With its 150th birthday just a year away, the Yale Faculty of Engineering is hoping to begin a new era of success and stability and move forward after its tumultuous past.
In 1861, Yale was at the forefront of engineering education, making history by awarding the first engineering doctorate to Josiah Willard Gibbs. But since then, much has changed.
As a result of a series of destabilizing structural changes in the past 50 years, Yale engineering took a tumble from the storied days of its inception. But with a renewed commitment to science on behalf of the University, the Faculty of Engineering is attempting to recapture national prominence.
In his first “State of Engineering” letter to alumni, new Faculty of Engineering Dean Paul Fleury said that “as one of the world’s premier universities, Yale simply must have absolutely first-rate science and engineering.”
Yale Engineering revived?
To this end, Fleury, in his first six months as dean, has engaged in an aggressive recruiting strategy, netting top engineers such as Michele DeVoret of France and Mark Saltzman of Cornell University. The acquisition of senior faculty members like these two is one key to establishing Yale as leader in engineering, Fleury said.
In addition, the Applied Physics Department’s three junior professors — Charles Ahn, Bob Grober and Robert Schoelkopf — are all currently Packard Fellows. Each year, the Packard Foundation honors the most promising young engineering professors in the nation. Yale is one of only three institutions with three active Packard Fellows.
Also, a new building for the Biomedical Engineering Program is set for groundbreaking this year and completion in 2004, just another example of what Fleury calls an opportunity to transform a vision of a nationally prominent engineering program into reality.
Fleury said in the letter that Yale Engineering needs to “instill in all Yale students the conviction that a modern liberal education necessarily requires a fluency in science and technology.”
Despite the new building and the recent faculty hires, Yale engineering was recently ranked 41st by U.S. News and World Report. One of the program’s most problematic aspects has been the limited size of Yale’s Engineering faculty.
“We certainly suffer in the rankings because of our small size, but if you look at the quality of research, studies by neutral scientific institutes have found that Yale engineering does very well,” Yale President Richard Levin said, referring to the fact that articles by Yale engineers are among the most cited in engineering publications.
Having a small, often-unheralded engineering program has affected not only rankings, but also undergraduate admissions.
Princeton University student Jennifer Huang said she did not apply to Yale because she thought the engineering department was weak.
“Engineering played a big role in my application process,” Huang said. “I wanted to go to an Ivy, but I wanted one with a strong engineering program. That’s why I didn’t apply to Yale.”
What’s in a name?
The Faculty of Engineering and Dean Fleury not only want to elevate the program’s reputation nationally but within the University as well.
Currently, the structure of Engineering at Yale is a unique one. The Faculty of Engineering is an umbrella organization that comprises four departments — Applied Physics, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering — and two programs, Biomedical Engineering and Environmental Engineering.
Unlike many other top engineering institutions such as Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, or the University of California at Berkeley, the Faculty of Engineering is not its own school. Instead, it forms a part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Levin said this integration has been beneficial for both Yale College and the engineering program.
“I think it is a model that has certainly worked well at Yale,” Levin said. “The interaction with arts and sciences helps us attract students to engineering who are seeking a general education alongside engineering. It has traditionally been a strong combination.”
Jennifer Michelstein ’03 said it was precisely this relationship that persuaded her to come to Yale.
“One of the strongest parts of the program is that we study engineering in a liberal arts context,” Michelstein said. “That’s one of the reasons I came to Yale. Unlike tech schools, I’d have the opportunity to take courses in the humanities too.”
At other major engineering institutions, the restrictive nature of engineering has been a source of complaint for students, even leading some to pursue other academic goals.
Penn student Neha Bansal said she decided to leave the school of engineering because her academic opportunities were restricted.
“[Engineering] has a very rigid schedule,” Bansal said. “And that really disappointed me because now is the time when I should be exploring things. With engineering, it was really hard to do that.”
But James Duncan, director of undergraduate studies for Biomedical Engineering, said he feels the Faculty of Engineering would function more efficiently as a larger, more autonomous school.
“Within the Yale context, [the Faculty of Engineering] has been working OK to some extent,” Duncan said. “But I think most of us would like to see it grow to a school of engineering.”
If the Faculty of Engineering were to become a school, something Fleury says is not imminent but is frequently mentioned as a possibility, the change would likely entail increased autonomy and significant administrative restructuring.
“Whether calling our program a school, a faculty, a division, a council, that’s not anywhere near as important as having substance to the program,” Fleury said.
David Auslander, associate dean in the College of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, echoed Fleury’s comments by saying that the way programs are viewed by outside institutions is based on the strength of those programs, not their administrative structure.
Edward Stewart ’03 said that, although he values the intimate contact of the engineering program, an expansion could be beneficial for Yale engineering.
“If there were more students, that would generate a little more pressure on the professors to pay more attention to their classes,” Stewart said.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said changing the structure of the engineering program would not necessarily make it stronger.
“The way you build a healthy engineering faculty is not by tinkering endlessly with the administrative structure but by hiring excellent faculty, having them do great teaching, and giving them sufficient resources,” Brodhead said.
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