U. aims to expand professional schools

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Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

In the coming months, administrators will put the finishing touches on a strategic plan to guide Brown through President Christina Paxson’s tenure. The University is slated to proceed with a number of expansion projects in a push that predates Paxson’s arrival.

Graduating seniors have seen considerable changes in the University’s professional schools in the last four years. The School of Engineering was formally established in 2010, and Alpert Medical School moved to its new home in the Jewelry District in 2011. The School of Engineering announced in April a $160 million campaign to expand its program and facilities, and the School of Public Health will open in July.

Though former President Henry Wriston was vehemently opposed to professional schools, arguing that they inadequately teach critical thinking skills, many current University officials said the goals of recent expansion and increased professionalism are squarely in line with the University’s mission, which includes the objective of serving a larger community and living “life with usefulness and reputation.”

Increased investments in public health and engineering will particularly allow the University to make an impact, largely through research, and meet rising student interest in those fields, said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15. “They both represent areas of opportunity where we can build on strength in an area where there is societal need,” he said.

Promoting public health

The program’s transformation into a School of Public Health has generated a “reputational boost” to the program, said Terrie Wetle, associate dean of medicine for public health and public policy. Wetle, who will become the school’s inaugural dean in July, said local and national organizations have increasingly reached out to the program to initiate collaboration.

The public health program has seen increased interest both at the undergraduate and graduate levels after the Corporation’s approval of the school, Wetle said, adding that she expects the student applicant growth rate to increase in coming years. Though faculty size, programs offered and research centers have seen a “growth spurt” in recent years, such expansions may slow due to changes in funding, Wetle said.

The opening of the school will represent the culmination of a decade-long effort, during which Wetle has spent considerable time speaking to administrators about how a school of public health would fit into the “culture and ethos of Brown,” she said.

The intent of public health includes a focus on serving the community, Wetle said, tying the school’s goals directly to the University’s mission. The program has emphasized student independence in developing career tracks, and students and faculty collaborate on interdisciplinary research across the University, she added.

More than two-thirds of students and faculty approve of the creation of the School of Public Health, according to Herald polls conducted this spring.

In coming years, the school will continue its fundraising efforts, Wetle said, adding that there is currently a naming opportunity available for the school.

The program is currently located at 121 South Main Street, a building that the University purchased in 2005. The location — halfway between the University’s main campus and the Med School — is “quite strategically valuable” for collaborative purposes, said Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy.

Expansion of engineering

Though the establishment of a School of Engineering in 2010 mostly represented a name change, the proposal also included plans for expanding the program, enabling the school to be “more effective and more competitive,” Carey said.

The school received $44 million in gifts, launching a campaign to expand the engineering program. The University is planning to build additional engineering facilities on College Hill, but it needs to raise $80 million before selecting an architect and planning the construction in more detail, Carey said.

New facilities will likely be located near Barus and Holley, the school’s current home, Schlissel said. Construction will likely involve “a series of smaller, connected buildings” rather than “some big monolith,” he said, adding that some buildings in the area might need to be relocated. “The idea is to make that corner of the campus the engineering and physical sciences corner,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel said the decision to keep engineering on College Hill was largely based on the needs of undergraduate engineering students. Though he initially expected the University to select a downtown district for the expanded facilities, data from Sasaki Associates — a design firm hired to aid the strategic planning process — revealed that engineering students take classes in a wide variety of disciplines and that moving facilities to the Jewelry District could hamper their ability to do so, Schlissel said.

The growth of the school underscores the University’s desire for Brown to be “a global university with great impact,” said Lawrence Larson, dean of the School of Engineering.

Students are also heavily drawn to engineering because of the employment opportunities available to those with an engineering degree, Schlissel said.

The campaign will affect student learning primarily through continuing changes to introductory classes, including an increased emphasis on hands-on projects, Larson said.

Fundraising will also allow the school to expand particular areas, such as its biomedical engineering program, Larson said. Since 2000, biomedical engineering has represented one of the largest engineering concentrations, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research.

Given the limited number of upper-level courses currently offered in biomedical engineering, an enhanced program will help students understand what they can do with a degree in the field, said Kohana Leuba ’14, co-president of Brown’s Biomedical Engineering Society. “That’s hard to see when you only have a few options.”

An increase in the number of biomedical engineering faculty members will also provide upperclassmen with increased research opportunities, Leuba said, adding that the school has already hired three new faculty members to start this fall.

Continuing to grow

Though the School of Engineering will remain on College Hill, the University is still looking to increase its presence in the Jewelry District, Carey said. Though there are roughly 1,000 University-affiliated individuals located downtown, many people consider the area to be an “empty space,” he added.

Start-up companies want to be situated near knowledge-based organizations, Carey said, and the University has already made efforts to expand its research facilities at the Med School and 70 Ship Street. Several administrative offices have moved downtown as well — the Office of Admission began transitioning to its new location on Dyer Street this month.

Paxson’s finalized strategic plan, due to be presented to the Corporation in the fall, will likely address future expansion in the Jewelry District. During this year’s planning process, the Committee on Reimagining the Brown Campus and Community did not make many recommendations for potential facilities in the Jewelry District, though the group did suggest a new home for the University’s orchestra as one possible option. In its interim report, the committee also emphasized the need for an easy transportation system between the College Hill campus and the Jewelry District, a point that Larson emphasized in discussing the potential for engineering collaborations with groups downtown.

Schlissel pointed to research in the brain sciences as another possible subject area for growth in the near future. The University has recently committed seven positions for brain sciences faculty, reflecting increased investment in the Brown Institute for Brain Sciences — a group comprising faculty in neuroscience, computer science, engineering and cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, as well as several of the Med School’s clinical departments.

“Hopefully when we develop ideas for the next big fundraising campaign, we’ll feature prominently the goal to build a brain science building,” Schlissel said, adding that it is too early to know if it would be located on College Hill or in the Jewelry District. Paxson is widely expected to launch a capital campaign following the announcement of her strategic plan, The Herald reported in March.

The University originally planned to build a $69 million Mind Brain Behavior building that would coincide with the merger of the Department of Psychology and the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences, but the plan was abandoned in 2009 due to economic constraints. Instead, Metcalf Research Laboratory was renovated to house the combined department, The Herald reported in 2010.

The University has also increased its focus on humanities initiatives in recent years. “Humanities are as important as anything else that we do,” Schlissel said, but “the types of investment one needs to be successful in the humanities are very different from the types of investment you need to be successful in engineering or science.”

Schlissel noted the particular resources necessary for success in the humanities include strong graduate students and travel funding, instead of expensive equipment.

The strategic plan will also incorporate a set of signature initiatives — areas of societal interest on which faculty from a variety of departments can collaborate. These initiatives, which are expected to be announced as part of Paxson’s strategic plan, will largely inform University expansion, Carey said.