There’s a big idea on North Campus, that civilized wilderness LSA students might remember from bus trips to visit friends in Bursley and Baits. It comes from the office of James Duderstadt, the former University president who is now an elder statesman. He’s a lot like Bill Clinton in that respect – except instead of trying to get his wife elected president, Duderstadt writes books and reports and comes up with big ideas.
Like most big ideas, his latest one is challenging. Like most big ideas, it will be met with staunch resistance. But like few big ideas, it might just work.
Last month, Duderstadt released a report titled “Engineering for a Changing World.” Here are the basics: Shift engineering education to the graduate level, much like law and medicine. That way, future engineers would have a chance as undergraduates to get the broad liberal arts education that doctors and attorneys have. Thus, when engineers delve into the nitty gritty details of kinematic chains, they’d be armed with an abstract base of knowledge from their wistful undergrad days.
So when professional engineers are developing brain implants to improve intelligence, they could draw on the science fiction novels they read in Prof. Eric Rabkin’s undergrad sci-fi literature course: prophetic tomes that warn against such technology. That’s a crude example, but you get the idea.
Among other effects – you can read about them in an electronic version of the report, which is linked to this column at michigandaily.com – Duderstadt envisions this shift as a boon to the number of engineers who take on leadership roles in society. Duderstadt is himself an engineer-leader, a common archetype in rising countries like China but a rarity in an American government dominated by lawyers and businessmen. While opinions on campus are mixed about how successful his tenure as president was, few argue the fact that he brought a new perspective to campus that led to innovation, like it or not.
But is it possible to lead such a change at the University, with its massive bureaucracy and its legions resistant to change?
Duderstadt says yes.
He tells the story of a private 1985 conversation he had with then-Harvard President Derek Bok in which Bok explained that the University of Michigan’s size affords it to take more risks. If the gamble fails, Bok said, the University is better suited to absorb the fallout. Harvard may have deeper pockets, but the University of Michigan’s breadth gives it the advantage of not risking complete destruction on account of one academic unit’s miscalculation in innovation.
The University of Michigan is the perfect place to begin the shift to graduate engineering education for another reason: the automobile industry.
The U.S. auto industry is collapsing, with middle-class factory jobs escaping to places where the labor is cheaper. This exodus of manufacturing jobs is in turn slaughtering Michigan’s economy. Up until the other 49 states joined it, Michigan was commonly described as being in a “one-state recession.”
The only antidote seems to be a better-educated workforce, the mythical “knowledge economy” to which state legislators give so much lip service but so little actual funding. The higher cost of living here means Americans cannot be cheaper labor – but they can be better-educated labor. They can be more imaginative.
Only, though, if they occupy some kind of niche. That niche may be a different breed of engineer, one who has the education not just to tinker but also to realize the larger effects of tinkering. An undergraduate liberal arts degree with a dual concentration in environmental sciences and public policy, for instance, gives the graduate automobile engineering student a new mindset. How can automakers be more environmentally conscious but stay profitable? How can we make a car that lessens our dependence on foreign oil? Should we even be talking about “cars” rather than “vehicles” or some other as-yet-unimagined type of transportation?
Those are the questions American engineers need to be asking themselves more often.
I’m still not convinced that Duderstadt’s report is going to take engineering education down the same path that medical education took after the publication of the Flexner Report in 1910, which helped raise standards at medical schools and redefine how doctors function in society. But if it does, what better place to start the journey than the University of Michigan?
Read an electronic version of Duderstadt’s report here: http://www.michigandaily.com/media/paper851/documents/1kn7dqa9.pdf
Karl Stampfl was the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.