Engineering celebrates 150 years

As the Yale Faculty of Engineering celebrated its 150th anniversary this past weekend, administrators discussed the department’s checkered past and promising future.

About 200 alumni attended the sesquicentennial celebration, at what many called a high point in the recent, often rocky history of Yale’s engineering program. With faculty searches, a new engineering building underway and the recent recognition of department faculty, Yale leaders and engineering professors said the Faculty of Engineering is on an upswing.

“I hope you will take away from this weekend the feeling that Yale engineering is on a roll,” Paul Fleury, dean of Engineering, said in the opening session. “We are here. We are good. We provide the finest liberal arts education and we are essential to Yale.”

Engineering at Yale started as the Sheffield Scientific School in 1847. The school was eventually absorbed into Yale College, Fleury said. The School of Engineering faded away in the 1950s but when Richard Levin became president of the University, he “launched engineering onto a new trajectory,” Fleury said.

The Faculty of Engineering is composed of four departments: Applied Physics, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering; and two programs, Biomedical Engineering and Environmental Engineering.

Fleury said the intermediate status of a “faculty,” rather than a department or program, has advantages and disadvantages.

The sesquicentennial celebrations coincide with special recognition of the Faculty of Engineering. John Fenn GRD ’40, who spent much of his career in the department of Chemical Engineering, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year. Electrical Engineering professor Jerry Woodall won the National Medal of Technology.

Levin was unable to attend the events but left a video message for the alumni in which he said that it has been difficult to be an alumnus of Yale Engineering because of its difficult past.

“Over the last 50 years Yale has frequently been indecisive about the future of engineering at Yale,” Levin said. “The future of engineering at Yale is a bright one.”

Provost Alison Richard said the recent strategy of appointing outstanding leadership, recruiting strong faculty, and supporting that faculty is working.

“The best of liberal education today must integrate science and technology more than ever before,” Richard said. “We want Yale to be an exciting place for the brightest in these fields to go research and teach — Yale engineering is on a roll and it’s an unstoppable roll.”

Richard said the Faculty of Engineering has hired six senior faculty, including Fleury, who is the first externally recruited dean of Engineering at Yale. She said the Faculty of Engineering has also been hiring at the junior level.

“We have been quietly but successfully recruiting the stars of the future,” Richard said.

Fleury said that there are currently a number of searches underway for new faculty.

Richard said Yale has much more to do to realize its goals for engineering. She paraphrased D. Allan Bromley, former dean of the Faculty of Engineering, in noting “we need to get more Yale students into engineering and more engineering into Yale students.”

Richard said this was the first alumni weekend for the Faculty of Engineering since the 1980s.

Dan Wan ’76, who received a B.A. in engineering, said he comes from three generations of Yale engineering graduates.

“What I’ve seen is a real return to establish science and engineering as a real priority,” Wan said. “I think it’s been a big improvement.”

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