Shop Talk at Tulane

January 4, 2006

Within hours of Tulane University’s announcement last month that seven of its nine engineering programs would be cut in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, surprised engineering students started Save Tulane Engineering, to “garner support for engineering programs critical to the renewal of New Orleans,” according to the group’s Web site.

Engineering students and alumni alike knew that Tulane, with a Katrina cleanup bill of more than $100 million, faced a struggle, but most of them were miffed at the lack of warning before and information after the engineering cuts were made. Tulane’s 29-page renewal plan documents the changes, and, in some sections, looks toward a promising future. The part of the document that deals with engineering is not one of those sections. It basically just announces the cuts. “That document left a void,” said Dave Kanger, a civil engineer and president of the alumni group Society of Tulane Engineers. “The general experience has been near unanimous outrage.”

In response to the outcry, Tulane’s president, Scott S. Cowen, met with a small group of engineering alumni and one student on Monday. Like all of Tulane’s Katrina-induced decisions, the meeting elicited mixed reactions from those present.

Dave O’Reilly, the civil engineering Ph.D. student who attended the meeting, and a founder of Save Tulane Engineering, had hoped that the session would discuss a timetable for bringing back some of the cut programs, including civil engineering, environmental engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. But O’Reilly said the meeting was less a conversation and more a chance for Cowen to reiterate his stance.

“I said, ‘This is about New Orleans’,” O’Reilly said he told Cowen. “He said it’s about taking Tulane to national prominence.” In the renewal plan Tulane said it would seek to focus resources on programs that could attain national recognition, squeezing off resources to other areas in some cases. In the meeting, Cowen asserted Tulane’s need to make drastic cuts that could not be reversed. Save Tulane Engineering is working on organizing a protest for the first day of classes on January 17.

Kanger, however, found the meeting useful. “In that meeting was probably the first piece of encouraging news I’ve gotten,” he said. After the meeting, Kanger said he felt the absence of information in the renewal plan regarding engineering was less a snub and more an attempt to leave the door open. At the meeting, Cowen said he would amend the renewal plan with more specific language about engineering, and send an update to alumni, hopefully within a week. The word from a Tulane spokesman, however, was that any hope for a rigid timetable promising to reinstate engineering programs is “wishful thinking.”

Still, Kanger said that he believes “there is going to be finally at least some transparency or some involvement by alumni and the [Tulane Engineering] Board of Advisors.” Only chemical and biomedical engineering were spared in the post-Katrina cuts, but Kanger said that, after the meeting, he felt some of the reorganized divisions, such as the Physical and Material Sciences Division, will eventually follow a natural path that will include some engineering courses. “I’m at least encouraged, if you take it at face value, there is interest in rebuilding beyond chemical and biological engineering,” the two remaining programs, he said.

For now, Kanger is content to wait for the amended renewal plan from Cowen. Other Tulane engineering alums have continued to express their displeasure. Bill Boelte, a Tulane engineering alum and oilfield services consultant in Louisiana, said he “probably wouldn’t consider donating a dime” if the current engineering cuts remain.

Both Boelte and Kanger said that Tulane engineers could be a vital part of the rebuilding of New Orleans. Shortly after the hurricane, Tulane stressed the opportunities that would be available for engineering students in New Orleans. Some engineering faculty members had already begun partnerships with other institutions, and with the Army Corps of Engineers, to coordinate projects in New Orleans. “Those will now be lost,” Kanger said.

Yvette Jones, the senior vice president for external affairs at Tulane, said the meeting had simply been for clarification purposes. It is currently unclear what the nature of the amendment to the renewal plan will be, but it will not save the cut programs, which are set to be phased out in June 2007. Students in the engineering programs are allowed to continue until that time, but nobody knows how many professors will stay until the end.

O’Reilly hopes to do his part to hit Tulane in the pocket. He recently learned that his great grandfather left an endowed donation to Tulane engineering, but not specifically to any of the cut programs, as O’Reilly said Cowen told him. O’Reilly’s relatives plan to consult lawyers with regard to regaining control of the donation.

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