January 22, 2009

Merging of Engineering Departments Arouses Criticism

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The start of the new year and the new semester has found the College of Engineering short one department. Beginning Jan. 1, the Department of Theoretical and Mechanical Engineering (TAM) merged with the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). [img_assist|nid=34287|title=Empty chairs|desc=Prof. Alan Zehnder, engineering, looks over an empty classroom after his TAM department was merged with the MAE department on Jan. 1.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In a press release on Dec. 22, President David Skorton expressed his support of then-Engineering Dean Kent Fuchs’ decision to merge the departments. “It is an example of the kind of strategic thinking we will rely on to make the best long-term decisions for the University, particularly as we face extraordinarily challenging financial times in the short term.” Fuchs now serves as University provost.
While the University administration is pleased with the merger, those who are associated with TAM are vehemently opposed. On Dec. 17, Prof. Alan Zehnder, engineering, who is the chair of TAM, announced the threat against TAM and protested the merger. “Those of us associated with the department feel that we make a unique contribution to the intellectual life and educational mission of the College of Engineering,” he wrote on his blog. “We hope to continue this by preserving the department.”
Speaking to The Sun, Zehnder emphasized that the merger was “100 percent against the wishes of the [students] and faculty in the department.”
There have long been deliberations over the continuance of TAM. However, until recently, the deliberations had not been substantive debates over TAM’s merits.
“The discussion over TAM has been around at least as long as I’ve been here, more than 20 years, probably longer,” he said.
“Since Fuchs became dean, he strongly deliberated the department’s place at the school,” he added. “Somehow this department didn’t quite fit his mold.”
Still, Fuchs’ decision came as a surprise. When the decision was made, TAM had been planning to hire new faculty.
“[Fuchs] had given us a position to hire for … that’s obviously been cancelled, but it had given us hope,” Zehnder said.
“[The merger] came as a sudden decision, I only found out on Dec. 4,” he continued. “Fuchs then met with us on the 17th and said he would announce the merger on the 22nd.”
Upon hearing of Fuchs’ decision, those involved with TAM sought to halt the merger. According to Zehnder, the faculty of TAM and alumni wrote letters to the Board of Trustees to protest the merger. However, their efforts were unsuccessful, and on Jan. 1, TAM officially merged into MAE.
Fuchs explained in a press release the motivation for the merger. “This decision will allow Cornell to strengthen mechanics in the college, building on the heritage of faculty excellence in both TAM and MAE,” he said.
Prof. Andy Ruina, engineering, who teaches in TAM, said that enhancing Cornell’s reputation played a role in the decision.
“If you want to have a very good university with a high reputation, you need large standard engineering departments,” he explained. “TAM is a small department, not very visible in external rankings, and so we’re not enhancing the school’s reputation.”
Ruina noted that he did not believe this was the only motivation behind TAM’s merger.
“My suspicion is that on the one hand, the Provost [Fuchs] didn’t understand TAM and didn’t have a respect for its academic work,” he said. “And on the other, in tough economic times, you need to look like you’re doing something.”
While the merger became official with the transfer of TAM’s budget into MAE’s at the start of 2009, it is still only in its first stages. At some point in 2010, TAM as a department will cease to be. Fuchs has appointed a faculty transition committee to develop a plan for implementing the merger. No one who works in TAM will lose their jobs; rather, they will be placed in other departments within the College of Engineering, MAE or elsewhere.
Prof. Lance Collins, engineering, who is also the S.C. Thomas Szep Director of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, seemed excited by the prospect of the TAM and MAE merger.
“Once the announcement was made, we became eager to welcome them [TAM faculty] into MAE,” he said. “We’re looking to place them as best as possible, and we’re open to change to further accommodate them.”
The future of TAM’s work was a major concern for Zehnder.
“It’s one thing if we all merge completely, but it is another if we disperse,” he said. “Then, all we do in TAM will be lost.”
“None of us wanted this, but we’re doing our best to make this work,” Zehnder continued.
Collins, by his own admission an “eternal optimist,” believed that the work done by TAM members would compliment that of MAE very well and produce very strong groups within the department.
“I’m excited about what we could do if we work together,” he said. “There’s a potential to create something outstanding.”
Other concerns are the implications that TAM’s merger could potentially have for both the engineering college and the University at large. Ruina believed that the merger would have adverse effects on the mood of the TAM faculty and encourage the replacement of curiosity-driven research in favor of research that would guarantee more grant money for the University.
Both Zehnder and Ruina saw the merger as an ominous sign of things to come.
“I think it’s a harbinger,” Zehnder said, “but I don’t know for certain.”
“It’s likely a harbinger,” Ruina agreed. “It is definitely an experiment to see if such things are acceptable and successful enough to be carried out in other parts of the University.”

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