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 TEACHING

BY THOMAS K GROSE
TEACHING: CAPSTONE REDESIGN

10 WAYS TO SAVE

Engineering Educators Suggest Inventive Cost Cuts


The ongoing recession means that many American universities are having to make do with less. State and private institutions alike are dealing with tight budgets through the usual means: raising tuition, cutting staff, freezing vacant positions. And few colleges of engineering have avoided the pain. Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, for instance, trimmed its budget 3.5 percent in the middle of the last academic year, and is chopping another 5 percent this year. Ouch!

Moreover, budget-cutting is no easy chore for engineering deans, since most spend anywhere from 85 to 95 percent of their budget on salaries. That doesn't leave many areas to look for fat.

But engineering academics are world-class problem-solvers. We asked a few to come up with smart, innovative ways to cut budgets without harming educational quality, and to suggest new revenue streams. Here are their ideas:

1. THINK BIG Many schools are, of course, forced to increase class sizes, and this is usually considered a bad thing. But Harvey Palmer, engineering dean at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), says that if done right, greatly increasing class sizes can not only save money, but improve quality. Only a handful of professors actually have the talent to make first-year core classes entertaining as well as informative, he says. That means an awful lot of these classes are being taught by professors who certainly know the material but don't have the ability, or enthusiasm, to present it in a compelling fashion. These professors should instead be teaching older students who have already mastered the basics. Then one gifted, entertaining teacher could deliver introductory lectures in a large hall before 200 students.

2. THINK BARE NECESSITIES Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University, puts his idea into context by quoting a Rolling Stones song: "You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need." Basically, Silverberg argues, students and faculty pay nothing for a wide variety of premium services, such as medical attention, tutoring, and patent-copyright help, as well as development of faculty members' websites and PowerPoint presentations. His solution is to make users pay for them, perhaps turning them over to private companies to run. Making secondary services fee-based will determine which ones students and professors find truly helpful, Silverberg says.

Joseph Beaman, head of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Texas, Austin, says that schools could cut back on classroom software, some of which – he cites Pro/ENGINEER as an example – is too specialized for students' basic needs.

3. LEARN TO SHARE When it comes to filling faculty vacancies, O. Hayden Griffin, head of the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech, says a half-a-loaf approach can save money and pay benefits. In other words: joint appointments with other departments. Joint appointments are fairly rare at Virginia Tech, he says, but his department already has two with the department of mechanical engineering, "and they're working out quite well." Departments don't get the full-time use of those faculty, but often the alternative is not having the funds to fill the vacancy at all. "Also," Griffin adds, "we find we get some really interesting people who have strong interdisciplinary interests."

4. FOLLOW THE MONEY Target federal research agencies that are still flush with cash. Biomedical engineering departments can, for example, look to the National Institutes of Health, which has enjoyed large increases. "Master's and Ph.D. programs should be submitting training grants that can then support the costs of students," says Raimond L. Winslow, director of the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

5. FOR RENT: STUDENT BRAINPOWER "Schools should try to expand corporate partnerships," Winslow says. For instance, there are cost-sharing grad school programs that let students train with industrial scientists, while they're co-mentored by academic researchers. Mark Shannon, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that companies with tight research-and-development budgets are often willing to pay to have some of their research problems turned into assignments for design courses. Students get real-world experiences, strapped companies much-needed R&D help, and schools a bit of extra income.

TEACHING: CAPSTONE REDESIGN

6. DEFLATING STARTUP PACKAGES When Beaman joined the UT Austin faculty in 1979, his signing bonus was zilch. Start-up packages for new faculty were uncommon back then. But they're popular now – and ballooning, especially for experimentalists, he says. Packages of around $800,000 are not unheard of, and Beaman suggests they should be reined in: "It's almost out of control."

7. GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS Mandatory retirement is taboo, but North Carolina State's Silverberg suggests offering senior profs an incentive to hang up their lab coats: a retirement bonus. Let's say a senior faculty member earns $130,000 a year, and he or she accepts a $100,000 retirement bonus. The school then hires an assistant professor at $60,000 a year. Over three years, that's a salary savings of $210,000. Minus the bonus, the school's ahead by $110,000. It loses an experienced professor but gains a new academic who will bring fresh teaching ideas and, perhaps, an ability to draw research grants.

8. ASSESS, ASSESS, ASSESS Corporations are usually pretty good at conducting ongoing assessments of programs, RIT's Dean Palmer says. Universities, not so much. The best time to start a continuing reassessment process is when good times return, not after a financial crisis hits, Palmer says. Put a cost-benefit analysis process in place at a time when no one feels at risk, so that when the next downturn occurs, it will be clear that any resulting program cuts weren't done in an unfair, ad hoc manner.

9. CUT INTO OVERHEAD, NOT STAFF At Virginia Tech, Griffin's department was facing a deficit in its faculty salary budget that amounted to a half position. But VT allows department heads to cover those deficits from their overhead budgets, a process that Griffin thinks is fair and flexible. So, what had to go after the overhead budget was whacked? A goodly amount of travel, some grad student salaries, a bit of money for undergraduate research . . . oh, and folks were asked to think twice before photocopying.

10. TAKE THE HEAT — THEN USE IT Last year, Illinois's energy budget was in the red to the tune of $117 million. Meanwhile, Shannon says, the school -- like all other research institutions -- spends millions of dollars to operate lab hoods. Each hood probably uses more energy than a single-family home, and an awful lot of heated air that might otherwise be put to use is vented into the atmosphere. If that hot air could be captured and used, the savings would huge, he reckons. Retrofitting lab hoods with heat exchangers in existing buildings would be very expensive. But, Shannon says, it could save millions once costs are recouped. "And that would pay a lot of salaries."

Thomas K. Grose, Prism's chief correspondent, is based in the United Kingdom.

 

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