By Carl Irving
MOST AMERICAN colleges and universities educate engineers to become the equivalent
of bricklayers, rather than cathedral builders, in the opinion of Marshall M. Lih,
director of the National Science Foundation's division of engineering education.
|Henry E. Riggs, former president of Harvey
Mudd College, will head the new Keck Graduate Institute at The Claremont Colleges.
Despite years of prodding, Lih and other would-be reformers at the National Science
Foundation (NSF) believe, most American engineers tend to be narrow specialists who
are ill-equipped to fill top jobs in business or industry.
In an attempt to correct this problem, two new engineering schools, each with
a generous endowment, will be launched almost simultaneously on opposite coasts in
the next few years. Each hopes to break with tradition in order to produce technology-minded
engineering entrepreneurs for the 21st century.
The newcomers are the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Massachusetts,
20 miles west of Boston, scheduled to open in 2001, and the Keck Graduate Institute
of Applied Life Sciences, in Claremont, California, which expects to open in 1999.
The two 62-year-old founders and friends, Henry E. Riggs, engineer-educator in Claremont,
California, and Lawrence W. Milas, lawyer-president of the F.W. Olin Foundation in
New York City, say they want to blend venerable disciplines and seek joint ventures
|Dwight Jaggard of the University of Pennsylvania
helped to start a new master's degree program featuring group engineering projects
Some experts in engineering education question whether such bold plans can succeed
outside the nation's best research universities. But Riggs and Milas do have an instant
rooting section: Lih and his colleagues at the NSF-a federal agency which funds scientific
and technological research and development-who have argued for years that America
needs to prepare more engineers able to rise to executive positions and compete in
a global economy.
Despite more than a decade of heavily funded efforts to promote change, less than
25 percent of the nation's 300 engineering faculties want to overhaul their training
programs, according to estimates at the NSF. The price has been bored students with
narrow training, and a persistent 50 percent dropout rate from engineering studies
by the end of the sophomore year.
Despite the economic recovery led by technology during the '90s, the number of
bachelor's degrees earned by engineering students has declined nearly 20 percent
Olin College of Engineering and the Keck Graduate Institute should be large enough
to provide a helpful push, said John W. Prados, who directs engineering education
reform projects at the NSF. "We can always hope that models out there (such
as Olin and Keck) will be imitated,'' he said.
Olin College, which eventually will enroll about 650 undergraduates, will combine
business and engineering studies on a tuition-free campus, and will join in a partnership
with the adjacent Babson Business College. Group projects with local industries will
be a central part of the curriculum.
The Olin Foundation has pledged $200 million, one of the largest grants ever made
in American higher education, and later may add all its remaining assets, which could
equal or exceed the original grant.
The Keck Institute, headed by Riggs, will offer a master's degree that blends
engineering and the life sciences, for 125 students, and will join the six-campus
Claremont Colleges consortium. Studies will be linked to joint ventures with local
The W.M. Keck Foundation in Los Angeles has provided $50 million, to be matched
by an identical amount or more from other contributors. With the Keck name to be
carved into the portals of the new campus, Riggs clearly hopes that the foundation
will contribute more in future years.
Prados, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee and
a past president of the national Accrediting Board of Engineering and Technology,
advised Lawrence Milas on preliminary planning for Olin College. Its opening year,
he notes, coincides with the date that the nation's engineering schools will begin
to phase in new, more demanding standards for accreditation-ten times more requirements
than those that have been in effect since 1972.
According to Prados, the new requirements will focus on intellectual skills and
abilities instead of tallying credit hours and subject areas. This change will be
consistent with NSF recommendations and "should be a strong force in moving
all engineering schools toward the same outcomes," Prados said. The accrediting
board has begun training groups of engineering professors to begin reviewing and
judging campus programs in 2001. Their work is scheduled for completion by 2007.
The NSF wants engineering faculties to drop what it considers to be obsolete training
methods and courses. Engineering students must learn and memorize too many "unconnected
pieces," said Joseph Bordogna, the NSF's chief operating officer and former
dean of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Citing the high dropout rates, Bordogna said that "freshman and sophomore years
are when students get excited. But they find they're in a super high school and they
get discouraged. It's not because they can't do the work.
|Laurence W. Milas, president of the F.W. Olin
Foundation, which has pledged $200 million to start the Olin College of Engineering.
"They (recalcitrant faculties) say students have to have the fundamentals
first," Bordogna continued. "We respond that the fundamentals are in group
design, and in how to get the concept out the door. That's engineering. The real
test is an idea and how to get your arms around it. It's exciting. You stumble over
your feet and let's hear it for failure. Let's let kids fail because you do in life;
you learn to take risks."
Bordogna is "very excited" about the Olin and Keck plans. He praises
the academic proposals for Olin College because he believes an undergraduate degree
in engineering should be a "holistic experience" combining a wide range
of studies. Bordogna said that the master's program at Keck can produce "a cadre
of well-educated people who go out and work in the fields of biology and health care,
and become industrial leaders."
Among prominent members of the profession who endorse changing undergraduate engineering
is Chang-Lin Tien, a mechanical engineering professor and former chancellor at the
University of California at Berkeley.
Studying engineering, said Tien, is like drinking from a fire hose, because new
knowledge keeps spurting out and the student hasn't got the time to consume it all.
He advocates giving engineering undergraduates a "sound liberal arts education"
and saving specialization for graduate school.
The NSF has provided almost $170 million in support for course and curriculum changes
at more than 60 schools in recent years. Students affected by these programs have
been far more likely to stick with engineering studies, yet Prados said too few students
have been involved so far. He estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of engineering
professors endorse the changes sought by the NSF.
||President Leo I. Higdon, Jr. of Babson College,
which will offer business-oriented cources to students at adjacent Olin College.
The NSF's Marshall Lih, a former Du Pont chemical engineer who has taught at Catholic
and Georgetown universities, said that narrowly trained engineers in America tend
to be subordinate to other professions, and are among the first to be laid off during
recessions. He believes that this discouraging prospect for an engineering career
leads many bright students to turn to other studies.
Lih, who has represented the United States at international meetings involving
technology and economics, points out that corporate executives and board members
in many other countries have engineering degrees. Japan, with a population half that
of the United States, produces twice as many engineers, yet never seems to have too
many, because a large proportion become executives.
American engineers who move up the executive ladder are "rare exceptions,"
because too many "lack crucial qualities such as strategic thinking, the ability
to conceptualize and communicate effectively, management skills and business knowledge,"
Lih wrote recently in an article published by the American Society of Engineering
Education. "But most of all they lack a farsighted global vision of things to
come, of where technology and society are going."
NSF officials do see exceptions amidst a generally gloomy picture. For instance,
Bordogna is enthusiastic about a new master's program at the University of Pennsylvania,
which features group projects combining engineering technology with entrepreneurship.
Changes in the curriculum for undergraduates at Stanford University also offer
evidence that large research campuses don't necessarily block progress toward innovative
and independent approaches.
Engineering deans interviewed at Stanford and Penn said they agree that students
often can gain more when working together on projects, in which traditional boundaries
between academic disciplines disappear. At Stanford, engineering undergraduates also
are expected to take a broad range of courses outside their major. More specialized
training is reserved for graduate studies.
"It's the only time in your life when you have the opportunity to study a
lot of things that a large university such as Stanford has to offer,'' said Joseph
Goodman, associate engineering dean and former chairman of the electrical engineering
Students have an "incredibly strong interest" in learning about entrepreneurship,
he said. A special program places top engineering undergraduates with firms in the
nearby Silicon Valley for summer work. But students also must take at least nine
liberal arts courses. Requirements include writing, speech, humanities and social
Stanford's electrical and mechanical engineering departments and the computer
sciences department were ranked first in graduate studies in a 1995 survey by the
National Research Council. Yet a large majority of Stanford's engineering faculty
agrees that it is best to limit doses of undergraduate engineering coursework, Goodman
At Penn, the new master's program has expanded to nearly 200 students, most of
them sponsored by their employers. Several have been promoted while enrolled, noted
Dwight Jaggard, associate dean for graduate education and research and a professor
of electrical engineering, who helped to begin the program.
The students spend two years concentrating on emerging technologies-biotech, photonics,
telecommunications, modern materials and systems engineering. Half of the coursework
concentrates on technology and half on business-ranging from economics to international
Jaggard thinks innovative engineering training programs should be launched at established
research campuses, not as separate entities like Keck and Olin.
Foundations Provide Generous Grants for New Colleges
FRANKLIN W. OLIN established his foundation after the Cornell-trained
engineer made his fortune manufacturing small arms and ammunition. Board President
Lawrence W. Milas said that minutes from a board meeting in 1947 show Olin had wanted
to consider establishing an engineering school or college. That notion apparently
died with him in 1951. Now Milas and his three fellow board members have decided
to establish the college in Olin's name.
Milas has been a board member since 1974, and president since 1982.
He negotiated sale of the foundation's biggest asset, the Federal Cartridge Corporation,
in 1985, substantially increasing liquidity. Before the latest project, the foundation
had distributed $300 million for 72 new buildings at 57 mostly small, private campuses.
The foundation may make the college its last project, because there's
"no new money" except from the stock market, to support the foundation,
Milas said. After more than a year of study, the foundation has suspended indefinitely
making any more grants to other campuses and may use its remaining funds to support
the Olin campus and help it "provide some leadership in higher education."
David Morgan, vice president for research at the Council for Aid
to Education in New York, which monitors such gift giving, said it is difficult to
know whether Olin's is the largest grant in higher education history. Past grants
may have been larger in non-inflationary dollars, and some gifts are distributed
over many years.
"There's nothing unusual about it, and it's probably the direction
foundations are moving, to more narrowly defined contributions,'' Morgan said. Foundations
have been on "more precise missions, looking for greater accountability. They
rationalize their programs and articulate their goals,'' he added.
The Keck Foundation, which has more than a billion dollars in assets,
was founded by Howard B. Keck, who made a fortune in the oil, gas and mining industries.
He died in 1996 after serving as foundation chairman for 31 years. Keck is widely
known for grants that made possible construction of the Keck telescopes and observatory
In 1996, Keck distributed 59 grants totaling more than $39 million-32
of them in the field of science and engineering. The grants were distributed to a
wide range of public and private campuses.
"This program was started from scratch, and continues to enjoy freedom from
other programs,'' he said. Most faculty members come from among the university's
engineering, management, economics and social science departments, but the dean of
the program has "absolute control of faculty quality." The program is self
supporting and thus "has not bogged down due to constraints that might include
Jaggard said there is another advantage to having this program at a prestigious,
established campus: "A Penn degree means something, no doubt. It's the cachet
of an established university."
At perhaps the most prestigious engineering school of all-the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology-undergraduates may soon be required to include a minor field of study
on the business side, according to John Vander Sande, associate dean of engineering.
"It's probably universally true for engineering education in the United States,
that graduates often are weak in communications skills," said Vander Sande,
a professor of material sciences and engineering and associate dean for the past
He also conceded that "companies often refer to the fact that MIT students
are very bright and well prepared and contribute as individuals, but have not learned
to operate in a team environment as they should, and must, when joining a specific
workforce·Comments are often made that we need other ways to broaden students,
because many won't practice as engineers but will move into management."
But "the MIT stance is not to throw the baby out with the bath water,'' he
said. The MIT core of instruction, focusing on engineering and science, will not
change. MIT graduates may not be as quick to know how to operate equipment at their
first job, but "they will understand the underlying principles that will withstand
the test of time, while the equipment may change."
About half the engineering faculty at MIT favors curriculum reforms, with the
split most evident between older and younger members, Vander Sande said. Three years
ago, the would-be reformers were outnumbered three to one.
Some faculty critics of reform say, "What's good for me is good for the student,"
according to Vander Sande, but industry complains that faculty members who take this
stance "don't know enough about what the real world is like. They don't know.
They're not out there in the workplace."
MIT does have several cooperative programs with industry underway at both undergraduate
and graduate levels, involving smaller numbers of students. The campus does not have
to worry about retaining its students, however: 92 percent of them graduate in less
than five years, and alumni urge the engineering school "to continue to supply
an education to our students based on fundamental principles-the core element in
our engineering education," according to Vander Sande.
He applauded Olin for being "very wise" in its ability to see that the
21st century world will need engineers who understand industrial and business management.
But the MIT official questioned whether Olin will be able to succeed by stressing
teaching, with little time for faculty research, or whether there will be enough
money to make it all come true.
"MIT is a research university, and I believe in a strong relationship between
research and education,'' Vander Sande said. "It's not simply a matter of hiring
faculty and saying 'OK, go into the classroom and teach.' In order for those people
to be viable, they've got to remain very active in research. And that doesn't happen
with nickels and dimes.
"I know (Olin's $200 million grant) is a big lump of money. But I know what
it takes for a school of engineering like MIT's. And it's not enough money. They
still have a challenge to build a school of engineering that will have the same reputation
(Babson) presently enjoys in management. If you want to do this from scratch, you
have to realize there are infrastructural costs-it's not just hiring faculty, you
have to have a lab."
But founders of the two new institutions, as well as NSF officials, disagree.
"Olin wanted to invest so that every student would get the kind of experience
they are trying to produce, and if you put that kind of money into a large institution
it would certainly have an impact, but not on all the students,'' said the NSF's
"At MIT, one would run into the reward structure which supports research
ahead of teaching," said Riggs, who is establishing the Keck Institute in Claremont.
"You don't get many rewards for starting a really good teaching program, because
it's just not where the glamour is,'' he said. Milas, president of the Olin Foundation,
Riggs and Milas have been mutually supportive for many years. In 1990, while Riggs
was president of Harvey Mudd, the undergraduate engineering college at Claremont,
the Olin Foundation provided a $5.5 million grant for a new science building. Last
fall, Riggs-who has counseled Milas regarding startup planning for the Olin College-was
part of a committee actively supporting the college's accreditation in Massachusetts.
|Joseph Bordogna, of the National Science Foundation,
thinks the new colleges will provide "holistic experiences" for engineering
Startup costs for Olin and Keck are estimated to be two to three times greater
than they would have been if either had been part of an established campus. But both
Riggs and Milas point out that their campuses will save significantly in faculty
and service costs, because they will be joining consortia.
The Olin campus will be constructed on 88 acres of rolling, forested land which
the foundation will purchase for about $15 million from adjacent Babson College.
In recent years Babson has been strengthened by a $6 million grant from the Olin
Foundation for a library and computer center, and another $30 million for a graduate
business school complex.
Babson has had popular recognition for its business-oriented studies. The annual
rankings in U.S. News & World Report placed Babson's undergraduate program first
in the "business speciality school" category from 1989 until 1995, and
its graduate program was ranked first in "entrepreneurship" for the past
"We do one thing well,'' said Sandra T. King, vice president for marketing.
And the campus does not hesitate to boast about it: Last fall, King's office purchased
two full pages in the Wall Street Journal to display the pictures of ten successful
alumni, all with impressive executive titles. "Their entrepreneurial leadership
began at Babson," the headline crowed.
Babson's "culture of innovation and integration will support and foster the
same kind of curricular revolution by the Olin College faculty,'' Milas said. "I
don't know of any business college better than Babson." Linked to Babson's studies,
Milas said, Olin students will learn about global issues and acquire entrepreneurial
A central focus for Olin College will be joint ventures with local businesses,
Milas said. He predicts that Olin's graduates will be prepared to manage technology-based
commercial ventures and government agencies, becoming "senior corporate leaders,
entrepreneurs, political leaders and specialized professionals in medicine and law."
Last November the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved Olin's petition
to grant three bachelor of science degrees-in engineering, mechanical engineering
and electrical and computer engineering.
For Riggs, the Keck Institute is a logical last career stop. After earning his
BA in industrial engineering at Stanford, and an MBA at Harvard, he spent 15 years
as an executive with two Silicon Valley companies before returning to Stanford as
a full-time, tenured faculty member. He became chairman of industrial engineering
and wrote three books about his specialties: business ventures and managing technology.
He spent his last three years at Stanford as the campus' chief fund raiser, launching
a successful campaign to raise $1 billion.
In 1988, Riggs became president of Harvey Mudd College, a highly regarded undergraduate
campus specializing in engineering, within the Claremont Colleges group. In 1996,
to the consternation of many Mudd faculty members, he announced his resignation in
order to found the graduate campus just across the road. The consortium donated an
11-acre site and agreed to let Keck become the first new campus to join the Claremont
Colleges since 1963. Keck will share the consortium's graduate library and administrative
The other members of the group are Pomona College, founded in 1887; Claremont
Graduate University, 1925; Scripps College, 1926; Claremont McKenna College (formerly
known as Claremont Men's College), 1946; Harvey Mudd College, 1955; and Pitzer College,
The setting is on flat land at the edge of an attractively landscaped cluster
of campuses. On rare days when the smog disappears, the stately San Gabriel Mountains
rise abruptly to the north. Riggs believes the location will generate joint ventures
with a growing number of biotech firms in the Los Angeles basin.
"In recent years, human understanding of the fundamental building blocks
and processes of life has accelerated exponentially," said Riggs. "Many
declare that we are now entering the biotechnology century, defined by the life sciences
and our ability to harness their power for the benefit of humanity."
Riggs said he has no concerns about industry dictating coursework. Industrialists
he consulted have applauded his plans to include ethical and policy questions in
coursework. He intends to have a bioethics specialist on the faculty.
"This school will help eliminate a big problem now hampering the industry-engineers
and life scientists unable to talk to each other,'' said Keck's planning director,
Bernadette Busenberg. For example, she said that biotech researchers often must deal
with microscopic batches of life. Engineering, combined with biochemistry, can project
ways for quantifying such testing, and thus visualize how to produce useful discoveries
on a world-wide scale.
Riggs believes that too many engineers in industry have spent too much time-up
to eight years-earning Ph.D. degrees by dipping deeply into small research areas.
Firms hire them because they have no alternative, he said. He hopes to help "shoot
the gap" by providing students with two graduate years of broader studies, trained
by a faculty "bent differently, who will be more interested in teaching than
more typical scholars."
Carl Irving is a former political and education writer for the San Francisco Examiner.