The following letter by a Tulane mechanical engineering student to the Tulane Board of Administrators was posted March 10, 2006 on the Save Tulane Engineering Forum Weblog.*

My Letter to the Board of Administrators
Dear [Board Member],

My name is Clay Kirby. I've been a part of the Tulane community ever since I was born. I remember going to Tulane-LSU baseball games when I was five years old and yelling, "LSU stinks like poo; Put those tigers in the zoo!" I originally wanted to go to Georgia Tech or the Naval Academy for college, but I changed my mind and came to Tulane. I'm so glad I changed my mind. I've been happy at Tulane ever since. I love Tulane.

I'm a good friend of Dr. John Karlem "Ducky" Riess, who is more of a Tulane institution than the buildings at Tulane. I've known Ducky since I was born. Dr. Riess was key in convincing me to come to Tulane. I am the one who chaperoned Dr. Riess to commencement the last few years. At the last commencement exercise, he leaned over to me and said he wished he could die right there, because then he would die happy. Over the summer, his health really started to fade, but I visited him almost every week.

Unfortunately, Ducky passed away in the aftermath of Katrina. The way he died still haunts me. I called everyone under the sun to find where he had been evacuated to, only to find out he was at the Caddo Parish Coroner's office. I had the regrettable task of telling his sister that Ducky was dead. I served as a pall-bearer at his funeral. Tulane has lost a valuable member of its community.

I will soon take my role as an engineer protecting the future of this great city I call home. But first, I, along with other engineering students, faculty, alumni, and friends, will prevent Tulane from doing something that will cause as much harm to the long-term health of the city and Tulane as the engineers who constructed the 17th Street Canal.

Engineering is absolutely crucial to the long-term survival of New Orleans. Without Tulane importing good engineers from across the nation, New Orleans will succumb to the natural forces of coastal erosion, subsidence, wetland loss, etc. Your decision shows a total lack of understanding and lack of respect for the forces arrayed against New Orleans. Your decision amounts to nothing less than a blow to the city of New Orleans. Tulane's School of Engineering has a chance to become an internationally renowned center for coastal restoration, wetland restoration, and flood protection like it was when Albert Baldwin Wood graduated.

Some have asserted that Tulane's engineering program was too small to make a difference. I believe that couldn't be further from the truth. It's precisely because of the small size that Tulane engineering has produced so many quality graduates who have made a real, lasting difference in New Orleans and all over the world. Albert Baldwin Wood. Robert Boh. Waldemar Nelson. The list goes on and on. Many of you personally know some of the engineers I'm talking about. You know what they've done for this city. It's because of the excellent undergraduate engineering education they received at Tulane. The small class sizes and intimate nature of the small-sized engineering school have been key factors in their education.

Engineering has also been a magnet to attract the best and brightest students to Tulane. Nine out of the past ten years, engineering has had the highest average SAT score of any academic unit at Tulane (Newcomb is a close second). Even students who aren't in engineering are attracted to schools with strong engineering programs, and make no mistake—Tulane's programs are very strong. In my department (mechanical engineering), professors generated an average of $225,000 in grant money per professor. That put them ahead of many other nationally prominent programs including Rice, Vanderbilt, and Duke. Don't forget that, because of Tulane's 48.5% tax on all incoming grants, they generated a lot of money for the university. And given all the grant money that's being handed out to local universities to study the effects of Katrina, that amount would only increase. One of my favorite professors, Dr. Calvin Mackie, was even part of the group that toured the levees in the Netherlands with the Louisiana congressional delegation.

On a personal note, I know every one of my professors, and every one of them knows me. Not just my name, but they actually know who I am and care about me. The School of Engineering is so small that I know almost every student in the entire senior class. At almost all other engineering schools, students are numbers who can't even get the time of day from the faculty.

It is also because of the small size of the programs that the financial savings resulting from the elimination of the core engineering programs is actually quite small. According to the university senate, the total savings from all engineering programs is only $6.1 million a year out of a total university budget of well over half a billion dollars, and even that savings won't even be fully realized until 2008. We're really talking about 1% of the budget here. According to statements made at a recent public appearance by the President, the savings are even less than that. When those savings are arrayed against other factors, including the donation rate of engineering graduates, the loss of prestige, the grant money engineering could be pulling in as a result of Katrina, and the very real possibility of various legal challenges, I believe the elimination of engineering will be more costly to Tulane than its preservation. I believe that implementing the Renewal Plan in its current form would kill Tulane University.

One problem you might not be aware of is the impending faculty exodus. Before the Renewal Plan was announced, only one professor wasn't returning. The Renewal Plan and the way it was carried out constitutes a betrayal of trust by the university towards the faculty. Within days of the Renewal Plan's announcement, 10 faculty announced they weren't returning. Currently, the count stands at more than 40. The administration has estimated that 10 percent of the faculty will leave before the start of the fall semester. The faculty that are leaving are among the stars of the university. The best professors are the ones most likely to get new jobs. What will happen if the biggest grant producers for the university leave? Just put yourself in the shoes of the students who are seeing their favorite faculty vote no confidence with their feet. What are the students to think? If the faculty exodus continues at the current pace, it will cause massive numbers of students to withdraw and go on to other universities. Other universities are seeking to poach Tulane of professors and students. Some, including Johns Hopkins, have been quite open in their attempts to poach students and faculty. I have several friends who have been contacted about transferring out of Tulane, and they are all seriously considering leaving Tulane. Unless the board takes decisive action, this board could go down as "the board that killed Tulane."

It's a shame Ducky isn't with us anymore. You might not be aware of this, but Dr. Riess was a huge supporter of the engineering school. His father was a civil engineering graduate who constructed the home that protected Ducky from the worst ravages of the storm. Knowing Dr. Riess for almost 22 years, I can safely say that, even in the bedridden state he was in just before Katrina, he'd be writing a very similar letter to each and every board member.

Fortunately, I'm just as stubborn as Dr. Riess. I've been fighting the Renewal Plan ever since I first learned about it, and I don't plan on giving up anytime soon. There is always another way, and I will help you come up with alternatives. No plan, especially the Renewal Plan, is perfect. There's always another way. Even if you do not reinstate engineering, I call on the board to use the breathing room the reopening of Tulane has bought them to pause and really sit down and think about the entire Renewal Plan. Let's do this the right way. From everything I've read, seen, and heard, I believe this move was based on worst-case projections made in October and November and doesn't incorporate enough new data on the current state of affairs. I would love to see the entire Renewal Plan reviewed in detail with all of the facts by a panel of faculty, students, alumni, and board members. Let's just sit down, go through the plan piece by piece, and see what parts need to be kept, what needs to be altered, and what parts need to be reversed.

I will now close this letter with a story from my minister's recent sermon.

The Southern Live Oak, Quercus virginiana. We enjoy their shade, but we don't truly appreciate them. Oaks have evolved over millions of years to resist rot, fire, wind, water, flood, and even hurricanes. Oaks are a symbol of durability. We need to give thanks to the people that planted these trees. They never lived to enjoy their shade. It takes 50 years for an oak tree to mature. Planting an oak tree is nothing less than an act of faith in the future. Oak trees are the anti-quick fix.

Recently, Tulane has adopted a policy of not planting oak trees. They're a constant headache for maintenance. They tear up sidewalks and attack foundations. But the biggest reason Tulane doesn't plant them anymore is they don't have an immediate payoff. The landscaping people would rather plant a few weed-like trees and move on.

Please, plant oak trees. And I'm not just talking about the ones made of wood.


William Clay Kirby
4th generation Tulanian
11th generation New Orleanian
Mechanical Engineering Class of 2006

*William Clay Kirby graduated on May 13, 2006 from Tulane University as a mechanical engineering major and history minor.  His letter was taken from, accessed 06/07/06.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.