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Tulane Students Strive to Save Engineering Majors

By Susan Saulny
THE NEW YORK TIMES

In the early 1900s, the Sewerage and Water Board here hired a young student from Tulane University’s School of Engineering to help deal with flooding and drainage, the city’s most vexing problems.

The student, Albert Baldwin Wood, designed a pumping system that not only drained areas that routinely flooded but also allowed the city to grow into a modern metropolis on what had been its swampy hinterlands. Four months ago, his pumps, some more than 90 years old, continued to churn water out of the city even as Hurricane Katrina knocked newer models out of service.

Given that legacy, engineering students at Tulane say, they are finding it hard to accept that the university, the city’s premier academic institution, has chosen to eliminate majors in civil, environmental and electrical engineering, among others, as part of its own post-hurricane recovery plan.

They have reacted fiercely, undertaking a campaign on campus sidewalks, on the Internet, with elected officials and in the news media. Their rallying cry, as posted on trees in the University District, is, “These majors are needed in New Orleans now more than ever in order to help rebuild the city.”

And messages written in chalk on the campus’s sidewalks read, “We survived Katrina but not the administration,” even as a banner in one of the main engineering buildings reads, “Welcome Tulane Engineering Students: Tomorrow’s Leaders!”

“We came back expecting to go headfirst into working with the city and the state to fix the levees, the transportation system and the power grid,” said David O’Reilly, a first-year doctoral candidate in civil engineering. “There has not been an opportunity like this in our generation to rebuild an American city on this magnitude.”

Instead, Mr. O’Reilly is likely to be leaving his native New Orleans by the end of the semester to find a research program in another city.

The School of Engineering is not the only part of the university to undergo changes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which left floodwater over two-thirds of the campus and caused up to $250 million in property damage and more than $90 million in operational losses.

Tulane also did away with its traditional undergraduate college system, Newcomb College for women and Tulane College for men, replacing it with one Undergraduate College. It eliminated its graduate school as an administrative entity, and an array of intercollegiate sports teams, as well as 230 full-time faculty members and 243 members of its staff, who were laid off. Those cuts included a sharp hit to the medical school faculty, which was reduced by 180 positions, to 345.

But the students at the engineering school are among the most vocal, because they are losing six majors. Only two majors — biomedical and chemical engineering — will survive as part of a new School of Science and Engineering.

Engineering students in the programs that are being eliminated will be allowed to graduate in their majors if they can complete their studies by next year. Still, some students feel jilted.

“No one saw this coming; no one expected it,” said Justin Mikowski, a computer engineering major from Tampa, Fla., who is a leading force in the campaign to change the university’s mind. “We all thought engineering would be expanded with all the rebuilding that has to happen.”

Scott S. Cowen, the university’s president, who announced the changes on Dec. 8, defends the decision as thoughtful, necessary and final.

“I wish Katrina had never happened, and I wouldn’t have to do any of these things — I’m sympathetic,” Dr. Cowen said. “I admire their compassion and their enthusiasm to keep this going,” he said of the students, “but the board has already made its decisions, and they have been implemented. They will not be reversed.”

Still, Dr. Cowen met with engineering alumni as recently as last week, and many last-ditch efforts to change his mind continue.

“New Orleans, as a city, owes its very life to the products of Tulane engineering and will not be able to rebuild without a strong engineering pool of knowledge at its base,” said David A. Kanger, the president of the Society of Tulane Engineers.

Others, like a former dean of the School of Engineering, William C. Van Buskirk, said Dr. Cowen had hurt the school’s reputation and its students in claiming that the relatively small engineering school had not gained national prominence and that it was unlikely to do so without a significant investment of resources.

Tulane has 900 undergraduate and graduate students in engineering.

“I think he really couched it wrong when he said these programs aren’t strong enough to compete,” Dr. Van Buskirk said. “It’s just nonsense.”

He noted that Tulane’s legacy did not end with Albert Wood and his pumps. A more recent graduate, David Filo, a co-founder of the Internet giant Yahoo, holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Tulane. And by other standards of success, the school also fared well, Dr. Van Buskirk said.

“It’s more than a hundred years of tradition gone, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said.

Robert S. Boh, the president of Boh Brothers Construction, one of the most significant local businesses in the reconstruction effort, and a member of the School of Engineering’s advisory board, said, “Tulane in engineering circles had a pretty good reputation to begin with, and seemed to be improving in every category that’s important, so the timing of this is curious, really.”

Despite his position on the advisory board, Mr. Boh said he had not been consulted about the recovery plan.

Students said they were left to wonder how to market themselves to other universities and employers when their own university found its programs lacking. “Our efforts are falling on deaf ears,” said Will Clarkson, a computer engineering major from Canton, Ohio.

Dr. Cowen said Tulane was offering $2,000 in assistance to freshmen who would like to visit other campuses in the hope of transferring.

And Tulane will have a prominent role in the rebuilding effort, he said. The changes were intended in part to produce new areas of specialization for Tulane, including a partnership on urban issues with two of the city’s historically black universities, Xavier and Dillard.

Xavier and Dillard, along with the other well-known colleges in the city, the University of New Orleans and Loyola University, all suffered damage and have streamlined their operations for the spring semester. But, unlike Tulane, none have cut majors or sports, even though their endowments are smaller than that of Tulane.

On that point, Dr. Cowen said Tulane had taken the lead in making unpopular but realistic and tough decisions.

“Hope is not a method,” he said.