Donald O. Parsons: Close the engineering school

The administration’s attempt to buy out almost 50 percent of the School of Engineering and Applied Science faculty begs the question of whether the buyouts should be extended to all faculty and the operation closed down. The most remarkable aspect of the buyout is its breadth – one half of the faculty. As The Hatchet has reported, all faculty members who came before 1994 received an offer to encourage their quick departure. This does not mean the administration would like to part with every engineer in the targeted group, but that the cohorts of professors who came to GW before 1994 on average have projected greater costs than benefits. In a standard academic career, the 1993 deadline is a relatively recent time. A new assistant professor is unlikely to be awarded a full professorship in less than 12 years. Most take longer.

Is this bleak judgment of SEAS rooted in reality? Casual evidence does come down on the administration’s side. The GW community may lament undergrad rankings in the low to mid-50s, but the latest US News and World Report ratings place the GW undergraduate engineering program as tied for 95th with six other schools among the 101 schools with Ph.D. programs that were rated. As a graduate engineering program, GW is unranked. It is one of the approximately 100 engineering graduate schools not in the top 95, but we can say no more.

In one of his many reflections upon stepping down as president, then-President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg claimed that his decision not to close the engineering school was one of his best. Even at the time, that struck me as unusually and uncharacteristically modest of him. The school has been a large drain on the tuition payments of GW students in more successful programs. The school chronically struggles with its undergraduate enrollments despite enormous subsidies. In 2007, undergraduate engineers received financial aid at almost double the rate of other students, with tuition “discounted” at 46 percent versus the 28 percent for undergraduates as a whole. Presumably the remainder of their expenses was absorbed by students in the other schools. It is no accident that CCAS cannot afford adequate professional advising without the miraculous intervention of the Innovation Task Force.

Proposing to release half your faculty is a tough assignment for a new dean, as is deciding what to do next. Dean David Dolling arrived on campus two years ago full of enthusiasm for the “industrial park” model of the proposed Science and Engineering Complex, announcing at an early Faculty Senate committee meeting that engineers no longer had specialty areas; they went wherever the money was. He has since perhaps come to realize that donors are less excited about industrial parks than deans are to lead them, and he began to articulate a more focused mission for the school. At a recent senate meeting, he reported that cyber security and high speed computing are strengths SEAS can build on, and indeed he has taken steps to revive the Cyber Security Institute.

A new SEAS with a cyber security and high speed computing focus will at least make fewer demands on lab space, which may delight my science colleagues should the SEC be built. Despite the potential space savings of this new mission, it seems appropriate to ask a deeper question – is it not time to close SEAS entirely? The administration first proposed to scrap the engineering school building, then it proposed to scrap its faculty. Maybe it is time to scrap its administrators and be done with it. SEAS may be struggling because of the educational planning failures of the past, but it is just as likely that engineering is a poor fit for a law and social science-driven university four blocks from the White House. In these financially difficult times, it makes sense to focus resources on the University’s strengths.

The writer is a professor of economics.

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