Planning and Resources Committee Report on the proposed reorganization of the Electric Power Engineering Department and the Environmental and Energy Engineering Department.

 

4/11/01

 

On the basis of a presentation by Dean Bud Baeslack to the Faculty Senate Planning and Resources Committee, together with independent fact-finding meetings with the Chairs of EPE and E&EE, the Committee  offers the following report to the Faculty Senate.

 

This report is divided into four sections for clarity.  The first section relates to the fate of the  Electric Power Engineering Department, the second section discusses the proposed changes to the Environmental and Energy Engineering Department, the third section is dedicated to cross-cutting issues related to both situations, and the fourth section contains recommendations to the Faculty Senate concerning these actions.

 

Section 1:

Electric Power Engineering

Chair: Keith Nelson

 

The proposed plan involves the integration of the current EPE program into the existing structure of the ECSE Department.  The advantages of this action that were pointed out by Dean Baeslack included several points:  First,  the EPE department is below critical mass, and is not in a position where new faculty hires could be justified underthe Rensselaer Plan.  Second, while the EPE program has enjoyed historical loyalty from its alumni and has a popular Graduate program, it graduates few undergraduate majors each year, and is a mature field with difficult funding opportunities for junior faculty.  Dean Baeslack further argued that the essential components of the EPE program would survive the reorganization, including the EPE degree.

 

During an earlier presentation, EPE Chair Keith Nelson provided several compelling arguments for the continued autonomy of EPE, including a counterproposal that would create a revitalized EPE Department with up to 15 faculty members, including at least four externally-funded tenure-track  and research faculty positions.  Keith Nelson also pointed out that the EPE Department has a long history of producing graduates who are in great demand, often garnering a handful of job offers prior to their graduation dates.  The downside issues of merging were also clarified by Keith Nelson, including the likely loss of the NiMo Chair, as well as the financial and recruiting support of alumni and other interested parties. 

 

It was also pointed out that the EPE faculty as well as the EPE advisory board are very much against the proposed merger, and they believe that the loss of program identity will seriously degrade this prestigeous component of the School of Engineering.  Keith Nelson summarized his informational presentation by asking why the SoE would want to "strangle" such a visible and successful program.

 

Dean Baeslack closed his later presentation  by saying that the EPE program within ECSE would survive only if it moves in new directions, such as Power Electronics.  He also mentioned that Rensselaer must not be driven by historical success in a particular area, but by following a focused plan that includes investment in high-priority areas.

 

Section 2:

Environmental and Energy Engineering

Chair: Don Steiner

 

The SoE Performance Plan proposes that the E&EE Department be dissolved and its programs be reorganized under two existing departments.  Under the plan, the Energy component of E&EE would move into the Mechanical Engineering Department, which would then be renamed "The Department of Mechanical, Aerospace (or Aeronautical) and Nuclear Engineeering".  The Environmental programs would move into the Civil Engineering Department, which would then be known as "The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering". 

 

Chair Don Steiner indicated that while there has been less resistance to this move than to the EPE reorganization, a number of problems exist regarding the outcome, in addition to  concerns about the process.  Don pointed out that the  proposed change would result in a decreased level of support for the Environmental program, and an effective transfer of some faculty lines from the Nuclear program to the Environmental program for historical reasons.  Additionally, while Nuclear would regain its name under the new plan, its program and its external Navy revenue would be diluted to benefit the new host Department.  The effective faculty position transfers would occur since under the previous strategic plan, the Nuclear program allowed two of its retirement slots to be used to hire faculty into the Environmental program with the assurance that future slots would be prioritized in the Nuclear area.  After the reorganization, this agreement would be difficult to honor.

 

The Environmental program would also suffer under the new plan through the loss of its association with the revenue streams associated with the Nuclear program.  Resource allocation to the Environmental program from within the Civil Engineering administrative structure would likely be small, due to the youth of the majority of the Environmental faculty, and the fact that the only senior faculty member in the program is currently off-campus at the NSF.  The lack of natural synergy between the Civil and Environmental programs was also stated as a drawback to the proposal.

 

Dean Baeslack pointed out that the faculty makeup of the department was one reason why the reorganization would be a benefit to the SoE, and that a lack of critical mass exists within the current programs.  He also mentioned that the move would be generally helpful to the current Civil and Mechanical Engineering Departments.

 

Chair Don Steiner had some specific comments about the process that was used in proposing the reorganization.  He poined out that when the E&EE Department was first formed, there was unanimous agreement among the faculty that this would be a good idea.  This time, the faculty involved were not consulted or allowed to review any preliminary proposal - it was simply announced to them by the Dean as part of the final plan.

 

Part III: Cross-Cutting Issues

 

In both of the Departmental merger cases, there are unavoidable collateral effects on their core programs.  In the case of EPE, the program could  fade to a shadow of its former incarnation due to the shifting priorities stated in the Rensselaer Plan.  It is significant that even with the strong support of external groups, as well as significant financial resources, the continued existance of a small  but productive Department is not viable unless it transforms its research from mature engineering to cutting-edge technology aligned with the campus strategic plan. 

 

The difficulty in justifying new faculty lines outside of the current set of priorities was stated by Dean Baeslack as a driving force for the changes.  He mentioned that a compelling reason for going forward with the  reorganization plan  was that it  would save the affected programs from eventual oblivion due to faculty attrition in a climate where replacement lines would be unavailable.

 

Dean Baeslack made clear that his priorities were centered around the long-term strategic position of the SoE, and were not greatly influenced by the short-term problems that may arise during the reeingineering process.

 

Recommendations to the Faculty Senate

 

After hearing the presentations and considering the impact of these actions, the Planning and Resources Committee makes the following recommendations:

 

1) That the Faculty Senate request a moratorium on the absorption of the Electric Power Engineering Department by ECSE until a broader study of its impact on the EPE program is completed.  This study should involve a panel consisting of faculty chosen by the Faculty Senate together with Dean Baeslack and other administrators that would conduct hearings on the financial and programmatic effects of the merger.

 

For example, the following questions must be answered:

 

(a) Is there hard evidence that EPE is a non-viable area for the future of Rensselaer?

(b) Is there really a problem with new faculty funding in EPE?

(c) Why is a strong program not garnering support, since this is contrary to the Rensselaer Plan?

(d) In what form will EPE receive support within ECSE?  Is this a plan for phasing out the EPE program?

 

2) That the Faculty Senate endorse the SoE Performance Plan with respect to the disposition of the E&EE Department with the following reservations:

 

The Planning and Resources Committee continues to be concerned about the fate of the Junior Faculty in their proposed new host Departments.  We therefore recommend that steps be taken to assure that these faculty be allowed to grow and flourish under the new administrative structure.  We recognize that the senior faculty of the Nuclear program will be easily incorporated into their new host department due to overlapping research interests.  However, concern for the Environmental faculty is related to the difference in academic standing between them and the membership of the host department. Will tenure decisions be made according to the previous standards from E&EE, or will the new host department apply different standards?  This issue must be addressed before the Faculty Senate can endorse the new plan.