a two-tier system that bifurcated into engineering and technology programs. In order to compete in the placement of graduates into federally funded industry, most engineering schools opted for more depth in science and mathematics in their curricula. More and more courses were added until four years were not enough to complete the program. Many students spent more than five years completing all requirements for the B.S. degree. Then the argument arose to make the "five year program" into a master's degree, and require it for all graduates. The profession did not accept that idea and held to hiring B.S. graduates. That is where we are now.
Engineering educators cannot be expected to resolve the dilemma, for they are prone to turf protection in both which courses are required for graduation, and in the technical content of those courses. Many professors are by their own education merely scientists and mathematicians, rather than practical engineers. Their image of engineering is based on their own limited experiences, taught to them by others of that ilk, who now want to dictate to industry and the engineering profession who can become a member of that group. Such professors continue to dominate engineering education, and will likely block any attempts to make the education of graduates into a meaningful preparation for a successful practicing career. Over the years of my experience with them, many have essentially kept "Latin and Greek" studies in the curriculum, to the exclusion of more modern technology needed by new graduates. It's no wonder that the curriculum is crowded with required coursework!
Before mandating the master's degree to complete engineering education for entry into the profession, it would be better to look at the curriculum for the B.S. degree and remove and replace any courses that are not essential to a successful career in engineering. That kind of consolidation and restructuring has been going on for as long as academic programs have existed. The four-year, B.S. degree program can be made to prepare graduates for entry into the practicing profession. There is no reason that engineering should be different in that regard from other professional programs.
Several items dealing with the profession of engineering and on the licensing of engineering educators have appeared recently in Prism. Several organizations,. including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, seem favorably disposed to licensing. AIChE recommends that its members become registered in their respective states as soon as possible after entering the profession, but adds that a licensed engineer is one who has met certain minimum requirements at one point in his or her career.
This addition can result in having licensed persons who are under no legal compulsion to keep up in their profession. Today, this situation is changing. About half of the state legislatures in the nation now have or are drafting legislation that requires continuing education for those wishing to maintain their professional license. In the ABET literature on accrediting, licensing is spoken of favorably, but only two branches of engineering—architectural and civil—stipulate that a certain fraction of their professorial faculty who teach undergraduate engineering must have a professional license.
I obtained licensing information on the faculty of 53 rather prominent ABET-accredited chemical engineering programs. Of those, 18 had no licensed faculty and 16 had one each. Having a significant fraction of licensed professional engineers on the faculties in chemical engineering does not seem to be important to the professional society (AIChE) or to the accrediting body (ABET).
Information on the licensing situation in the other branches of undergraduate engineering education would provide those who are advocating the licensing of the professorate a better understanding of the task before them.
Too Much Distance?
Engineering is a very demanding vocation, but it is important for the stability and continuation of society that all members of society, including engineers, have an understanding and appreciation for all aspects of living, particularly for the importance of healthy families and an active sympathy for those who, for reasons beyond their control, can have little hope for a full life.
F. Everett Reed
What do YOU think? Send your comments to
Send your comments firstname.lastname@example.org
Because of space limitations, not all letters can be published,