"Engineering is an area of study we no longer wish to be involved in."
--Tulane Provost Lester Lefton

Program's return to Tulane sought;
Students, alumni say engineering needed
January 14, 2006

A few thousand Tulane University students and alumni want the private college to restore its core engineering programs, saying builders and planners are critical to reviving New Orleans.

Civil, mechanical and electrical engineering plus other programs fell to the ax in a hurricane-related overhaul university leaders unveiled last month over the protests of many tied to the engineering school.

Tulane officials said Friday that the programs were small and were not competing at a national level as well as other disciplines taught at the private university.

Detractors argue the decision deprives students of a chance to help in a time of crisis and will cost the state money when it has to bring in outside engineers to fulfill recovery contracts.

Well-trained engineers have been in short supply in recent years, said Ken Nelson head of one of New Orleansís largest engineering firms, Waldemar S. Nelson & Co.

"Even before the storm and before Tulane canceled its program, we were having to look far and wide for engineers," Nelson said. "It just seems to fly in the face of reason to cancel these particular programs at a time when thereís so much need for them."

Citing up to $250 million in damage and another $100 million in revenue loss, Tulane cut about 500 faculty and staff in the months following Hurricane Katrina.

At the same time Scott Cowen, university president, pushed a plan to remodel the undergraduate school, cut eight sports teams and scratch eight of 10 engineering school programs.

Only the oil industry-related chemical engineering and the highly ranked biomedical engineering programs survived.

Currently enrolled sophomores and above will be able to finish their degrees. But no fall 2007 applications will be accepted into the scrapped departments, and the cuts leave about 60 freshmen in limbo, according to Lester Lefton, provost and a vice president at the university.

"The board decided these programs Ö were not in the best long-term interest of the institution," Lefton said. "The board was unhappy, indeed distressed," about the decision.

Tulaneís supervising board has taken action, would-be engineering students have been turned away and admissions materials have been edited, Lefton said.

In other words: the decision is final, he said.

But more than 3,000 students and alumni have signaled support for a campaign by the Save Tulane Engineering organization, which continues to fight to change the schoolís mind.

Dave OíReilly, a civil engineering student pursuing his doctorate, is leading the crusade and doubts the financial necessity for cutting the programs was as great as Tulane leaders say.

The New Orleans institution kept much of the fall tuition that displaced students paid before the storm, and about 88 percent of its student body returned for the spring semester, according to several university sources.

Plus, some of the damages will be covered by insurance, though Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker could not say how large a portion. Strecker also said President Cowen could not return phone calls Friday because of a busy schedule.

"The hurricane was an excuse to implement an agenda that was in the making for a while," OíReilly said. "It doesnít make any sense otherwise."

"Strategic" is the word of choice among Tulane officials describing the cuts. Engineering had to go, they say, because it doesnít fit into the new vision for the well-respected research university.

Programs that werenít nationally ranked — or wouldnít be soon — were dropped, Strecker said.

The small size of Tulaneís scrapped engineering programs — a total of 29 faculty, 400 undergraduates and 120 graduate students — kept them from competing with highly regarded peers three and four times their size, officials say.

If anything, a building project the size of a levee system for New Orleans could have turned that around, said Larry Wink, president and CEO of Wink Companies, the second largest engineering firm in the city.

"If you look down the tube far enough, thereís going to be great interest, attracting bright minds who want to be on location," Wink, an alumnus, said. "Itís like having your laboratory right there in your back yard."

Local engineering graduates are more familiar with New Orleansís building challenges, such as temperamental soil and hurricanes, Nelson said.

He met a batch of enthusiastic Tulane engineering students at a gas station just a few weeks after the storm and spoke with them about returning.

A student said "this is such a great opportunity to help put civilization back together again," according to Nelson. "Itís stepping on puppies to crush the hopes of a kid with an attitude like that. It just seems so inherently wrong."

But one project — even a large one — is not enough to build a program around, Provost Lefton said.

"You donít develop a program to fix a problem for tomorrow. You develop a program to build a national reputation in the long run," Lefton said. "Engineering is an area of study we no longer wish to be involved in."

Copyright 2006, The Advocate, Capital City Press LLC

On June 30, 2007 Tulane University quietly closed its Civil Engineering Department.
  • Katherine Kleinpeter Raymond, "Engineers built foundation," The Times-Picayune [Letter], New Orleans, July 5, 2007, Metro, p. 6.

From: The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Lousiana, http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/2201087.html, accessed 01/14/06.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.