Science and engineering faculty share enthusiasm about University investment plan
As the endowment grows and fundraising campaign progresses, Yale officials released plans for new science-focused hires and facilities on Tuesday morning.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
Since the University’s announcement of significant investments in STEM-related faculty and the formation of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as a distinct budgetary unit, faculty expressed excitement about the future of the sciences at Yale.
On Tuesday, the University announced a major wave of investments — primarily into science and engineering — over the next 10 years, including new faculty and facilities in both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and SEAS, which is set to gain autonomy from the FAS this July. In response, faculty members across scientific disciplines shared their excitement, noting that individual departmental gain will depend somewhat on the distribution of faculty hires.
“The increased emphasis on state-of-the-art facilities of the science departments is appreciated, and we hope it will allow us to compete with our peers,” Astronomy Department Chair Sarbani Basu wrote in an email to the News. “A lot will depend on how the new faculty slots are distributed to the departments.”
The Astronomy Department falls under the FAS division of science. FAS is currently fractioned into four categories: the sciences, social sciences, humanities and SEAS. However, per the investment announcement, SEAS will split from FAS in July, establishing its own faculty and budgetary operations. SEAS encompasses six departments: biomedical engineering, chemical and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering and materials science, electrical engineering, applied physics and computer science.
James Duncan, chair of the Biomedical Engineering Department, expressed excitement about SEAS’ upcoming independence.
“I think the autonomy given to SEAS now to invest in faculty recruiting and how the school is governed will be very helpful for our strategic planning and strategic goals,” Duncan told the News. “This is both where we want to be scientifically and academically as a faculty — in our research and teaching and academic areas. I think it’ll help create a more robust curriculum.”
Udo Schwarz, who chairs the department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, similarly discussed increased efficiency in SEAS.
In an email to the News, Schwarz specifically anticipated a reduction in administrative bureaucracy, noting the potential for “better, quicker, and more targeted planning.”
“Before, Chairs had to discuss with the Dean of Engineering, who, however, had to elevate things to FAS or the Provost’s Office, which unnecessarily complicated and extended the process and also had the effect that Chairs couldn’t directly plead their case with people empowered to decide the issues,” Schwarz wrote. “Good examples for this would be … negotiating startup packages for incoming new faculty or the allotment of new slots for searches. Hopefully much of this will become more streamlined and efficient.”
Schwarz is also enthusiastic about new faculty joining SEAS. The announcement explains that the University will hire 45 new faculty members — 30 in SEAS and 15 in the FAS.
University Provost Scott Strobel noted that while Yale College expanded in 2017 with the opening of two new residential colleges, the faculty was not expanded “beyond the size needed for teaching coverage.” He said this new investment wave is the University’s opportunity to do just that.
“I am most excited on the part of the announcement that SEAS will be enabled to increase its faculty size from the current 92 to 122,” Schwarz wrote. “MEMS is understaffed with respect to simply being able to cover all classes required for the curriculum, which is why we are every year hiring a good number of outside [lecturers] to help out. … Related, departmental rankings in national and international rankings such as US News are closely tied to faculty counts, so any increase in faculty numbers will allow us to move up in such rankings.”
Schwarz added that an increase in SEAS’ departmental rankings is important, as it can help attract top students to the school.
As in the announcement, Schwarz noted that the largest faculty increase is directed toward the Computer Science Department, so it is currently unknown how much other departments will be able to grow. He added, however, that enrollment of mechanical engineering majors is projected at an “all-time high” for the class of 2023. As such, he hopes that some of the new posts will be directed to help the department in “strengthening teaching and research in areas of relevance for student education.”
In addition to the benefits to SEAS, professors across the FAS divisions shared similar views.
Economics professor Giuseppe Moscarini wrote in an email to the News that the general faculty expansion is “vastly overdue” and has been discussed numerous times since the 2017 increase of the undergraduate student body size.
Moscarini also noted that economics has always been, and is increasingly, a data-intensive discipline. Per the announcement, about half of the 15 new faculty positions in FAS will go to data-intensive social science, in accordance with a committee report from last year.
In a similar vein, FAS Dean of Humanities Kathryn Lofton described the potential benefits that the disciplines under her purview stand to gain from the new investment in FAS faculty.
“This is a wonderful moment for growth in engineering and for the Humanities,” Lofton wrote to the News. “We are currently running more faculty searches than we have ever run in a single year in the Humanities, and have support from the Provost and President to do the same in the years ahead. The significant endowment returns make possible the expansion of the Humanities research faculty, the increase of their research support, and … strengthening the benefits and salaries for our superlative instructional faculty.”
In addition to the new hires, the investment will go toward new facilities projects. Per Tuesday’s announcement, the University is developing “a comprehensive renovation plan to be implemented over the next decade,” which will involve redesigning the buildings on lower Hillhouse Avenue.
While the specifics are still being determined, Basu and Duncan both shared positive remarks about the commitment to new facilities.
“As we recruit faculty, and we integrate with some of the interdisciplinary programs. … I expect that our faculty will need and have more lab space,” Duncan said. “I don’t think it’s been decided exactly who’s moving into the new buildings or anything yet fully, so whether it’s that or whether it’s just expanding into renovated versions of the current buildings — or improved versions — I think both are positive for us to have a … wider footprint and just to accommodate growth.”
Looking ahead, the University plans to open the Tobin Center for Economic Policy this year, which will be geared for faculty from the Economics Department. Ongoing renovations to Kline Tower, which will house the Statistics and Data Science, Mathematics and Astronomy departments as well as members of the Physics Department, will conclude next year. Construction of the Wu Tsai Institute, geared toward the FAS Psychology Department and School of Medicine’s Department of Neuroscience, is also ongoing. Additionally, the Physical Sciences and Engineering Building is set to open in 2027 and will house primarily SEAS faculty as well as members of the physics department, which is in FAS.
Wilhelm Schlag, who chairs the Mathematics Department, described his hopes for an expanded focus on and collaboration between mathematics and other disciplines. He noted that cutting-edge work in physics, engineering and other technical fields relies on strong mathematical foundations. Schlag added that the specifics are still in the works, given that the University announcement was earlier this week, but expressed his optimism moving forward.
“I am simply excited that Yale is making this commitment.” Schlag said. “I think it’s absolutely the right direction. … But don’t forget, ‘M’ in STEM is math, so how could math not play a central role in this? The specifics, of course, of how the math department — which, at the moment, is both pure and applied — the specifics of how we, as math faculty at Yale, will fit into this initiative … remains to be seen. It is not so easy to speak to that at the moment, but I will certainly be excited to hear about it and to the best of my ability, contribute to it.”
On a more personal note, Schlag also shared excitement at Brock — a fellow mathematics professor — specifically being tasked to lead SEAS in its new phase, noting that the two were, for a time, graduate students together at University of California, Berkeley.
SEAS’ disciplines were first grouped together under the “School of Engineering and Applied Sciences” moniker in 2008.
Clarification, March 7: This article’s headline has been adjusted to specifically note engineering faculty in addition to science faculty.