Undergraduate Engineering at the University of Michigan 1956-1996

by John A. Clark, Sc.D.

Dr. John A. Clark is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he has served since 1957, including two terms as Department Chairman. He holds the BSE (ME) from the University of Michigan (1948) and both the SM and SCD from M.I.T. (1949 and 1953), where he also served on faculty from 1949 to 1957. Dr. Clark’s essay on the evolution of the academic calendar at the University of Michigan suggests how seemingly unimportant administrative changes can have unforeseen and deleterious effects on education.

In the study which this essay accompanies, Dr. Bertonneau evaluates the present condition of undergraduate education in the state universities of Michigan. His evaluation focuses on the core curriculum in the liberal arts at these institutions and finds much that needs correction. The problems found in Michigan’s publicly supported universities mirror those reported for the nation in the recent study The Dissolution of Higher Education: 1914-1993 released earlier this year by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Both Dr. Bertonneau’s study and that of the NAS call for more citizen involvement in the processes of higher education. Certainly the stakes in the outcome from institutions of higher education in Michigan are great for each citizen and for many reasons, mostly, but not exclusively, pedagogical. Dr. Bertonneau points out the interesting, important, and probably little-known fact that in 1997 the annual taxpayer subsidy projected for each student is $4,150. This is surely reason enough for the citizens of the state to have concerns about the management of education in its state universities.

At the conclusion of his exhaustive study, Dr. Bertonneau makes eleven specific policy recommendations for educational reform in Michigan. While all these recommendations directly address the problems he has identified, two seem to me to be of particular significance and are likely to generate considerable debate. These are to reduce the number of graduate programs and to inaugurate real debate about the desirability of academic tenure. Both of these recommendations are valuable and should be discussed vigorously in the public arena. In my opinion, if implemented, these two recommendations especially would benefit academic programs, faculty, and students—and the citizens of Michigan, who have as much at stake in the genuine effectiveness of the state universities as those who teach at or are currently enrolled in them.

My own career of over a half century has been in Engineering Education at M.I.T. and the University of Michigan. This—engineering specifically and the applied sciences generally—is an aspect of higher education that Dr. Bertonneau has not directly addressed, so it is appropriate for me to offer some commentary based on my own experience of five decades.

Because of the quantitative nature of an engineering curriculum it is much less influenced by subjective forces such as those now affecting the teaching of languages, literature, history, and other fields in the liberal arts. Hence the objective quality of engineering tends to insulate its academic programs against the distorting effect of current enthusiasms that are essentially political in nature. This is not to say, however, that a political element is entirely absent from the programs supported by engineering colleges since most are heavily involved with research activities largely supported by the federal government. Certainly such support does influence the attitudes of engineering faculty regarding their professional relationship with the governmental agencies that fund their projects. Such sponsorship has the inevitable effect of creating dependency on the federal bureaucracy and it correspondingly affects the receiving institution’s management of its own affairs. This in turn leads to a loss of what might be called institutional identity, and it depresses the purely scientific impulse to follow a research interest in whatever direction it leads. These threats to institutional autonomy are probably a more important subject of national debate than is usually supposed. People are always discussing whether federal support should be increased or decreased, but only very rarely do they get around to the primary question of whether federal support is a good or a bad thing overall. However, federal support of academic research is complex and, while important, deserves a more extended forum than I am able to exercise here.

The academic curriculum in engineering has not been subjected to the type of “deconstruction” and revision that has afflicted the liberal arts. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with which I am familiar, the courses of study are presented with a high degree of fidelity to objective truths. The faculty are generally very capable, dedicated, and scholarly. Research activity can, and sometimes does, divert a faculty member’s attention from a basic teaching function, although it is important to note that research is often closely linked with teaching, so that the two cannot be absolutely separated, particularly at the level of graduate education. But something has happened over a period of about thirty years which has degraded the “learning opportunity potential” (as I like to call it) even of engineering students, and this development is not unconnected with other developments described by Dr. Bertonneau.

I refer to the gradual reduction in the length of the academic year and in the total academic semester-hours required to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering. These reductions at Michigan occurred almost simultaneously in engineering during the early 1960s. At that time, largely as a result of political pressure from the state legislature to use university facilities more “efficiently,” the university changed its academic year from the traditional semester system to what is called a trimester system. This resulted in a reduction in the number of classroom days in an academic year from 206 in 1960-61 to 189 thereafter, a calendar still in effect today. At about the same time, the College of Engineering reduced the number of semester credit hours required for the bachelor’s degree from an average of 138 to 128. This double reduction resulted in an approximate 15% loss in true course contact / classroom contact for students, or what I call the “learning opportunity potential.”

While well stated reasons were given for this combined trimming of the academic calendar and reduction in degree requirements, the fact is that both were reduced. I recognize that there is no absolute basis for evaluating curricular structures, but I am also strongly of the opinion that the pre-1960-61 curriculum served engineering education better than the post-1960-61 curriculum. A 15% reduction in the student’s “learning opportunity potential” is significant.

Certain other, less tangible, losses accompanied the shrinkage of the calendar year and the reduction in degree-requirements. In 1996, classes were over on April 23, which was the last practical date for any student-faculty socializing. Prior to the trimester system, it was traditional for the faculty and undergraduates in mechanical engineering to hold a June picnic together, an event greatly anticipated by all, especially by graduating seniors. Ann Arbor is especially beautiful in May and June, as spring returns to campus. Now, however, most students have left campus by the first few days of May, and they are unable to enjoy either the faculty-student picnic or the delights of spring on campus.

This might seem unimportant, but I believe that such experiences should not be underestimated. They represented an important aesthetic or even spiritual perquisite to the hard side of education and their loss is therefore to be deplored. I suggest that alumni relations, for example, have probably lost something in their intensity of commitment because of the disappearance of opportunities for faculty and students to interact informally and socially. The question of the academic calendar is not, then, a purely technical or administrative one. Like almost every aspect of higher education, there are subtle factors that a purely material view of the situation fails to take into account.

A good first step in the reform of undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, and perhaps on other campuses where the same type of calendar is in force, would be to restore the traditional semester system. I understand that, after nearly four decades of living with the tri-mester system, this would present difficulties, not the least of which would be fiscal. But most reforms of institutions are difficult and the value of any reform must be weighed against the vicissitudes of implementation. Thus, while there is probably only slim hope for restoring the bachelor’s degree requirement in engineering to a more rigorous 138 semester hours, such a change would nevertheless be beneficial for students, and it ought to at least be the subject of serious, rather than perfunctory, discussion.

A concept familiar to engineers—and to anyone who has taken a basic physics course—is the concept of inertia, which can be defined as the tendency of an object to remain in motion or at rest. Metaphorically speaking, institutions appear to be subject to interia: Decisions are made, without sufficient foresight, which set institutions on a course which they dumbly maintain. Sometimes we refer to the “status quo” as something unchangeable or even inviolable. But institutions are created by people and they are subject both to critique and to alteration. I strongly believe that the time has come to reject what I might call the “myth of institutional inertia” that protects higher education from serious scrutiny. It is time to take a long hard look at the cumulus of thirty years or more of institutional inertia and to make changes.