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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
Trouble on the Horizon - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Get SMART - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Tulane's Next Move - BY JEFFREY SELINGO

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
BRIEFINGS
REFRACTIONS: ENGINEERING AND HISTORY - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: The College Payoff - BY ANTHONY P. CARNEVALE

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Let Go of My Legos - Those little bricks are a wonderful way to teach engineering to youngsters. BY ALICE DANIEL
BOOK REVIEW: An Inconvenient Truth - BY ROBIN TATU
TEACHING: The Plague of Self-Plagiarism - BY PHILLIP WANKAT AND FRANK OREOVICZ
ON CAMPUS: The Write Solution- BY LYNNE SHALLCROSS










 
FEATURE: Tulane’s Next Move - Engineering at Tulane is facing a MAJOR RESTRUCTURING AFTER KATRINA.  - BY JEFFREY SELINGO - PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACKSON HILL / SOUTHERN LIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHYFEATURE: Tulane’s Next Move - Engineering at Tulane is facing a MAJOR RESTRUCTURING AFTER KATRINA.  - BY JEFFREY SELINGO - PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACKSON HILL / SOUTHERN LIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY  

THE ENGINEERING SCHOOL TOOK A HARD HIT AFTER HURRICANE ATRINA FORCED THE UNIVERSITY TO SHUT DOWN FOR A SEMESTER. NOW A IFFERENT VERSION IS UP AND RUNNING.

NEW ORLEANS—When Tulane University unveiled a sweeping restructuring plan last December, eliminating three of the institution’s five engineering departments, the school’s dean, Nicholas J. Altiero, says he had “serious doubts” about the future of engineering education at the university. Of all the institution’s divisions on its main uptown campus here, the engineering school took the hardest hit. Programs in civil and environmental engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, and mechanical engineering were put on the chopping block, displacing faculty members and students alike. Ultimately 30 tenured and tenure-track faculty members must leave because their departments have been discontinued. “I was skeptical about how it [the plan] would work,” Altiero recalls. “We were losing 60 percent of the school. We were left with chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, and I don’t know of anyone else in the country who has that particular combination of programs.”

But now, more than a year after Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, forcing Tulane to cancel the fall semester and plan for a future as a smaller institution, Altiero has had a change of heart. He remains here as dean of the new School of Science and Engineering, which absorbed the chemical and biomedical engineering programs as of July 1, and describes himself as “quite enthused” about the university’s Renewal Plan, the document that formally lays out the ideas for the institution’s future. “I’m actually very excited about the possibilities,” Altiero says.

A year after Katrina, Tulane’s student life is mostly back to normal.Despite the changes, faculty members and students in engineering have mostly stayed. As of August, only four faculty members in the two surviving engineering programs had moved on. And officials said they expected to lose only 55 students overall of those who were enrolled in the majors that were eliminated. That, however, is in addition to some 60 students who would have been freshmen last year but did not show up in the spring because their programs had been discontinued.

Several obstacles to a full recovery remain, though. Some professors whose jobs are being eliminated are fighting the restructuring plan. The two ongoing engineering programs need to be integrated into a new school that is heavily dominated by science majors. And the institution continues to fight a perception that New Orleans remains mostly uninhabitable.

Still, Tulane’s president, Scott S. Cowen, says that as a major research university and a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, the institution is committed to engineering education. “It’s a false conclusion to think we have lowered our ambitions,” Cowen says. Eliminating several small engineering departments that enrolled about 450 undergraduates “doesn’t change our aspirations.” Over time, he adds, the dollars saved by doing away with those majors, as well as a host of graduate and doctoral programs across the university, will “allow us to invest in a smaller number of programs of even more high quality than they were before the storm.”

A Plan Cut Short

When Katrina hit, the School of Engineering was in the fourth year of a 10-year turnaround plan intended to lower the school’s tuition-discount rate (which was the highest among all undergraduate majors) and increase its external research grants and private fundraising. Although the school improved in all three areas, Altiero says it was still far short of its goals given the university’s needs following the storm. “We simply ran out of time,” he says.

But engineering professors whose jobs are being eliminated say that, among other factors, the reorganization plan does not take into account the curricular requirements of the discipline. Morteza M. Mehrabadi, chairman of the mechanical engineering department, says courses in his department provide the foundation for all engineering majors, including those programs that will remain. “You cannot have an engineering school without mechanical engineering,” says Mehrabadi, who is employed through the end of this academic year. “This will only weaken what’s left. If you’re serious about majoring in engineering, you won’t want to come to a school that doesn’t have a full menu of offerings.”

The civil engineering department, above, is among the three engineering programs shutting down at Tulane.Vijaya Gopu, chairman of the civil engineering department, says he was surprised that Tulane cut his major given that university leaders had talked publicly after the storm about how students and faculty members would pitch in to help rebuild New Orleans. “How is that possible without engineering, especially civil engineering?” he asks. “We’re undertaking one of the biggest civil engineering projects in our nation’s history, and the major university in town no longer has a civil engineering department.”

But Cowen, Tulane’s president, argues that the civil engineering department was small in size and never had a particular expertise in the design of levees, the failure of which were blamed for much of the destruction across New Orleans. “They did a nice job at the undergraduate level, I don’t want to diminish them,” Cowen says. “But to somehow suggest they would have been a major ingredient in the recovery doesn’t square with the size of the department and what their interests were.”

Within hours of Tulane’s announcement last December that the university would cut the engineering departments, a group of students formed the Save Tulane Engineering organization. In just a few days, the students collected more than 2,300 signatures in an online petition. The group also began a pledge drive to help keep the departments open. The first pledge came from an unidentified Tulane faculty member who agreed to donate $5,000 a year for life if the electrical engineering and computer science department continued.

University officials, however, say they have no intention of reversing their decision. And few of the students who were in the eliminated majors have left Tulane. Officials say most who decided to transfer were part of last year’s freshman class (the university paid $2,000 in relocation assistance for those who decided to transfer). This year’s juniors and seniors will be able to complete their studies before the programs are cut officially at the end of the academic year; the juniors will double up.
Daniel Macleod is among those who decided to stay. A junior mechanical engineering major, he is cramming extra classes into his schedule to finish his requirements early. He had thoughts of transferring to Texas A&M University, where he spent last fall, but he abandoned that plan when he picked his life back up here in January. “The quality of a Tulane education remains the same,” he says. “The university is still here, the city is still here and so I decided to stay as well.”

Building a Future

The new school that Altiero now oversees contains six divisions, only two of which house engineering. “Seventy-five percent of the school is science,” Altiero admits. According to the renewal plan, the university, led by Altiero, intends to “define a new vision for engineering within the context of the School of Science and Engineering and to also build a strong foundation from which Tulane can strategically grow its science and engineering presence in the future. The involvement of alumni in this process will be critical to its success. The plan is expected to be completed by July 1, 2007.”

Whatever the outcome of that planning process, Altiero says he does not foresee Tulane “going back to a stand-alone engineering program.” Instead, Altiero would like the school to take an interdisplinary approach to engineering education, balancing out the strong science programs that will make up the bulk of the curriculum. He imagines that the divisions without an engineering component now could potentially add one in the future. For instance, the Division of Physical and Materials Science, which for now includes only the physics department, could add a materials engineering component. To encourage collaboration, he hopes to reallocate space so the science and engineering departments can work in concert with each other. “What intrigues me about the whole renewal plan … is that it brings science and engineering very close together, both within a division and across divisions,” Altiero says.

The next challenge is trying to persuade students interested in majoring in engineering to come here even though the university no longer has a stand-alone engineering school. “Students who want to be engineers are going to be looking at colleges that have engineering schools,” says Macleod, the junior mechanical engineering major.

Perhaps a bigger hurdle—one the entire university faces—is changing the perception among perspective students and their parents that New Orleans is still largely recovering from Katrina. The city’s devastated neighborhoods are miles away from Tulane’s main campus, but they remain the dominant image on television news programs. For its part, the area around Tulane looks like it was never hit by a major hurricane.

Last spring, Tulane officials offered more campus visits than ever before, and Cowen hosted several online chats to answer questions from would-be students and their parents. Still, the university’s freshman class was smaller than officials had hoped, even though Altiero says his school attracted about the same number of students to biomedical engineering and chemical engineering as it had in the past.

“There’s no question that we have to do more than we have ever done before to give people confidence that both New Orleans and Tulane are the kind of city and institution that they hoped it would be,” Cowen says. “This perception problem is going to be with us for several years.”

Jeffrey Selingo is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

 


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American Society for Engineering Education