In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Organizing Academic Engineering for Leading in an Entangled World

Monday, February 8, 2021

Author: Robert A. Brown and Kenneth Lutchen

The world and engineering were simpler half a century ago when The Bridge published its first edition, just a few years after the founding of the National Academy of Engineering. The world was less globalized, less connected; only a few countries competed for global economic preeminence. All this has changed. Most recently, covid-19 has laid bare the extent of global entanglement for good or (literally) ill.

We believe it is time for academic engineers to think critically about whether the organizational structures of the last century are appropriate for educational and research challenges going forward. It is time to begin to create the structures and organizations that will best serve students, schools, the engineering community, and the country throughout and beyond this century.

Academic Tradition and Its Challenges

Engineering disciplines are organized around industries established at the beginning of the last century, with the engineering science paradigm just beginning to take hold at the time of The Bridge’s first publication. Discipline-specific engineering departments traditionally exercise primary responsibility for curricula, faculty hiring and retention, and definition of the requisite research and professional expertise of the faculty, with only weak coupling to the rest of the university.

Engineering departments are interconnected among universities by professional societies, which helped form the labor market for young faculty; they are less relevant in the world of online job postings and Zoom interviews. Accreditation of academic programs, originally put in place to establish minimal national standards for the professional disciplines, accomplishes this goal, but makes difficult—or actually discourages—academic innovation and effectively enforces disciplinary differentiation.

We propose a model for colleges of engineering built for the more complex and more convergent future.

For decades, academic and industrial leaders have talked about two defects in the academic engineering structure: (1) the slow rate of curricular change within disciplines, hindering the ability to keep pace with -rapidly changing science, technology, societal needs, and greater complexity; and (2) obstacles that inhere in traditional departmentally based hiring, promotion, and reward structures and discourage faculty from moving outside their disciplines.

Over the last 50 years, interdisciplinary units have been established at universities with the aim of bridging disciplines and creating spaces for collaborations (see Klein 2010). Although there are many examples of successful interdisciplinary centers, we assert that they have been only partially successful. The centers largely remain decoupled from the curriculum and faculty hiring domains of academic departments and, hence, to a large degree, the defects described above remain.

Reorganizing to Move Forward

It is time to experiment with systemic change in academic structures. Departments should continue as organizational homes for faculty and students, especially undergraduates, but with radically increased porosity in the boundaries among disciplines. We propose a model for the college of engineering built for the more complex and more convergent future.

There have been many calls to action in the past. Recognizing the emerging interfaces among life sciences, physical science, and mathematics, an expert report (NRC 2014) called for a problem-solving approach, convergence, that cuts across traditional boundaries to form a comprehensive synthetic framework for tackling large, complex scientific and societal challenges. The report cited the need to create a culture that transcends disciplines and integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking. However, even while identifying the same obstacles as have others—administrative barriers, promotion and tenure policies, faculty recruiting practices, and even the allocation of grant cost recovery dollars—the report offered no structural solutions. Most academic institutions have not yet been able or willing to reorganize themselves to align with the concept and potential power of convergence.

We suggest a new approach that recognizes the functional utility of disciplines but reduces their exclusive and independent roles in faculty hiring and promotion and in graduate and undergraduate education. Overlaid on the departmental structure would be convergent research initiatives that, by agreement, constitute the strategic focuses of the engineering college (which often need to align with those of the university).

In this organization, faculty hiring and resource allocation would be based on a collective evaluation of the college’s needs for teaching, requirements for the strategic research areas, and the needs for foundational excellence in core areas that may or may not be represented in the convergent research areas. The weight accorded each faculty search may vary, but the overarching goal is to elevate the strategy of the college—and perhaps the university—to be on an equal footing with perceived disciplinary needs.

Making It Work

Myriad process and organizational issues must be addressed to make such a system work. Faculty would not necessarily be appointed in only a single department, so their promotion and tenure processes would need coordination and oversight from outside the department, possibly by an associate dean for faculty. The process for determining convergent themes has to be carefully considered so that legacy research thrusts don’t become new versions of antiquated departmental structures. This requires formal review processes for the research themes and hard decisions.

The College of Engineering at Boston University is pushing in this new direction. Already organized in only three relatively large departments, the college is adopting processes that will lower departmental boundaries and push to the forefront a set of agreed-on convergent research themes. The college’s leadership structure, faculty hiring, and tenure and promotion processes are being realigned for a college faculty that is more seamlessly integrated across traditional boundaries.

What will success look like? We envision a college faculty less constrained by department structure and more focused on collaborations that address major technological and societal problems and opportunities. We believe our college will be a more exciting place to be a bright, ambitious student or faculty member in the years ahead.

References

Klein JT. 2010. Creating Interdisciplinary Campus Cultures. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

NRC [National Research Council]. 2014. Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington: National Academies Press.

 

This essay was distilled from a longer manuscript by R.A. Brown.

About the Author:Robert Brown (NAE) is president of Boston University, where Kenneth Lutchen is dean of the College of Engineering.