Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Kshitij Lauria '13: Engine of change

On April 6, Brown faculty will vote on a two-year-old proposal to dignify Brown's Division of Engineering with the title "School" and other ancillary benefits. If this happens — and the Corporation backs it up with its cash and blessing — Brown Engineering will get 12 new faculty members, a new building (or 35 percent thereof) and, best of all, lots of new toys to play with (even better than what the physics guys have). This would follow the establishment of new schools of engineering at Yale and Harvard in 2007 and 2008, and interim Dean of the Division of Engineering Rodney Clifton even cited these events in his pitch to the faculty forum that met on March 9 to discuss the issue.

Given the circumstances, the Brown community needs to examine the reasons for this change and make sure it goes beyond being a costly game of keeping up with the Joneses. In the absence of other solid reasons for the move, I suggest that the price tag is a little too high.

Between five and seven percent of Brown undergraduates are engineers, although engineering was listed as the top prospective concentration among the admitted class of 2013, with 155 (about ten percent) students declaring it their first choice. Immediately we notice the very high attrition rate, attributable largely to the demanding schedule of an engineering major. At least in this regard, an infrastructure upgrade is a very good idea: it helps people who are at the margin of decision make a better choice and improves the quality of life of engineering students.

As engineering becomes a more attractive choice for Brown students, we might expect not only a greater proportion of engineers among Brown undergraduates, but a greater proportion of prospective engineers among applicants to Brown. Some people who have been on the fence about going to Brown to become engineers would be convinced, and admissions, in their endless task of social engineering, would have a better pool with which to work.

Conducting research in the sciences in general, and engineering in particular, has a powerful "critical mass" effect: there comes a point when a department is large and varied enough that the volume and quality of highly collaborative research takes off, which increases its standing and thus attracts even more faculty and students. If the proposed upgrade pushes Brown engineering beyond this critical mass, we would have gained hugely from a comparatively small expenditure of resources.

Engineering is also a high-visibility field that gets big grants and political attention; pushing it beyond critical mass could turn it into a money-maker for the University and benefit every department. Since engineering is interdisciplinary by its nature, the trickle-down benefits would go beyond mere funding: collaboration between engineers and other departments could lead to research in related fields like applied math, physics, and computer science.

Of course, none of this is a particularly strong argument for turning the Division of Engineering into a school, instead of just increasing the Division's budget. Engineering is unique among academic disciplines in that it consists of several closely-related but essentially distinct departments. Indeed, most schools have separate departments for electrical, mechanical, chemical, civil, aerospace and other forms of engineering. One immediate benefit of having separate engineering departments would be saner, more streamlined concentration requirements for each branch. Another is that each department is taken more seriously by both funding institutions and industry, and students that are particularly interested in a specific branch can make more informed choices.

However, there are downsides. The first casualty of a badly planned upgrade could be the integrity of the open curriculum and the academic atmosphere it fosters. Math-oriented students can be insular in their course choices (as a math person, I can testify that I'm not immune to the temptation) and a separate school of engineering lends legitimacy to that tendency. Distribution requirements are evil and must be avoided at all costs, but the problem they set out to solve is real.

By consolidating engineering into a school, we also consolidate political and financial clout, although whether this is good or bad is debatable. It puts institutional resources into courses and infrastructure that are largely inaccessible to non-engineers. This is why it would be great if administrators kept this in mind and compensated by introducing courses that even non-engineers can enjoy.

I like the idea of engineering. Being useful is the point of engineering, and I think it's a good idea for Brown to do more of it, even given the financial situation. Wouldn't you want a Brown grad designing your computers, bridges and spacecraft?

Kshitij Lauria '13 thinks math is cooler than engineering, though.


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.