One of the fascinating things about a University is the teeming, amoeboid dynamism of the place. There are powerful, brilliant, enthusiastic people pulling the citadel in all directions of human study: arts, letters, sciences and applied disciplines. So for a rapidly rising University with constrained resources, the question becomes 'Where is the low-hanging fruit? What should we focus on first?' After thinking about it for several years, I think we should focus on engineering.

A disclaimer: the Dean of Engineering is a good friend, and we get together on a frequent basis. Having said that, he did not encourage me to write this, and most of the ideas here are mine, although obviously some of our conversations informed my thinking.

Beyond that, I'm a biologist, and biology interests me more than engineering. More interesting than either of those, however, are the letters, particularly foreign languages. If I could hang around Georgia Tech's engineering and biology programs, or Michigan's department of foreign languages, I'd choose the latter.

I support engineering because I think it's the quickest way to build UL all across the campus, and the quickest way to build Lafayette, Acadiana, and Louisiana.

The first reason for my opinion is the calibre of students in engineering. There is a joke in medicine, "What do you call the person who graduates last in his medical school class?

"Doctor."

Part of the humor here is that the 'worst' student in medical school is still a very bright student. It is only in comparison to his even brighter classmates that a doctor could be dubbed academically ‘inferior’.

The same thing can be said about engineers. With the exception of the hard sciences, the weakest engineering graduate is brighter than the average student in most other disciplines. As a consequence, when those stronger engineering students enroll they advance the average entrance metrics on campus, which will boost UL in the national rankings (vide infra). They will also raise the bar in all of the courses they take, and elevate the level of scholarship across the University.

The second reason is closely tied to the first. The students who find that they can’t cut it in engineering are generally still very strong students, and so they strengthen whatever majors they transfer into. Engineering freshman have some of the highest graduation rates on campus, whether they finish in engineering or not.

The third reason is the collateral recruiting effect engineering produces. As UL's ascending engineering program recruits more and better students, particularly from high schools which have not traditionally sent many graduates our way, we should enjoy some nice viral marketing. The fact that a strong student with a number of options chooses UL will make classmates, teachers and parents take a second look at us.

Fourth, engineering is critical to our research efforts. The 'Big 3' in research funding are medicine, agriculture and engineering. The NIRC gives us a very nice toe in the door for medical research, and we are always looking to expand that. But on the main campus, engineering is the one discipline that can quickly boost our research profile, while generating a nice overhead for the University overall.  With that, engineering's current push into biofuels gets us into agricultural research.

A fifth reason is that engineering strengthens UL’s science programs. Engineering students necessarily take advanced courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geology, so more engineering students require more faculty in those disciplines. Then because of the crossover between those disciplines and engineering, typically a fair number of engineering students find that they have a greater passion for one of those, and change majors.  This increases the number of majors and minors in those programs, which grows those faculty numbers even more. From there, the sciences enhance the University in many of the same ways that engineering does, through better students and more research funding.

The sixth reason is the interaction between engineering and colleges other than the sciences. Architecture, computer science, computer animation, graphic arts, and technology all depend on engineering.  Business integrates strongly with engineering: both have to solve problems within price and other strategic limitations, and much of business is the management of engineering processes, including mass production, computing, automation, packaging, transportation, and physical infrastructure.

The humanities are rich for interaction with engineering, in ways that are often underexploited. Engineers point out that since their designs need to solve social problems, it is important to have a wide diversity of viewpoints in engineering, and the letters provide that. A large swath of human history-- including pubic history, a UL emphasis-- is the history of engineering problems.

Nursing and medicine engage strongly with engineering. There is the obvious example of bioengineering, but I have often pointed out that engineering has saved many more lives than medicine has, because clean water and proper sewerage are much more important to human health than are the antibiotics, surgeries, and other medical responses necessary in the absence of those amenities. Similarly, the engineering contributions of roads, buildings, machines, fuels, and others greatly reduce or eliminate the need for humans to undertake dangerous and ruinous physical tasks, and elevate the general level of prosperity and health.

Education is a discipline that has not frequently worked much with engineering, but it should: engineering concepts are excellent vehicles for conveying a host of mathematical ad scientific concepts, and with a little effort could do so even more.

A seventh reason are donations. On average, engineering alumni are among the wealthiest coming out of the University, so investing in engineering today will produce enhanced donations in the future. But they will also produce more donations today: as our large population of engineering alumni become aware of the growing excellence in UL engineering, they will be more willing to contribute right away.

An eighth, summarizing reason that was touched on in the first point, is that all of the preceding will increase our standings in various rankings of higher education. Those in turn will then synergistically boost everything in the foregoing. It would be interesting to see rating and ranking data on campuses with an engineering emphasis vs. more general institutions, but certainly universities famous for engineering seem to be over-represented at the top of the USN&WR rankings: MIT, Cal Tech, Illinois, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Army, Navy, Air Force, and many others.

The last reason we should focus our resources on engineering is the critical role the discipline plays in the local and state economy. Engineers not only garner salaries that are well above average, fill critical mid-management positions, and design many of the solutions that increase productivity and profitability in all businesses, they also comprise a great deal of the entrepreneurs in any economy. So this last reason has a doubled impact: engineering helps our public University fulfil our mission, but a prominent engineering program also makes a very strong argument to our civic and government leaders as to why they need to be aggressive promoters of UL. That, in turn, will strengthen our political support, which will then increase funding for the entire University.

Joe Abraham is a local physician, and president and founder of the Acadiana Educational Endowment, which publishes ultoday.com, CajunFun.com, and booksXYZ.com.  To read more of his writing, click on his name, above.


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