The New Polytechnics

Institutions embrace name that dates to early days of engineering education, using it to designate hands-on, practical programs.
March 12, 2007

Like many large public universities, Arizona State University has an engineering college on its main campus, in Tempe, which offers a wide array of engineering programs, up to the Ph.D., with a strong emphasis on research.

In 2005, Arizona State renamed one of its other campuses as its polytechnic university, embracing a name with historic roots in engineering education, but not widely used today. Engineering and other programs at the polytechnic are seen as more hands-on and less research oriented, and enrollment has taken off. On Friday, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents designated that university system's Stout campus as a polytechnic university. And a few other institutions with the name are experiencing notable surges in enrollment and attention.

To be sure, "polytechnic" is part of the names of some of the oldest technology universities in the United States -- such as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- that have an array of graduate and research programs. And engineering universities have always had a strong practical orientation. But those embracing the new polytechnic tag see themselves as distinct from graduate-oriented institutions and also from traditional undergraduate, liberal arts and sciences programs.

Lisa Rossbacher, president of Southern Polytechnic State University, in Georgia, and formerly an administrator at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, has spent a lot of time thinking about what the name means these days. "It's about applying technology," she said. Comparing her institution to the Georgia Institute of Technology, she said: "Georgia Tech is much more focused on theory and the research of discovery -- discovering new technologies. We're about taking that knowledge. A graduate from Georgia Tech is quite likely to get an advanced degree and do research there or later. Our graduates are more likely to get a job after graduation."

If liberal arts colleges are about "knowledge for the sake of knowledge," said Rossbacher, "we're at the other end of the spectrum."

Enrollment at Southern Polytechnic is up 10 percent this year, to 4,200, mostly undergraduate with only master's programs at the graduate level. At Arizona State's polytechnic, enrollment this year is 7,000 -- roughly twice that of three years ago, and is projected to hit 12,000 by 2012.

Not only do the polytechnics appear to be attracting students, but more diverse students -- not easy for many engineering oriented institutions. Southern Polytechnic leads the nation in producing black bachelor's graduates in engineering technology, and is fifth for women.

Nancy Hensel, executive officer for the Council on Undergraduate Research, said that she is seeing increased interest in the hands-on approach to teaching, and that this may be particularly helpful with retention in the sciences. "There's clearly a pipeline issue, and all the evidence suggests that when students really dig in to what they are doing, they are more likely to stay in the sciences."

Al McHenry, vice president and executive vice provost at Arizona State, sees a very specific mission for polytechnics. "It's about educating the masses to run a high-tech society," he said. McHenry said that he thinks of an airline pilot as typical of the kinds of graduates he might produce -- someone with both a specific knowledge base about technology and the skills to fly. "We want to turn out a graduate who is immediately functional in the work environment."

Forrest Schultz, a chemistry professor at president of the Faculty Senate at Wisconsin-Stout, said that in his discipline, courses have become more applied as the university has moved toward the polytechnic model. In the second semester of freshman chemistry, he is teaching about the chemistry of substances (ceramics and glass) and having the students make glass to better understand it. "This is not theoretical but a focus on manufacturing," he said.

Schultz said that professors are on board with the university's proposed new designation. Rather than being seen as not the equal of the engineering program at the flagship campus at Madison, Schultz said he likes to think of the new emphasis "attracting students who are looking for something different, for a certain kind of environment."

Differentiation is a key selling point for administrators who are attracted to this idea. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State, likes to talk about how the traditional branch campus model produces a "lite" version of what's offered at a main campus, but the polytechnic programs are as rigorous, but with different goals.

Charles W. Sorensen, the chancellor at Stout, also sees differentiation as key. "I believe fundamentally that higher education is so competitive right now with the private schools and the for-profit schools that we need to differentiate. This is our brand," he said. About half of the Stout student body is in science or technology programs, and Sorensen said that for those in other programs, the practical emphasis and significant use of technology also reflected the polytechnic idea.

The Stout proposal has been backed by faculty, student, and local groups. Still, Sorensen and others realize that they have their work cut out for them. A marketing analysis prepared for the university found that most prospective students and their families didn't have much sense at all of what polytechnic might mean, although when Stout's approach was described using other words, it got good reviews.

Some historians of engineering education are slightly dubious about the new use of polytechnic and note that the relative attraction of the term seems to change over time. John H. Lienhard, M.D. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston, has written extensively about the history of the polytechnic idea, going back to Napoleon, who provided crucial early support for the École Polytechnique. Lienhard considers that the early engineering schools in the United States and the land grant concept were applications of the French model. "It was democratized here," he said.

To Lienhard, the polytechnic concept is much more research-grounded than the current concept being pushed in Arizona, Wisconsin and elsewhere. "MIT is as strong as it is because it has a foot in both camps," he said, just like the École Polytechnique, with a major research agenda and a practical agenda. "Some of this may be muddying the waters and assigning a more fancy name" to other missions, he said.

Of course a name embraced today may not be forever. Britain's polytechnic colleges pushed in the 1990s to drop the name and become universities.

Some institutions that dropped the name still identify as polytechnics. The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology was founded with the "poly" name, but changed along the way. Gerald S. Jakubowski, the president, came from Arizona State's polytechnic campus and said of Rose-Hulman, "for all purposes we remain a polytechnic." Jakubowski sees the definition as being a place where "graduates move directly into technical and professional careers." He sees the popularity of the programs based in part on employer support. When engineering programs are theory-driven, he said, companies need to train their new workers extensively, but that doesn't tend to be the case with polytechnic grads.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is the official name of Virginia's land grant university, which has practical roots as do most land grant institutions, but has pushed hard into the national research scene in more recent decades. And it now generally calls itself Virginia Tech, dropping the poly. Mark Owczarski, a spokesman, said that while there is less of a job-training focus now than earlier in the university's history, there is a more straightforward reason for just going by Virginia Tech. "People get and understand Virginia Tech," he said. "Our full name is a mouthful."


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