The Key Flaw With Private University Engineering

It's great for Harvard that a $400 million gift will help it build an excellent program, but public universities are the ones change the workforce in engineering, writes Andreas Cangellaris.

July 23, 2015

A colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am dean of the College of Engineering) recently emailed me Bloomberg’s interview with Harry Lewis, interim dean of Harvard University's Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science. Lewis talked about the school’s plans for the $400 million gift it received in early June. My colleague highlighted Lewis’ description of an ascendant engineering program at Harvard and a cultural shift at the school in which “making things, doing useful things is no longer … considered the sort of thing that gentlemen and gentlewomen don’t do.”

My colleague added, “Welcome, Harvard, to the work that public research universities with great engineering schools have been doing for 150 years.” Sarcasm, apparently, isn’t the exclusive province of the Ivies. We heard it all over the place after the announcement of the Paulson gift. But, in my opinion, it’s misguided.

I’ll paraphrase venture capitalist (and University of Illinois alum) Marc Andreessen’s tweet on the topic. This gift and Harvard’s vision for what it wants to accomplish are “moral virtues, full stop.”

Harvard has set the standard for the liberal arts and sciences. Public institutions like the Universities of Illinois, California at Berkeley, and Michigan have done the same for world-class engineering education for the masses. That combination is extremely powerful, and it has made America the most innovative and prosperous country in the world.

Lewis made it clear that Harvard intends to redefine what a well-rounded education means in the 21st century. And John Paulson's investment allows the university to develop an engineering and applied science program to match Harvard’s reputation.

Harvard and similar private research universities lack one major virtue, however: excellence at scale.

Private institutions simply cannot satisfy the demands of 21st-century engineering alone. And turning away top talent is in no one’s interest.

It limits our nation’s economic growth, our ability to make the engineering profession more diverse, and our ability to help students find their true calling regardless of their socioeconomic background. However, growth in student numbers and innovations in how we educate them require more resources.

Given this fact, and the fact that state funding for public universities has declined precipitously in the last two decades, philanthropic support has become just as important to Illinois as it is to the Harvards of the world. Without new levels of philanthropy and new investment models, the American public research university, the world's golden goose, will not be able to deliver on its goal to ensure there are enough top-flight problem solvers available to advance our civilization and to look after our future.

Consider some of the very best engineering universities in the world, public and private. According to U.S. News and World Report, the schools with the most top-five-ranked undergraduate engineering specialties are the University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Illinois, Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, Illinois, Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin rank right alongside Stanford and MIT in the top five of the Academic Ranking of World Universities in Engineering/Technology and Computer Science from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

But here’s the difference: Illinois and Georgia Tech each produce more world-class undergraduate engineers than Stanford, MIT and Caltech combined. And Berkeley, Michigan and Texas are each twice the size of Stanford.

Undergraduate Engineering Degrees Awarded, 2014

University Undergraduate Engineering Degrees
Georgia Tech 1,977
U of Illinois 1,782
U of Michigan 1,492
U of California at Berkeley 1,195
U of Texas at Austin 1,140
MIT 675
Stanford 545
California Institute of Technology 104

That isn’t to say that elite and exclusionary is still a universal condition at Harvard and other small, private institutions. As Lewis points out, Harvard’s demographics are changing with more rural and first-generation students. Students from these backgrounds tend to gravitate to engineering because it leads to a secure career. An engineering degree is rarely an opportunity to go into the family business. Instead, it’s a way for those from low-income backgrounds -- bright, marginalized and ambitious -- to invent the family business.

Thus, the art of engineering appeals to an ever-broader swath of students, from those interested in entrepreneurship to those creating solutions for the engineering challenges that underpin the modern world. For example, more than 3,100 students applied for about 200 slots in the Illinois computer science program this year. Carnegie Mellon receives twice that many applications for about 30 percent fewer seats.

With demand like that, we are all in an unparalleled position to serve a broad spectrum of students in ways we haven’t before. That’s not only a moral virtue for Harvard. It’s a moral virtue for all of us.

Students are driven by a desire to solve problems with real and lasting societal impact. Today, “making and doing” extend far beyond the disciplinary confines of engineering and the fine arts. With the Paulson gift, Harvard is in a unique position to bring down disciplinary boundaries, to inspire new curricula and experiential learning, and to transform the very concept of a university education.

I have no doubt that Harvard’s engineering and applied sciences program will catalyze such a transformational change. But will all that effort and all those resources transform Harvard’s educational model or the world’s?

Harvard has to take full advantage of this incredible opportunity, and so do the engineering powerhouses. Globally, more and more students recognize the sheer impact they can have by studying engineering. How do we support and serve them?

Even more students seek an education founded on disciplinary depth and enriched through cross-disciplinary experiences. How do we embrace their interests and turn them into the idea creators, the problem solvers and the makers of the new and the better?

How do we inspire them and empower them as they put ever more pervasive digital technology and ever more important engineering principles to work? What does that well-rounded and well-educated student of the 21st century look like?

These are questions for us to answer together, taking full advantage of our variety and our diverse strengths.

So welcome, Harvard, to the conversation.


Andreas Cangellaris is dean of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering and the M. E. Van Valkenburg Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.


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