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Throwing Away a Legacy

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Joined: 17 Jan 2006
Posts: 5
Location: Venice, Florida

PostPosted: Tue Jan 17, 2006 8:48 am    Post subject: Throwing Away a Legacy Reply with quote

I was recently shocked to learn that Tulane University’s President, Scott Cowen and a University renewal board decided to abolish the Civil and Environmental Engineering program. Beyond the obvious attempt to cut costs, it is difficult to grasp the logic for abandoning a course of study that will be of such great need in the Gulf Coast states generally, and in the city of New Orleans most specifically. To me it seems very short-sided to terminate the two areas of technical academics that will be in greatest demand in the city for the foreseeable future. Who better to rebuild the city of New Orleans than civil engineering students trained in the very arena where they can be of most benefit? Who better to safeguard the city’s water supply and help manage the water resources than environmental engineers schooled in the specific environment that would most need their expertise?

Has President Cowen forgotten who designed the pumps that keep the city dry? Has he forgotten who designed most of all the buildings of consequence in the city of New Orleans? Has President Cowen not paid attention to who has trained the southern core of engineers with the Army’s Corps of Engineers? While history may not always be the best harbinger of the future, it is clear that Tulane’s civil engineers shaped the city of New Orleans. Who is going to serve this vital role in the future if not civil engineers trained in New Orleans, by Tulane University’s School of Engineering. Civil Engineers trained in New Orleans by professors familiar with the Mississippi delta and its challenges are going to be of enormous importance in the welfare of the city. Add to that the tremendous demand by other Gulf Coast states, and it is clear that more civil engineers trained in the Deep South will be needed in the years to come.

While the impact of Tulane civil engineers is clearly documented in the city’s history, the contribution extends deeply throughout the Americas. From Cuba to Panama to Peru and to Brazil and throughout the South American continent, Tulane civil engineers have built cities, railroads, ports, water supplies and insured environmental sanitation for millions. Who is going to fulfill this critical role in the future? Tulane’s current administration is throwing away a legacy of prominence and influence that it can never easily regain. My own grandfather graduated from the school of civil engineering in 1914 and went on to build the railroad system in Cuba. I graduated from Tulane’s School of Civil Engineering in 1976 and went on to a distinguished 30-year career in the United States Army.

The School of Engineering is not the largest school in the University and it is dwarfed by the liberal arts schools. However, consider the relative merit in terms of contribution after a major natural disaster that requires rebuilding an entire city; a history major or a civil engineer. Which one would a city really need after a major disaster that will take a decade in recovery? I am not saying that a civil engineer is more valuable than a history major, nevertheless when a municipality needs to build a building or rebuild its water protection it must have engineers – no other profession will suffice.

Tulane has for decades been drawing increasingly from the wealthier folks of New York, New Jersey and New England for its undergraduate population. Reflecting a growing, disturbing trend across all of the US institutes of higher learning; many Tulane graduate students in the hard sciences, and in particular – engineering are coming from other countries. It may not be fashionable today for the children of well-to-do northeastern American families to work hard and study engineering, leaving the tough fields of study to children of Asian and Indian sub-continent parents. That pendulum is going to swing again, and we are going to need and want to train American kids in the hard professions. We are going to need them to build the future of our great Nation and to maintain the infrastructure of our aging urban centers.

Tulane University must survive. It must cut costs and maximize return on investment to do so. However, short-term survival at the cost of long-term value is really a slow death of a great institution. If the current Tulane administration cannot see the value of maintaining a robust technical base, I can only hope the next leaders of the University can somehow begin to restore what was thrown away. Abolishing the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering is short-sided cost cutting and places the future of the entire University in jeopardy.
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