A small school with grand ambitions

The 64,700-square-foot Malone Center on Prospect Street houses the bulk of Yale’s cutting-edge engineering research.
The 64,700-square-foot Malone Center on Prospect Street houses the bulk of Yale’s cutting-edge engineering research. Photo by Jessica Letchford.

Few realize that Yale granted the first engineering Ph.D. in the United States in 1860. After all, engineering is not the word that comes to mind when someone says Yale.

Understandably so, perhaps. Compared to engineering behemoths like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University, the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science, with its roughly five dozen professors and five departments, is both miniscule and, at No. 40 on the 2010 U.S. News & World Report, lags considerably behind Yale’s other professional schools in rankings.

“I’d like to say that rankings don’t matter,” Fleury said. “But a lot of prospective students and their parents do base their decisions on them.”

But engineering faculty, students and University officials say that’s beginning to change now, in large part due to University President Richard Levin’s drive to improve Yale’s science and engineering programs and the appointment of a new engineering dean, who many say has reenergized the department with her new vision.

And although the economy has slowed down the pace of expansion, like the creation of a new engineering building on the site of the current University Health Services building on Hillhouse Avenue, T. Kyle Vanderlick, dean of engineering, said the school is taking small, deliberate steps forward.

“We’re still shaping our future together,” she said. “We are definitely going to try to build up engineering at Yale. We want to establish a better culture of engineering for our undergraduates and graduate students.”

AT A CROSSROADS

Yale engineering saw some key administrative changes last year — in particular, the re-establishment of the engineering school and Vanderlick’s appointment as dean — that many say are paving the road to a stronger program. A coveted recruit from Princeton, a top-ranked engineering program, Vanderlick brought with her an outsider’s perspective. Her foremost priority at Yale, she said, is growth: increasing the visibility of the program and strategically expanding.

While the economy has put plans for the engineering school’s new building on hold, in the meantime Vanderlick said the school is considering expanding into the West Campus, the 136-acre property in West Haven that Yale purchased two years ago from pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare.

Although Vanderlick and Michael Donoghue, the vice president of planning and development for West Campus, both emphasized they were still in the early discussion stage, they also exhibited a keen enthusiasm for the possibilities of West Campus, with all of its “fantastic facilities” just waiting to be used for engineering research. In particular, the two are thinking about some new facilities, including a fabrication center and a nanotechnology clean room, Donoghue said.

“We think that it’d really be a win-win situation for engineering and West Campus,” Donoghue said. “That’s one of the most exciting things going on right now.”

Despite the economic climate, over the past year, the school has added four new faculty positions.

Expanding engineering, Vanderlick explained, also means supporting existing student organizations, like Engineers Without Borders, and starting new ones, like the Society of Women Engineers, debuting this semester. Simultaneously, the school is actively promoting the University’s research opportunities outside of Yale and improving programs at the graduate level, such as the new Graduate Leadership Program.

Engineering student Erin Steenblock GRD ’11, who arrived at Yale in August 2005, said Vanderlick’s arrival has “really energized the departments” and that she had seen more attention placed on mentoring and teaching.

At the same time, with Levin’s commitment to investing more resources and personnel into the sciences and engineering, recruiting engineering students has become even more a priority for the Admissions Office. Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel ’75 said the Admissions Office has worked with the engineering school to increase the visibility of Yale’s engineering opportunities, through special tours and admissions materials that emphasize the field as strong part of the University’s broader offerings.

“We try to emphasize in particular that Yale is home to world-class, cutting-edge research work in engineering,” Brenzel said, “and that the undergraduate engineer here enjoys wildly favorable faculty-to-student ratios relative to our peer universities. That is, you get top-flight engineering, and Yale College comes along with it.”

SHAKY BEGINNINGS

But things were not always so forward-looking for the school. Indeed, Thea Reilkoff, the engineering school’s director of external relations, said Yale engineering has weathered highs and lows — boasting some of the most renowned engineers in history while also coming dangerously close to dissolution — since it was downgraded from a school to a single department in 1961.

When the engineering program was founded in 1852 with the creation of a civil engineering professorship for William Norton, Yale College was so close to bankruptcy that the Yale Corporation voted not to use College funds to pay Norton’s salary.

Despite the rough start, engineering took off, and over the next eight decades, it evolved into six departments and ultimately, in 1932, officially took on the name “The Yale School of Engineering.” Then, things took a turn for the worse.

By the late 1950s, former engineering dean Paul Fleury said, the engineering school was in a “fairly precarious position.” Some faculty considered the program to have too much of an emphasis on real-life applications to fit into Yale’s broader liberal-arts educational philosophy, Reilkoff said.

“The University was strapped and looking for things to cut,” Fleury said. “Engineering was a prime candidate.”

In 1960, University President Alfred Griswold ’29 GRD ’33 commissioned a report to evaluate the engineering school. The committee recommended vigorous changes to Yale’s engineering program, including the creation of a separate engineering department for undergraduate students. As Fleury put it, the committee told Yale it needed to “put up or shut up,” expecting the University to buck up its engineering program.

“They decided to shut up,” Fleury said. “[The committee] said it should be expanded or disbanded, feeling very sure the University would say, ‘We’re going to expand it.’ But they decided not to.”

The school lost its accreditation. Faculty left in droves. And the University almost nixed the engineering program entirely.

A few courageous humanities professors stood up for their engineering colleagues at a faculty meeting, Fleury said, and Yale engineering was kept as a single department. But Reilkoff added that merging all the engineering departments into one was simply “a non-viable option for engineering.”

It would remain non-viable for several decades.

GAINING MOMENTUM

For the next quarter of a century, the department puttered along, struggling to recover from its near-death experience.

Enter Richard Levin.

Faculty and administration alike agree that University President Levin’s appointment in 1993 marked the beginning of a new era for engineering at Yale. Convinced Yale could not continue to be a world-class university without excellence in the sciences and engineering, Levin began taking steps to restore engineering to its former prestige.

First, in 1994 he persuaded world-famous nuclear physicist Allan Bromley to become the first engineering dean since the school’s dissolution in 1961. Although the deanship was recreated, Fleury explained that the school remained dissolved, still going by the name “Faculty of Engineering.”

Bromley spent his career as dean casting a vision for the future of engineering at Yale, and also secured a grant to build the Malone Center, which was completed in 2005.

The pace of change began to accelerate when Fleury took over the Faculty of Engineering from Bromley in July 2000. Fleury pushed for higher recognition for the engineering deanship and set about connecting with engineering alumni, hiring new faculty members and increasing research opportunities through a new building and two new institutes.

Under his direction, the engineering faculty grew by about 20 percent — or 10 professors — in part due to the creation of the biomedical engineering department and the environmental engineering program. But there remained one thing on Fleury’s “to-do” list: Re-establish the engineering school.

“[People] did not know what it meant to say the ‘Faculty of Engineering,’ ” he said. “If it’s a school, even if it’s a small school, it’s very much like the school at Harvard or Princeton.”

But Yale resisted, citing the department’s small size and the lack of opportunities for undergraduate involvement at a professional school, he said.

Despite his best efforts, it took Fleury more than the 7 1/2 years he served as dean to get the job done — Yale re-established the school just five months after he stepped down.

SMALL BUT ‘SEAMLESS’

At the same time, student numbers began to increase: The number of undergraduate engineering majors to graduate each year rose from an average of 46 in the period spanning 2001 to 2003 to an average of 59 in the last three years. Despite modest growth at the undergraduate level, however, the school remains much smaller than its peers — an attribute that administrators touted as a defining characteristic of Yale engineering.

Vanderlick said the size of Yale’s engineering program offers a unique atmosphere in which to study and research.

“We have certain strengths because we are small,” she said. “We are more interdisciplinary, we’re more nimble; we have better connections to other parts of campus that other departments of engineering don’t have. It’s just not that seamless, it’s just not that collaborative, at all places.”

Associate professor of anesthesiology and biomedical engineering Laura Niklason agreed, adding that Yale research was far more collaborative than at the larger, top-ranked engineering schools where she had studied or worked previously.

“The willingness to cross boundaries is much higher [here at Yale], making for more and novel scientific opportunities,” said Niklason, who has a joint appointment on two different parts of campus.

Graduate students, such as Matthew Herdiech GRD ’14, said they appreciated the school’s small size because it gives them easy access to faculty and research equipment. The 20 non-freshmen undergraduate students interviewed said they benefited from the low faculty-to-student ratio. (The American Society for Engineering Education ranked Yale as having the second lowest faculty-to-student ratio in the country in 2006.)

All but one of the engineering students interviewed said Yale’s small size fostered a very strong sense of community among engineering majors.

“We bond under the banner of being crazy enough to major in engineering,” Kaetochi Okemgbo ’11 said. “The workload in many ways also facilitates friendships and bonding.”

Still, even with active collaboration between departments, its small size makes impossible for the school to cover all its bases. Yale’s engineering school currently has only five departments — applied physics, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering — and one program — environmental engineering — while many peer institutions boast departments like civil engineering, aerospace engineering and nuclear engineering.

To compensate for its lack of breadth, Vanderlick said Yale has chosen to focus on depth, particularly in the newer biomedical and environmental engineering fields.

ON THE FLIP SIDE

But for many Yale engineering students, being small can also be frustrating: Class offerings are limited, distributional requirements make scheduling difficult and career counseling, not to mention job and study abroad opportunities, scarce. Rankings, too, have painted a less-than-rosy picture of Yale engineering — and may contribute to dissuading potential students.

Many Elis said completing more than 20 prerequisites and major requirements — which some engineering majors require — in addition to non-science distributional requirements is a challenge.

“We end up having to squeeze in what should be a five-year program into four years,” Santiago Correa ’12 said.

Students also said few, if any, engineering firms recruited on-campus, while Undergraduate Career Services does not have the resources to help them look for internships or jobs in engineering fields. UCS Director Phil Jones said engineering companies do not come to campus because the number of engineering students looking for a job right after graduation “tends to be relatively low.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in Yale students,” he said. “It simply means that our students may have to approach them in a way other than on-campus recruiting.”

John Bau, assistant director at UCS, said he has brought several engineering firms to give presentations, adding that Yale engineering students can go to Columbia University’s annual engineering fair, when about 150 employers gather to meet with students — which many Yale students end up doing.

Confirming the power of rankings, 11 students interviewed who attend top engineering schools said they did not consider Yale or had not heard of its engineering program.

Eric Chu, a second-year Stanford Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, who also studied in Palo Alto for his undergraduate degree, said he did not consider Yale for college or graduate school because of the limited engineering opportunities Yale could offer.

“Yale, I knew, would give me a good liberal arts education … but it could not rival the engineering opportunities that Stanford gave,” he said. “In that sense, I guess you could say that Yale is not ‘well-rounded’ enough.”

FINDING A HOME AT YALE

Still, the engineering school and the Admissions Office’s efforts to improve the engineering program have not gone unnoticed by engineering Elis. Engineering majors who chose Yale said they were drawn to the school because it offers one of the top liberal arts educations in the world — the chance to pursue both their engineering passions and their interests outside the field.

“The fact that Yale is not known for its science programs made the school more attractive to me,” biomedical engineering major Kimberly McCabe ’13 said. “The other schools I looked at were entirely engineering focused, and would automatically throw me into all engineering classes with all engineering students. At Yale, I am … surrounded by people from all walks of life and with very different interests than me.”

Some students, like chemical engineering major Jharrett Bryantt ’11, even turned down “prospective engineers’ ‘dream schools,’ ” like MIT, Stanford and Cornell, to come to Yale.

“Too many places are trying to ‘weed out’ and scare away prospective engineers,” he said, “but since Yale is investing millions of dollars into science and engineering, they are thrilled and very welcoming from day one.”

Vanderlick said Yale’s engineering program may pose more hurdles than other programs around the county. But, for that reason, it is also more rewarding.

“Do [students] have to work a little harder to be able to pull it all together?” she said. “Yes, our students work hard. But I think the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a big one.”

Raymond Carlson contributed reporting.

Comments

  • Townie

    Just one problem…they don’t prepare real engineers for the workforce. No mechanical design, engineering analysis (FEA, etc), machine tool operations, etc. Only weird theoretical stuff (applied math really…).

  • 0Y8

    I seem to remember taking two mechanical design classes and spending significant portions of my engineering experience at yale in the machine shop…

  • Anonymous

    What did the author do, cherry pick the most flattering responses? I know for a fact there are some people who are a wee bit more critical of the department’s complete avoidance of hands-on curiculum. Yale’s Engineering department is little more than applied math with some labs tacked onto decades old curiculum to feign a genuine attempt at teaching real world skills and applications.

    Anyone who wants to come to learn practical Engineering and still get the Yale experience had best look elsewhere, because you’ll end up with neither.

  • Neil

    Yale could become the premier Engineering School in the world overnight if its faculty, staff and students would courageously unite in righteous demand for the long overdue independent, fully funded and fully empowered 911 investigation.

    It is not the ethical luxury of anyone at Yale or in the global academic community to return to their posts when it is their moral and intellectual duty to reinforce this noble strike for truth and justice. We have been contemptibly nonchalant, murderously indifferent and traitorously silent for too long.

    TRUTH fears no trial.
    TRUTH fears no question.
    TRUTH fears no investigation.
    But criminals and cowards fear TRUTH.
    Does Yale fear TRUTH?

  • EngineerGrad

    As a recent engineering grad from Yale, I think this article showcases both sides of the program–good and bad. However, I’d like to reinforce that the program itself is and has been improving, even over the four years that I attended the school. The faculty, though small, is incredibly knowledgeable, and they’re dedicated to constant improvement of the program. Feedback from students is used to reorganize and better suit the program to the students’ wants and needs.
    I think its unfair to place Yale’s engineering program in comparison to technical unversities such as MIT–should you be able to evaluate MIT’s liberal arts program, it wouldn’t rank nearly as high as their engineering program. To better compare, consider programs such as Penn or Cornell–while again, Yale’s program is still not up to par with these kinds of universities, it’s at least a more apt comparison–and Yale’s program is coming closer every day to these standards.
    I agree that more offerings need to be made in a more diverse range of study–more offerings are made in Systems and Control than Robotics or Nanotechnology. Hopefully this will be a change that is soon implemented.
    Also, I disagree with the first comment made on this article–I’m in the working force and I believe that the Yale education prepared me quite well. The Yale Engineering education is not one for a lab or a production facility–you don’t graduate with extreme technical knowledge. But, you do graduate with the ability to solve design problems and do so competently and elegantly. I guess then it depends on your definition of a “real” engineer–I don’t believe there is one definition for an engineer though. Yale just prepares you to be a higher-level kind of engineer. Technical work then, should it be your passion, would necessitate a grad school education.

  • Townie

    Sorry #5, but as someone in a hiring situation, I’m not interested in “elegant” (i.e. mathematical) solutions. I want someone who can hit the ground running and produce practical results. Give me a Cornell, WPI, RPI, MIT or U.Conn graduate anytime. Yale doesn’t cut it.

  • thom803

    Neil, really? Do you think you just convinced anyone of anything?

    Yale is not a premeire engineering school because for decades, it didn’t try to be. For years the focus was on liberal arts and the law. It’s kinda late to be jumping into this, but I guess you never know. Yale MBA used to be kind of a joke, until recently. It took many years make that respectable. Engineering will have to go through the same growing process.

  • EngineerGrad

    Sorry then, Townie– won’t be working for you any time soon. You’re looking for a different kind of engineer. I was trying to say that “real” is a broad, incorrect word for what you were trying to say. You’re looking for grads with more technical background, and I get that…go ahead and look elsewhere. I take offense to someone saying I’m not a “real” engineer.
    However–if I were looking to continue my education elsewhere, I agree that I probably wouldn’t look at Yale. But I will support beginning an education there for a broader education base. Yale’s engineering program IS flawed–but those who graduate are engineers by the same ABET standards other schools follow.

  • ’98

    The best benchmark would be how Yale ranks with other “boutique-sized” schools like Harvard and Princeton – not the huge, multi-faceted places like MIT, Stanford and Cornell.

    Harvard and Princeton – still a bit larger than Yale, are tied at #18 in the USNews ranking of graduate engineering programs, while Yale is tied at #40 with the U. of Colorado.

    At the undergrad level, where both Harvard and Yale have tiny programs, Cornell is #9, Princeton is #12, Harvard, Columbia and Penn are tied at #26, Brown is #37, and Yale, again, #40, with Dartmouth at #51.

  • Y’09

    I recently graduated with a Mechanical Engineering (ABET) degree and went to a career fair looking for an entry-level MechE job. After stopping at a very large company that regularly recruits from schools like MIT, Columbia, Penn, etc. I talked to a representative and gave him my resume. After a brief pause, his first words to me were, “Hold on a minute. You mean to tell me that Yale actually has an engineering program?” He wasn’t kidding. I’ve gotten the same basic response from about five other companies. Yale has got a long, long way to go before they can even hope to be compared to other Ivy League schools. It’s sad, disheartening, and wholly frustrating that I spent four years at a world class university only to obtain a sub-par degree.

  • Curious

    So, Y’09, have you found a job yet?

  • Y’09

    No, I haven’t. You looking to hire me?

  • Not an engineering alum

    What hurts Yale engineering faculty and alumni most is the PERCEPTION caused by rumors a decade ago that Yale was actually going to close down its engineering program. You’d be surprised how many faculty outside Yale bring that up first time Yale Engineering topic comes up. I am now a faculty at another major university (in sciences not engineering), and an engineering colleague expressed skepticism that Yale was committed to engineering other than minor fringe stuff. Yale really has no presence in the engineering field, but you could say the same about the management school 20 years ago. Like every academic field, it’s all about tradition, networking and reputation, which need to be built over course of decades of continual resource commitment. Engineers in general are not wowed by Ivy name, but if one really wanted to combine Ivy and engineering educations now, one should have gone to Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, or Havard, which have a better tradition of technology education.

  • Not an engineering alum

    Yale needs to recruit more prospective engineers like Jharrett Bryantt ’11, who incredibly turned down MIT and Stanford to come to Yale. And I am encouraged that he doen’t seem to regret it. Yale’s gotta make sure we can recruit and retain the best engineering minds, and once here get the best training and best graduate school placement. In the coming global economy, dominated by likes of China, Japan, India, etc., ability to craft a nice assay on English romanticism won’t get you as far as a civil or electrical engineering degree. Humanities get lost in translation; sciences and engineering transcend culture and language.

  • MIT grad

    Yale will never be able to match MIT in terms of an engineering program. I don’t think they should necessarily try either.

    It could be useful to have engineering courses (ie the real hands on stuff) at Yale, but more as an aside. Just like MIT has made an effort over the years to incorporate humanities into the curriculum. They will never match an ivy league school when it comes to liberal arts, but that’s not the point. Engineers should have some exposure to other things, but it should not be their primary focus (unless they want a double major).

    I don’t know why anyone would go to Yale to pursue an engineering degree unless they had a spouse/so at the school or were taking advantage of a dual degree program of some kind…