A tale of two engineering schools

In July, the School of Engineering & Applied Science renamed two of the school’s departments and separated from the Applied Physics Department.

With only 56 ladder faculty members, the small size of the school — under which Yale’s engineering departments are organized — made it less competitive than other engineering schools, Yale engineering dean Kyle Vanderlick said last month. So in order to maximize its growth, she said, the school decided to focus itself more narrowly.

Although Yale engineering pared down its departments to focus on areas where it can distinguish itself, in Cambridge, Harvard’s undifferentiated school simultaneously expanded the number of engineering degrees it offered because of student demand for a greater number of degree options.

But while Yale professors said their school’s structure promotes departmental identity, Harvard professors said their structure allows for greater flexibility to adapt to changing times.

IN THE BEGINNING

Five years after industrialist Abbott Lawrence donated funds for a engineering and applied science school at Harvard, railroad magnate Joseph Sheffield donated money and land to a similar school at Yale, thereby establishing the Sheffield Scientific School. Both schools grew, purchased land, erected buildings and trained students — but both were also eventually dissolved.

For the Lawrence Scientific School, the axe came in 1906, but the school was revived with money from the will of Massachusetts industrialist Gordon McKay in 1918. The Sheffield Scientific School, on the other hand, slowly lost its identity, being formally dissolved within the University in 1945 and becoming the Engineering Department in 1961.

Both remnants, however, came alive in the 1990s. Under the leadership of Harvard president Neil Rudenstine, who served from 1991 to 2001, and Yale President Richard Levin, both universities poured money into their engineering programs. In 2007, Harvard turned its Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences into a school. One year later, Yale followed suit.

After 1961, when University president Alfred Griswold ’29 demoted Yale’s engineering school into a department within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Yale’s engineering faculty began to form divisions by discipline, which eventually evolved into separate engineering departments — what Yale engineering school dean Kyle Vanderlick called the “natural form” of an engineering school.

ALL EGGS IN ONE BASKET

Putting all engineering disciplines into one department — which Harvard does — would be like having all science disciplines under one department, Vanderlick said. Departments have allowed the faculty to create a coherent curriculum for each discipline, which is important for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) certified degrees Yale offers, she added.

An annual review board checks on Yale’s engineering curriculum, Yale mechanical engineering professor Udo Schwarts said.

With ABET-certified degrees, any employer can look at a student’s degree and know exactly what the student studied, Yale associate dean of educational affairs Roman Kuc said. Currently, Yale offers ABET-certified degrees in chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as intensive bachelor’s of science degrees in biomedical and environmental engineering.

Harvard’s engineering school, however, has only one ABET-certified umbrella degree in engineering sciences, according to its website. While the school’s degree is differentiated into specific tracks such as chemical engineering, students who choose to pursue an engineering degree at Harvard will receive a degree broadly in “engineering sciences,” Harvard engineering dean Cherry Murray said.

“[Engineering students] have to take more courses than the typical Harvard students, but it’s the bare minimum for an [ABET-certified degree,]” she said.

While the degree is not specific, retired Harvard mechanical engineering professor Frederick Abernathy said, the degree allows Harvard students to explore more areas within engineering and the liberal arts. Conversely, Yale engineering students must fit in all their engineering courses, as well as the distributional requirements — a series of a dozen or so courses all Yale College graduates need to fulfill, Schwarts said. “The ABET degrees are one of the most demanding at Yale,” Yale electrical engineering professor Mark Reed said.

But having a specific ABET-certified degree is more helpful to the student’s future than Harvard’s undifferentiated degree, said Yale chemical engineering professor Eric Altman. Very few employers understand what a generic engineering degree means since they do not look at specific classes, said Reed, who worked at computer technology company Texas Instruments from 1983 to 1990.

Furthermore, Harvard’s lack of departmental differentiation makes it more difficult for faculty to organize themselves and develop curriculum for specific degrees, Yale Chemical & Environmental Engineering Department chair Paul Van Tassel said.

In response, Harvard has created “area deans” to supervise curriculum development for specific engineering disciplines, said Harvard environmental science professor Steven Wofsy, who was appointed an area dean in his discipline July.

“The area deans represent a way to capture some of the diversity without making departments,” he said.

The area deans will allow Harvard to develop degrees that may become ABET-certified, said Murray, the Harvard engineering dean. For example, a biomedical engineering degree will be available this fall, while one in electrical engineering is in the works, she said.

Nonetheless, Harvard’s engineering school will continue not to have departments, she added. Being a single entity allows Harvard engineering to change as society changes rather than locking a set of faculty and resources in departments, Abernathy said.

“I don’t really see a great advantage to a department structure,” Abernathy said.

DEPARTMENTAL DIVIDES

In the 1960s, for example, Harvard used to have a world-famous research group working on soil mechanics and sanitary engineering, Abernathy said. But when those researchers retired, no one was reappointed in those areas just for the sake of continuing research in the field, he said. The result was hiring professors in new areas such as computer science, Abernathy said.

Because department structure tends to lock a set of faculty and resources within a given area, blurred boundaries between disciplines gives him more opportunities to do more interdisciplinary work, he said. Furthermore, said Harvard applied mathematics professor Michael Brenner, not having departments prevents faculty members from fighting for resources. At Yale, however, the dean of engineering assigns budgets to each department based on personnel and need, Yale chemical engineering professor Yehia Khalil said.

A desire to maintain departmental integrity played a role in the debate over reforms in Yale’s School of Engineering & Applied Science proposed in February, said Yale applied physics chair Douglas Stone. In mid-February, Vanderlick proposed to remove people from applied physics and chemical engineering and place them in other departments, Levin said. But after the faculty spent weeks discussing the issue, he added, most of them did not agree with original plan. Ultimately, however, the Applied Physics Department left the School of Engineering to become a department within the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, while chemical engineering remained intact within the engineering school.

Stone added that because it takes decades to build a strong department, applied physics professors were prompted to keep their department intact within the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. No one who has worked years to build such departments and relationships within such departments would want to see their departments dissolved, he added.

TWO APPROACHES, ONE GOAL

Although Harvard and Yale’s engineering schools differ in their approaches, each school has tried to build a viable system for itself, professors said. Being a small school within a liberal arts setting, neither Yale nor Harvard will ever have the same clout as MIT, Brenner said.

But while both schools differ in their approaches, they both desire to be the best in their field, said Peter Bogucki, the associate dean for undergraduate affairs at Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, another engineering school that operates within a humanities-dominated student body. Every institution will do what makes sense for its needs and priorities at a particular time, he said.

Nonetheless, both Harvard and Yale’s engineering schools have built bridges within their universities — Yale’s engineering program frequently collaborates with the University’s other departments and professional schools, Yale biomedical engineering professor Tarek Fahmy said — and both have achieved successes for their small size. In 2003, Yale’s engineering faculty was ranked first in relative citation impact by Science Watch magazine, while Harvard’s engineering school was ranked 19th by the U.S. News and World Report in 2010.

“It’s important to stress that educators do not think of one ‘system’ or another, and that they do not try to copy what works elsewhere,” Bogucki said. “Every institution does what makes sense for its particular needs and priorities at any given time.”

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