Setting the Right Course

Setting the Right Course

Green, Douglas M

New engineering departments should prioritize research sooner rather than later. BY DOUGLAS M. GREEN

IN THE VAST majority of engineering departments across the country, most faculty hiring decisions are made in the context of a local academic environment that has developed over decades. When a new department is added to a college, the goals and objectives of that department are driven by the college, oftentimes one that’s been in existence for many years. In both cases, the direction of an academic department is the director indirect resuit of incremental change over a long period of time.

Much less frequently, a new college and its departments are established simultaneously. Everyone involved with a new college is dealing with a clean slate. These new academic groups can evolve randomly, but success can be achieved early on by having a well-considered set of goals and a timeline. An old English saying states, “If a sailing captain doesn’t know where he wants to go, no breeze on Earth can take him there.” The goals for the future of new academic engineering groups are determined soon after their creation. Examining the development strategies for nascent departments and colleges gives us the opportunity to re-examine our fundamental desire to be relevant to the greater society in which we live.

Since this is a research article, I will emphasize research, but I will first mention two other academic duties. Our first responsibility is teaching. If we do not perform our teaching function effectively, we are not meeting our principal academic raison d’etre. Engineering faculty members are also uniquely qualified to guide and shape the future of our profession locally, regionally and nationally. Therefore service is our moral imperative.

But how should new departments address their research agenda? It is easy to hire new faculty members solely on the basis of their teaching ability. But later, when research becomes an expectation, many of the faculty slots will be filled with individuals who have limited interest in doing research. The research goals for an academic unit should be defined very early in the life of a new program.

Many recently minted Ph.D.’s have been counseled by their advisers that research activity will accelerate their professional progress as an academic. Junior faculty candidates with research aspirations may be reluctant to apply for a position in a new department unless it is clear that the department has a research agenda. When faculty candidates know that their research efforts will be recognized and appreciated, the age of the department they choose becomes less important.

A number of nonacademic labs perform results-driven research. Academic researchers are one of the few groups who actively and effectively pursue curiosity-driven research. For a number of research topics, many believe if we do not address these issues, the work may not be done.

The reputation of an academic department is directly tied to the collective reputation of its faculty. Eventually, a new academic program will be expected to achieve a balance between teaching, service and research. If this balance is achieved soon after an academic unit is created, its academic reputation will rise rapidly.

Douglas M. Green is Ross Perot Professor and dean, Texas A&M University-Texarkana.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Apr 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved