Engineering school shake-up rattles professors

A summertime shake-up in the engineering school has left some professors miffed that they were not consulted.

The school’s dean, Kyle Vanderlick, said the changes — renaming two of the school’s departments and separating the Applied Physics Department from the school — will have little effect on undergraduate education. But of the 12 professors in the Applied Physics Department, all six interviewed said the reorganization was decided unilaterally, and that the transfer out of SEAS of a strong department that took two decades to build may actually have weakened the school.

“It represents a loss to engineering, and I’m sad to see it happen,” applied physics professor Paul Fleury said.

With only 56 ladder faculty members, the small size of the School of Engineering & Applied Science — an umbrella organization for Yale’s engineering departments — makes it less competitive than other engineering schools, Vanderlick said. So to maximize its growth, Yale’s engineering school should choose carefully which areas to focus on, she added.

“Nothing has really happened to the life of [the] faculty,” Vanderlick said. “All that’s really happened here is that the definition of the umbrella got a little bit smaller.”

In February, Vanderlick presented a proposal to the engineering faculty, University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey, advising the school to dissolve its applied physics department and reconfigure its chemical engineering department.

While chemical engineering remained intact after much debate, applied physics professor Michel Devoret said Vanderlick made it very clear that applied physics would not remain within the engineering school. The process was unpleasant because the decision was made without prior consultation with faculty members in the applied physics department, Devoret said.

“The consensus-building was not what I have come to expect at Yale,” said applied physics chair A. Douglas Stone, who came to Yale in 1986.

Although the Applied Physics Department has “incredibly” distinguished researchers, the field is more closely aligned with physics and does not belong under the engineering school, Vanderlick said Sept. 1.

After being separated from the engineering school, the Applied Physics Department has been reporting to Graduate School Dean Tom Pollard, Stone said. A committee chaired by deputy provost for science and technology Steven Girvin will consider merging the Applied Physics Department with the Physics Department, Vanderlick said.

“Once we left the School of Engineering [& Applied Science,] it was very natural to ask if we wanted to merge with physics,” Stone said. “[But] there’s no reason we cannot be a small successful department.”

The remainder of the changes at the engineering school were more cosmetic, professors said. The renaming of the Mechanical Engineering Department, now called the Mechanical Engineering & Material Science Department, will not impact undergraduate education for now, but the engineering school plans to offer material science degrees in the future, said department chair Mitchell Smooke. Other schools, such as Duke and Rice universities, already have mechanical engineering and material science departments, he added.

“The name change really reflects who we are,” Smooke said.

Similarly, the renaming of the Chemical Engineering Department, now called the Chemical & Environmental Engineering Department, reflects the growth of the environmental engineering program within the department, said department chair Paul Van Tassel. There will still be separate chemical engineering degrees and separate environmental engineering degrees, so undergraduates will not be affected by the change, he added.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science, founded in 1852 and dissolved in 1961, was re-established in April 2008.

Clarification: Sept. 6, 2010

An earlier version of this article should have been clearer, in one instance, about the state of the Applied Physics Department. The department was separated from the School of Engineering & Applied Science. It has not been dissolved, although the school’s dean, Kyle Vanderlick, proposed to do so.

Comments

  • fmo

    Does the resignation of Professor Robert Grober have anything to do with this? While I understand that Yale SEAS wants to focus funding and development on its more popular departments, I personally agree with the Applied Physics faculty that this will only serve to weaken the school overall.

  • yalengineer

    This is rather shocking. The applied physics department is one of the best in the nation and unique in it own way. Moreover, the department provided SEAS with valuable collaborations in nanotechnology, quantum engineering, and material science. The groundbreaking success of the EE department was heavily dependent on the theoretical and quantum knowledge of their neighboring department. I’m rather worried about what will happen to the CRISP center without the applied physics program! The decision to merge applied physics with physics isn’t a very well thought out proposition either. The fields and methodologies of those two disciplines are distinct and likely would not yield to productive collaborations in the same way as it did with the rest of the Engineering School.