Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk Ph.D. ’92, civil and environmental engineering, and founder of the AguaClara project team, was barred from teaching a course he has instructed for over a decade.

September 10, 2018

Curriculum Committee Bars Senior Lecturer From Teaching Course He Created

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The University on June 25 notified Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk Ph.D. ’92, civil and environmental engineering, that a curriculum committee rejected his syllabus, barring him from teaching a course he has instructed for over a decade. In response, a group of students and alumni from his course and the AguaClara project team have created a petition calling for a more “transparent and inclusive review of future modifications to the course.”

After the course was initially cancelled, Dr. YuJung Chang, vice president of water treatment technologies for Fortune 500 company AECOM, was selected to teach the course via Skype, according to Ethan Keller ’16, one of Weber-Shirk’s former students.

Keller was also a part of the AguaClara project team which Weber-Shirk founded in 2005 with the aim of providing safe drinking water to communities in Honduras and India. Keller spent the last year in Honduras on a Fulbright scholarship working as a hydraulic engineer designing AguaClara plants.

Weber-Shirk, who founded the AguaClara project team with a group of students in the fall of 2005, saw a need to have “a strong fundamental basis in science” to be able to “effectively innovate,” and Civil and Environmental Engineering 4540 was created to provide that strong base. He also hoped that the course and the project team would exhibit an overlap “between members of the team to support peer-to-peer teaching and learning.”

Students enrolled in the CEE 4540: Sustainable Municipal Drinking Water Treatment class “work in teams to design water supply and treatment systems,” according to the class description on a Fall 2015 course roster, when the class was taught by Weber-Shirk.

“Monroe’s CEE 4540 class was instrumental to my education and career … In my career I often come across non-ideal situations and through the thought process that Monroe taught I have been able to come up with innovative, out of the box ideas to help our clients,” wrote Tiffany Neier B.S. ’08 M.Eng ’09, according to a copy of the petition shared with The Sun.

According to Prof. Linda Nozick, director of the school of civil and environmental engineering, and Prof. Bill Philpot, civil and environmental engineering, director of undergraduate studies, who led the curriculum committee, the main issue with the CEE 4540 curriculum was that it did not sufficiently cover “standard drinking water treatment methods” in first world countries as it focused instead on water treatment in developing countries.

“CEE 4540 came before the Curriculum Committee because of a concern that standard drinking water treatment methods – which are viewed as essential knowledge for a student graduating with a focus in environmental engineering – were not sufficiently covered in the curriculum,” they wrote. “In the overall curriculum design, CEE 4540 is the course intended to cover this material.”

Nozick and Philpot said that Weber-Shirk was given the offer to develop and teach a new course that would cover the AguaClara-focused material, which would have to go through the standard course review process.

“I was told ‘If you would like to teach CEE 4540 in the Fall of 2019, a revised version of the course will need to be accepted by the curriculum committee by March 2019.’ I was told that the course needs to be like the courses taught at other universities,” Weber-Shirk said.

The petition created by students and alumni addresses this concern, saying that while CEE 4540 differs from traditional engineering courses, learning about treatment plants in third world countries also provides a thorough and complete overview of “standard drinking water treatment methods” in first world countries because the foundations of water treatment in both the developed and developing world are similar.

In particular, the petition was critical of the University’s decision to modify the course without input from students, alumni and “other stakeholders” and expressed frustration with the lack of transparency throughout the process.

However, Nozick and Philpot said that this petition will not “substantively impact” any future changes to the course.

“The petition will not substantively impact this course because the faculty feels strongly that this content is necessary,” they wrote. “We do see the petition as further evidence of the importance of Agua Clara (though that was never in doubt). The faculty are very supportive of Dr. Weber-Shirk in this endeavor.”

Weber-Shirk said that he had no input in selecting Chang as his successor. Chang was chosen because he has “28 years of experience in water and wastewater treatment facility design, process optimization, and advanced technology evaluation and verification,” according to Nozick and Philpot.

Chang did not respond to The Sun’s request for a comment.

Nozick and Philpot explained that Weber-Shirk was replaced with Chang because “after a several month process of reviewing the prior course and revisions to that course with the Curriculum Committee and the area faculty, it became clear that we needed to consider other options for delivery of the course this fall.”

Several AguaClara members — many of whom previously took CEE 4540 — have also signed onto the petition.

“While a project team can do a wonderful job supporting the aims of a curriculum, it is not appropriate for a project team to dictate the curriculum,” Nozick and Philpot said. “It is the purview of the faculty to ensure that students are properly prepared in many aspects of a field.”