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Professors Left Behind by 'Bold Renewal'

December 12, 2005

Last Wednesday, Bill Buckles, a Tulane University engineering professor, had an endowed chair. He had a federal grant that had been approved, but not yet delivered, for a project to study watersheds around New Orleans, and perhaps to learn how they might function during a hurricane.

Fred Petry, also a tenured Tulane engineering prof, had been in his department longer than anyone else. Last summer he was honored by “our dear president,” he said, for his 25 years of service. “I was hoping for 30,” he added.

It is not to be. On Thursday, President Scott S. Cowen unveiled Tulane’s plan for its post-Hurricane Katrina future. The plan involved cutting four of Tulane’s six engineering programs, and 230 faculty members, 65 of whom are tenured. The electrical engineering and computer science program, which houses Buckles and Petry, was one of those eliminated.

Tulane officials had declared a state of “financial exigency” and were adamant that such cuts are essential to the university’s survival. “We have tried to make the reductions as strategically and humanely as possible,” Cowen said.

But some of the professors who will lose their jobs beg to differ. They say that, had Tulane told them that there was even a possibility they would lose their jobs, they could have gotten their affairs in order. Instead, Buckles and Petry found out late Thursday, along with the rest of the world, that their run at Tulane is coming to an end.

Cowen set up a conference call Thursday night to pass the message along to any engineering faculty members who hadn’t heard. Buckles didn’t participate. “I went to the bar,” he said.

Petry had just gotten an e-mail from the department chair saying that he’d be back next week to welcome people back. Then another mass e-mail went out to the department. “It said, ‘don’t worry about that, they just eliminated EECS,’” said Petry, who was meeting with his TIAA-CREF financial adviser Friday.

Professors whose jobs are being eliminated have the option to teach through June 30, 2007, on their current salary. At that point, programs in civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, and computer engineering, will end. Only biomedical and chemical engineering programs will remain at Tulane. A statement from Tulane Thursday said that the university -- with its 'bold renewal" plan -- has to focus on areas where it “has attained, or has the potential to achieve, world-class excellence.” Tulane included past and present administrators from multiple institutions, as well as 10 faculty members from the Faculty Senate, and educational consultants in their discussions on how to move forward. The dean of the School of Engineering, however, was not privy to the confidential meetings. Only after complaining was he included in the last few weeks.

If a professor decides to forgo the year of teaching, he or she has to walk away with no severance pay. All of the engineering professors interviewed noted that the situation gave them minimal time to look for other work, and, though they are not happy about it, most will continue teaching at Tulane for now. Any students who can finish their degree requirements by June 2007 can stay. If they cannot do so, students have to choose another major, or find a new college.

Engineering professors said that about 50 sophomores, who have already done a year at Tulane, but cannot finish by 2007, are in the worst spot. Tulane previously asked colleges that initially welcomed their students not to keep them permanently, so most students were not planning on transferring -- or weren't given that option by other institutions. With classes beginning in January, it will now be difficult for those students to transfer this year, the professors said. “I got one really sad letter from the mother of a [sophomore],” Petry said. “He really wanted to come back to Tulane, and she wanted to know if there could be an individualized program.” Petry noted that the student could switch his major, but “for a computer engineer to become a chemical engineer is a bit of stretch, to say the least,” he said.

For Buckles, there’s a grant to worry about. Buckles was going to use airborne laser data to process and study images of watersheds around New Orleans. The granting agency, which Buckles did not want named, approved the money before Katrina, and Buckles was simply waiting on the 2006 budget for the money to come through. “We would have a better idea of how water would behave given a disaster,” he said, “which drainage inlet would accept which water.”

Ever since Katrina, Tulane officials have been adamant that the university would embrace unique opportunities to study Katrina related topics as Tulane moved forward. In September, Richard Whiteside, Tulane’s vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions, said that “if you want to study hydrology, restorative work, social work, engineering, reestablishing public health and educational systems, there will by no place like New Orleans over the next decade.”

In response to the recent moves, Buckles said that “Tulane is essentially moving out of the engineering discipline.”

In September, Whiteside added that “there are few places in the world where someone can watch that as a laboratory unfolding before them.”

That laboratory may no longer be available for Buckles, though, who said the grant’s “termination date is later than my own termination date.” He has been reaching out to his contacts at the granting agency, but said that since the hurricane, he has generally “been getting the cold shoulder.” He was hoping that the grant monitors would sign the money over to Tulane, and then Buckles would be able to move the project to wherever he ends up. Buckles guessed that the grant monitors “were somewhat shaky about making an investment in Tulane,” he said on Friday. He said the grant monitors would frequently tell him, “why don’t you wait until things settle down?” Added Buckles, “perhaps their wariness was warranted, given the events of the last 24 hours.”

Buckles said he did not imagine that he would find himself pushed out of Tulane, so he has not begun to make arrangements to ensure the granting agency that he can finish the project. “It would have been helpful if we were told what a precarious situation we were in.”

Many professors are still fuzzy on some of the details, but it seems that the separate School of Engineering will not make it to next academic year, and all programs will move into the new School of Science and Engineering. Some professors were not clear how Tulane could even guarantee that engineering programs will continue through 2007 if teachers are free to walk away. “We’re all a little confused about what courses we’ll be teaching,” Petry said.

Buckles has three graduate students in his lab, and has only now begun to think about placing them. He said that all three could potentially finish their degrees by the end of the next academic year. “I just want to be sure I have that much time,” he said.

 

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