An Engineering Renaissance

Columbia Engineering at 150

Nov 16 2014 | By Robert A. McCaughey | Images courtesy of Columbia University Archives

Robert A. McCaughey is the Professor of History and Janet H. Robb Chair in the Social Sciences, Barnard College.
He is the author of Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1784–2004 (Columbia University Press, 2003), and A Lever Long Enough: A History of Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science Since 1864 (Columbia University Press, 2014).

Seldom have the celebratory imperatives of an institution’s birthday and the realities of its recent history been so exactly aligned as here, on the 150th anniversary of Columbia Engineering. To be sure, at its 25th birthday in 1889,  the then School of Mines was flourishing, its first dean (1864–1897) and Columbia’s best known scientist, Charles F. Chandler was in charge of the School’s administrative affairs. Electrical engineering had just then been added to the School’s programs in mining, applied chemistry, and civil and mechanical engineering. Enrollments matched and often exceeded that of the much older School of the Arts (aka “The College”); its graduates dominated New York City’s engineering ranks. Still, the recent death of Frederick A. Barnard cost the School its first and most vigorous presidential advocate.

And so it went. By the 50th anniversary of the School (now the Schools of Engineering, Chemistry, and Mining) in 1914, a just introduced Trustee-mandated 3/3 plan would limit the capacity of the School to grow by reducing its recruitment pool to undergraduates who had completed at least two years in Columbia College. Increased graduate enrollments only partially made up for the shortfall in undergraduates, and Columbia ceded its earlier place among America’s largest producers of engineering graduates. The 75th birthday in 1939 occurred with the Depression ongoing and war again imminent.

The centennial, in 1964, was unfolding just as Dean John Dunning had been relieved of his administrative duties by the Trustees, while the School operated at 50 percent full capacity. In addition, New York City had lost—temporarily, it now seems—its attraction for a generation of postwar suburban-bound students and faculty. Departmental rankings, at the start of the decade easily in the top 10, by its close had slipped into the double digits.

By its 125th birthday in 1989, the School had effected an impressive recovery from the early 1970s, thanks in part to the turn-around deanship of Peter Likins (1976–80) and the programmatic updating, especially in applied physics, computer science, and bioengineering, that marked the deanship of Bob Gross (1981–89). Yet Gross’s deanship ended with the School broke and in debt due to what Gross’s critics called wasteful spending on the Center for Engineering and Physical Science  Research (Schapiro CEPSR), a building that has since come to be seen as absolutely crucial to the future of engineering at Columbia. Only with the revival of New York City’s fortunes in the early 1990s and the installation of Zvi Galil as the School’s 13th dean in 1996 did the School achieve the sustainable takeoff that has propelled it to its present state of historically unparalleled institutional well-being.

Chemistry Lab, 1915.

To what can this current well-being be attributed? I suggest five factors. First, a 40-year period where the School has enjoyed almost continuously effective and imaginative administrative leadership. Second, although if not with the personal care Barnard accorded to his fledgling School of Mines, every Columbia president since William McGill in the 1970s has acknowledged the role of the School of Engineering and Applied Science as a major contributor, first to the University’s academic and financial recovery and second, to its current flourishing. Third, the SEAS faculty in the 1980s placed the right bets on areas of engineering that were most likely to transform the profession, not just on broad subjects like computer science and bioengineering, but in subfields and interdepartmental initiatives such as cyber security, nanotechnology, neural engineering, financial engineering, and data science. Fourth, recruited faculty and students now coming to SEAS are drawn to it in large measure because they see the School not as a marginal appendage but an integral part of a great university, one long known for its excellence in the  humanities and the social sciences, from which its famed Core Curriculum is drawn. They also see it as the site of extensive collaboration among its scientific departments, its famed medical school, and its engineering school, with the last more often than not serving as the matchmaker and administrative overseer of these cross-campus collaborations. The Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, under the direction of Professor Kathleen McKeown, is a case in point.

And then there is a final factor that influences the state of engineering education throughout the United States, if not beyond, but which is especially telling here at Columbia. It is what historian of science Paul Forman has characterized as “the abrupt reversal of cultural ascribed primacy in the science-technology relationship—namely, from the primacy of science relative to technology prior to circa 1980, to the primacy of technology relative to science since that date.” At few major universities did its scientists—long housed here in their own Faculty of Pure Science—command so much of the institutional high ground as at Columbia, while leaving its lowly engineers, as the Columbia psychologist Eugene Galanter caricatured the once-prevailing Morningside mindset, “to construct dongles and dohickeys.”

In retrospect, it is a wonder that Columbia engineers even survived—and without disruption—in such a technologyskeptical institutional environment. (Harvard and Yale engineers have enjoyed no such historical continuity.) Columbia’s engineers did so in no small part by, as the poet Kipling put it in a riff on the Biblical sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, in “The Sons of Martha,” by assigning to themselves the subservient role of Martha, ceding to Columbia’s scientists “the better part.”

No longer. Martha has left the kitchen. Whether one attributes the privileging of solutions-driven technology over curiositydriven science to the end of the Cold War, the “biological turn,” or the ubiquity of the computer, today’s Columbia engineers and applied scientists have been its principal beneficiaries. Faculty in the nine SEAS departments now teach more undergraduates, train more graduate students, award more PhDs, and secure more research grants than do the faculty in the six cognate departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Yet Columbia’s engineers actively seek out areas for fruitful collaboration with colleagues in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and environmental science, but also, in the instance of the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering, with professional-school colleagues in law, business, international and public affairs, journalism, and—who would ever have thunk it?—in English and history! If the name of the game at Columbia for the foreseeable future is, as its last four presidents have said, encouraging crossfertilization in both teaching and research, who better to take on the role of Columbia’s Johnny Appleseed than its engineers?

Happy Birthday!