Chemical engineering education and finances from a student’s perspective

Some factors influencing what's taught in universities can be understood by financial analysis, some are due to misplaced priorities, and some are none of the above.

By Cecil Smith, PhD, PE

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Analyses of undergraduate degree programs in chemical engineering generally come from two perspectives, and with predictable results. Educators conclude that the basic principles are instilled into the students, most find gainful employment at a respectable salary, and everything is just fine. Employers conclude that the graduates know lots of theory but nothing about practice, the result being somewhere between a gap and a chasm that the employer must bridge at a substantial expense.

What's needed is an analysis from the perspective of the student, with emphasis on financial aspects. Industry assesses the worth of ventures using tools such as discounted cash flow (DCF) to compute net present value (NPV). Why not assess the worth of an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering using these same tools?

The situation today has changed little from when I left academia in 1979 after 13 years on the LSU faculty. I was on the chemical engineering faculty, electrical engineering faculty and for five years was chairman of the Computer Science Dept. Obviously, I was having some difficulty holding a steady job.

Dr. Jesse Coates was the father-figure of chemical engineering at LSU—his father started the Audubon Sugar School in New Orleans, which eventually evolved into the Chemical Engineering Dept. I recall Dr. Coates telling me, “Son, you have two choices—you can either teach or go to work.” So I resigned a tenured, full professorship to go to work. I left with considerable sadness—LSU had been very good to me.

But in addition to computing DCFs, we need some straight talk on certain aspects of a chemical engineering education.

Academic research

Engineering faculty members are under intense pressure to secure research grants and contracts. These are largely from the federal government, and the reason is quite simple—for every $1 from industry, the same effort will get $10 (or more) from Uncle Sam. The occasional grant from industry is inconsequential.

To be considered for promotion and tenure, a tenure-track faculty member must author papers for peer-reviewed journals. Termed scholarly publications, most are highly theoretical, often with no obvious relationship to anything useful to industry. An entry-level faculty member is given around five years to meet the requirements. The term “publish or perish” is quite accurate, and contributes to the pressure to secure grants and contracts that lead to scholarly publications.

How does undergraduate teaching figure into promotion? At most universities, excellent undergraduate teaching will not get one promoted, but terrible undergraduate teaching can prevent one from being promoted. A consequence is that non-tenured faculty members avoid courses involving engineering practice. These tend to be time-consuming, and few faculty members have sufficient meaningful industrial experience to teach engineering practice. Many departments must hire adjunct professors to teach such courses.

Now for an uncomfortable fact: the reputation of a chemical engineering department is in no way related to the quality of its undergraduate instruction program. The reputation of a department reflects the collective reputations of its faculty members. How does a faculty member develop a reputation? By publications resulting from research endeavors, most of which rely on funding from grants and contracts.

While the emphasis on research has the potential to detract from the undergraduate instruction program, another aspect is of major importance to graduating students. The reputation of the chemical engineering department influences decisions by prospective employers. On average, graduates of the more esteemed chemical engineering departments will receive better job opportunities. If a faculty member isn't developing a professional reputation (through publishing or whatever), that faculty member is shortchanging the students and should be terminated at the first opportunity.

Academic institutions are no longer ivory towers. It’s a tough business.

Funding (or lack of it)

Financial stresses within academic institutions are severe. Engineering programs, and chemical engineering in particular, are expensive. Costs continue to increase, with salaries comprising 80% or more of most budgets.

Most chemical engineering students attend state-supported universities. The governor and all legislators are committed to a world-class status for every educational program in every university in their state. But when crunch time comes on the budget, reducing financial support for higher education seems irresistible. To date, universities have offset these reductions by increasing student fees. The ease of getting student loans helped make this the path of least resistance, but this approach is not sustainable.

A crude way to view the efficiency of a chemical engineering undergraduate program is the number of undergraduate degrees per tenure-track faculty member per year. Ways to increase this efficiency include the following:

    • Increase class sizes. In the 1960s, class sizes of 20 were common. Today, engineering class sizes are approaching 100 at some universities.
    • Use instructors who are less expensive than tenure-track faculty. Teaching assistants (mostly graduate students) are the least expensive; adjunct professors (mostly retirees from industry) are next.
    • Increase the use of computer-assisted instruction (CAI). In this regard, one has to distinguish education from training, an appropriate observation is: you train monkeys; you educate people. CAI has been proven to be effective for training, but chemical engineering is definitely an education.
    • Increase the course load for tenure-track faculty. Probably one should first propose to reduce their salary, and then offer this as a compromise.

All of these have one thing in common: reducing the face-to-face time between tenure-track faculty members and undergraduate students. If this is carried to the extreme, undergraduate students will earn their degrees without ever seeing a senior faculty member. Students deserve better.

Tenure issues

Eliminating tenure is often a component of simplistic solutions. Those in industry aren't guaranteed a job for life, so why should university faculty members be treated differently? For a simple reason—a person explaining to a class of students why the governor is a jerk should not have to fear retribution. No one from industry is likely to make such a presentation, nor is a chemical engineering professor. But a professor of political science just might. Of course, the next question is why senior faculty members are afforded this protection but junior (non-tenured) faculty members are not.

Academic institutions are no longer ivory towers. It’s a tough business.

Engineers are probably not as immune as they think. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Ivor van Heerden, a research geologist at LSU, pointed out that the improper construction of the levees led to their failure and the flooding of New Orleans, a view clearly critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The implications were huge—the flooding of New Orleans is generally viewed as a natural disaster, but improper levee construction makes it a man-made disaster. Van Heerden’s view seems to have prevailed.

Van Heerden called it as he saw it–that’s academic freedom. However, the interim dean of engineering did not renew his contract, a personnel action that eventually cost LSU about $1 million. However, the larger loss is that van Heerden is no longer a member of the LSU faculty.

Also read: Is a college education enough to get young engineers ready for the workforce? 

Trust me on this one–interim deans do not make such decisions on their own. Tenure was designed to protect faculty from politicians; is the new role of tenure to protect faculty from university administrators?

Control engineering

Some still cling to the desire to create a separate curriculum in control engineering. Given the fiscal realities, that's not going to happen. A new curriculum inevitably increases costs, a fact not lost on college administrators. An alternative is to create a control engineering specialty within chemical engineering, but the course requirements for chemical engineering don't permit sufficient flexibility.

Another problem with new curricula is that by the time academia responds, the need for that specialization has passed. In the 1960s, a number of universities, including LSU, introduced a curriculum in nuclear engineering. The future for nuclear technology was bright, or at least most thought so. Where are these programs today? Very few standalone nuclear engineering programs remain; the one at LSU morphed into minor in mechanical engineering.

Have we missed the window for control engineering? Probably. Into the 1980s, most process companies had internal groups, specializing in developing process control applications in their production facilities. Today is very different:

    • Internal process control groups have been downsized if not eliminated.
    • Companies now outsource most, if not all, work pertaining to their process controls.
    • Few major chemical, petrochemical and refining companies view their know-how in process controls as providing an edge over their competitors.

For the few control specialists required by the process companies, hiring a chemical engineer and transforming him/her into a control engineer is quite viable (some would argue preferable). It is well-known that chemical engineers make the best control engineers, so why change anything? Let’s focus on improving chemical engineering, not creating a new degree program.

Process control course

At the undergraduate level, most chemical engineering departments offer one elective course on process control. This has been a very popular course, but the popularity seems to be dropping, probably for the same reasons cited previously regarding the need for a curriculum in control engineering.

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  • I teach some aspects of process control at a state college as an adjunct and I appreciate your thoughtful and experienced insight that can be applied to any engineering discipline. The issue of relevancy of course content can be a tough one to deal with if the connection between local industry and the college is not closely interconnected. It requires dedicated partners on both sides.


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