On 19 May, Brian Williams, the only major TV network news anchor to report live from New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will return to address Tulane University’s class of 2007. Among the 2000 graduates listening to the NBC newsman will be a group sharing an unwanted distinction. They will be the last Tulane students to earn degrees in computer science, electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering. The programs, say the administration, were jettisoned in the interest of keeping the rest of the New Orleans university afloat.
The remaining engineering disciplines--chemical and biomedical engineering--have been subsumed into a conglomeration being called the School of Science and Engineering. Many alumni feel the title is spurious. ”They can name the new school whatever they like,” says Michael Lockhart, a 1987 electrical engineering graduate. ”But they’re really fooling nobody. An engineering school without the most traditional core disciplines, such as mechanical, electrical, civil, and computer science, is like a business school that doesn’t offer majors in accounting, marketing, or finance.”
Nicholas J. Altiero, dean of the new Science and Engineering school, says the administration did the best it could under dire circumstances. ”Not everyone agrees with all the decisions that were made by the president and the board (and I expressed my disagreement when that announcement was made), but there is no doubt in my mind that their quick and decisive action saved our university.” Altiero is referring to the department closings, along with the dismissals of 230 faculty members and 2400 nonteaching personnel. The cuts are meant to reduce the operating budget, as the university faced an estimated US $200 million in recovery costs to restore its physical plant and, at the same time, a drop in revenues because of sagging enrollments.
Tulane’s engineering school has a rich history stretching back to 1894, when the College of Technology in New Orleans was formed. Naturally, Tulane’s engineering alumni are not pleased that the school is now defunct. Among the ranks of prominent alumni is Albert Baldwin Wood, an 1899 mechanical engineering graduate who invented the screw pump that made construction possible in the parts of New Orleans that are below sea level.
Another well-known alumnus is Yahoo cofounder David Filo, a 1988 computer science grad. In 2005, Filo and Netscape cofounder Jim Clark gave Tulane Engineering $60 million, the largest gift made in the school’s history.
Asked if there was more that the university could have done to keep the engineering school, John W. Holtgreve, a 1970 civil engineering graduate, said, ”I don’t know. I just know that I’m disappointed that the civil engineering school is no longer represented at Tulane” .
Other alums have even stronger feelings. ”Disappointment? My grade in heat transfer was disappointing,” recalls Elizabeth A. Bretz, a 1987 mechanical engineering graduate. ”I’m well beyond that.” Bretz, the acting managing editor of IEEE Spectrum, says she is angry that she’s received numerous pleas for money, ”but not a single letter of explanation from the administration.”
Vincent Provenza, a chemical engineering graduate who is on the engineering school’s board of advisors, says narrowing the school’s scope was absolutely necessary. But he acknowledges that that’s cold comfort to many of his fellow alumni. ”It’s not a good feeling to know that the school you attended is no longer like it was before. But neither is the whole city.