UGA engineering plans offer needless duplications of superior Tech

The availability of a world-class engineering workforce is a key ingredient of a state's attraction to investors of growth industries. For 125 years, the Georgia Institute of Technology has almost singlehandedly fulfilled the role of supplying the engineering talent to meet Georgia's needs. Georgia Tech has done so with spectacular success -- routinely ranking among the world's best, usually with little local notice.


So why would we dilute our efforts to maintain global, and national leadership by dividing our resources at a time when state budgets will continue to shrink?

Recently, the University of Georgia submitted a proposal to the Board of Regents to develop additional competing and duplicate engineering programs of its own. UGA already offers degrees in agricultural, biochemical, biological, computer systems and environmental engineering -- programs in their infancy, yet to achieve national prominence.

The request to expand into the more traditional disciplines of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering makes no reasonable sense. These new offerings would directly duplicate degrees already offered at Georgia Tech -- with all three programs ranked in the top five nationally. The Regents plan to consider the UGA proposal at their November meeting Wednesday.

The rationale and assumptions put forward by UGA for the creation of duplicate programs at a time of contracting operating budgets makes little objective sense.

- Fact or fiction? Georgia companies are unable to hire enough engineers to operate their businesses.

Last year, Georgia Tech graduated more than 1,500 engineers with bachelor's degrees, and more civil, electrical and mechanical engineers than any other school in the nation. Yet, only 800 of them could find employment in Georgia. Clearly there is significant current capacity for recruitment by Georgia companies.

We should, as a state, aspire to grow our industries that require additional engineers and scientists. Which institute is best prepared to graduate additional engineers? The clear answer is Georgia Tech. Scale matters in engineering education, and the incremental cost to grow a program is a fraction of the cost of starting a new one. Georgia Tech has made the long-term investments to continue to grow with our state's needs, and the institute has stated that it can add 1,500 more undergraduates on the Atlanta campus and 300 additional undergraduates on its newer and expanding Savannah campus by 2015.

- Fact or fiction? Georgia students with SAT scores of 1250 to 1350 cannot get into Georgia Tech, and are leaving to attend competing universities in neighboring states.

Entrance standards at all schools, including Georgia Tech, have risen and the median SAT score for the 2010 freshman class at Tech is 1370, which implies that half of admitted students have scores below 1370. It is reasonable to assume that a significant number of students with scores in the 1250-to-1350 range were admitted.

As for the assertion that Georgia students are going to engineering programs in neighboring states, it is curious that UGA focuses on a small fraction of those studying out-of-state. Only 10 percent of Georgia residents studying at Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Tennessee are majoring in engineering. If the goal is to keep additional Georgia high-school students in-state for college, then I suggest we focus on the 90 percent who studied out-of-state in non-engineering programs.

- Fact or fiction? Engineering programs in these disciplines would greatly enhance UGA's research capabilities.

University research programs reach excellence due to size and scale. Georgia Tech has risen to the No. 4-ranked engineering program in the nation, only behind Stanford, MIT and the only other state school, the University of California at Berkeley. What has permitted Georgia to outshine 49 other states? The single most important reason is that Georgia has, up until now, had the wisdom, discipline and foresight to focus nearly all of its state resources for engineering at one institution.

Engineering programs are extraordinarily expensive, and concentrated investment has allowed the state to grow and reap the benefits of a pre-eminent institution at Tech. The current funding model has provided the resources for Georgia Tech's programs to flourish by attracting world-class faculty and facilities.

The argument that a new and small engineering program at UGA will greatly expand the school's research activities is weak and inconsistent with practice. University engineering research is primarily based on the availability of graduate students, and it is unclear how adding undergraduate programs will have any impact in this area. Even if there are plans to add graduate programs in the future, it will take decades for such programs to be competitive in the current federal research funding environment.

At a time when state resources are limited and shrinking, the UGA proposal to launch new and expensive engineering programs make little common sense. Despite assurances that these programs will not dilute state resources, the facts are inconsistent with the promises.

Instead, we should celebrate the success that Georgia Tech has achieved, and recommit our state resources to maintaining the school's global pre-eminence in technology and engineering. It would be irresponsible and tragic to jeopardize that success. Let's find smart and efficient new ways to cooperate and leverage each school's existing programs for the benefit of the future of Georgia.

(The writer is chairman of the nonprofit Georgia Tech Alumni Association.)



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