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Engineering Growth

July/August 2016

By Margo Vanover Porter

At Texas A&M, university leaders assess every unit in the organization to find savings and invest those funds back into the institution’s core mission: education and research. One ambitious undertaking is to increase the number of students in the engineering program to 25,000 by 2025.


Bright and early one Sunday morning in 2012, about six months after she arrived at the Texas A&M University System, M. Katherine Banks phoned one of her colleagues. “I think we should grow our program,” said Banks, vice chancellor and dean of engineering.

“OK, we can add 100 or 200 new students,” agreed N.K. Anand, executive associate dean of engineering and a professor of mechanical engineering.

“Oh no,” Banks replied. “I think we need a big vision for growth that is transformational. We need to rethink the way we teach, do research, and connect with the community, basically everything we do in the college. It’s time.”

After an audible gulp and a moment of silence, Anand gave an answer that CBOs will appreciate: “Let’s sit down and run the numbers.”

So began the university’s “25 by 25” initiative, an undertaking with the ambitious goal of increasing the number of students in the engineering program to 25,000 by 2025, and offering better student opportunities.

“We have a very detailed plan,” Banks says. “We have predictive models on the number of staff, number of students, housing facilities, dining facilities, and instructional facilities. It’s a complicated system, but we are making great progress.”

Right now, the student headcount in engineering is 16,500, up 2,900 students from 2013, when the initiative began.

“We’re currently adding about 1.1 million square feet in research and educational facilities,” Banks says. “We’ve increased the number of faculty—we were at about 430 before the initiative; we have 550 faculty members now. Next year, we have 93 open positions. We anticipate we will have more than 900 faculty in 2025.”

To hit the targeted 25,000 students, the university has geared up in numerous areas and departments. “What do you need to grow?” Banks asks. “You need more faculty members, which we are adding every year. You need more classrooms, which we are increasing through new construction. You need more dorms and student housing, which are under development around campus and the community. You need more dining facilities. We’ll have a large Starbucks in our new building, and dining options are increasing around campus. A visiting colleague joked that our campus is looking a bit like Dubai over the last decade, since there appear to be cranes everywhere.”

More Than Money

According to Banks, the college’s initial financial projections and models made sense because of a then-new Texas A&M policy: For growth over the baseline set in 2012, a significant percentage of tuition would revert back to the college that taught the credit hours.

“For example, our first-year students take a number of math courses so the math department receives a significant amount of growth funding,” she explains. “That program was developed as an incentive for growth.” She quickly confirms that “this program is not just for engineering; it applies to the entire university.”

John Crawford, assistant vice chancellor for business management and chief financial officer for the engineering program, adds his two cents: “When you do something like this, the biggest question is always, ‘How in the heck are we going to pay for it?’” he says. “You can’t do it without help. We’ve had the support of our administration at A&M. We’ve received additional allocations to help with construction projects from the system office, as well as the university. The provost office has assisted us with startup opportunities. All of this comes to us through budget allocations.”

Gifts from current students, former students, and corporations also helped ease financial constraints. “So far, we have raised $68 million for our new engineering education complex, the most ever raised at Texas A&M for a building,” Crawford says.

The first donation—$1 million—came from the college’s student leadership organization. Members, anxious to have the opportunity to mingle in the new facility with engineering students from other disciplines, generated $500,000, a sizable amount that was accumulated from proceeds from a student-led career fair. They pledged the other half over a 10-year period.

While she obviously takes great pride in the fundraising results, Banks points out that more money isn’t the entire answer, as far as she is concerned. For each dollar spent, she wants more bang for the college’s buck.

“We’re looking holistically at how we can save money,” she says. “We are constantly evaluating our programs for efficiencies as we grow. We’re assessing every unit in our organization to find savings and invest those funds back into the core mission of this university: education and research.”

Changes in the Classroom

As part of an effort to focus on efficiencies, the college recently completed a process to centralize some services. “It has been remarkably helpful,” Banks says. “In the past, service units were located primarily in the departments and were relatively isolated. With shared services, we’ve developed a collegewide service model and provided these staff members with more professional development opportunities.”

Numerous changes, including the following four, have also been made in student instruction and classrooms:

“More of our faculty are moving to a flipped educational model,” Banks says. “A student reviews the information online at home that would normally be delivered in a lecture. Students, who learn better in an interactive environment, have more time for problem solving and discussion during classroom time.”

Banks make it clear that the faculty’s teaching load has not changed—only their schedules. “The average engineering faculty teaching load has not increased,” she clarifies, adding that a full-time load might be considered four courses a year, but that faculty assignment varies with active research responsibilities and productivity.

According to Banks, she did not require that all engineering departments increase their student populations. “I did not force any department to grow. I said, ‘You can stay the same size and I will not cut your budget.’ I gave them the opportunity to grow and told them we had the resources to support their growth.”

“Many of our faculty members today don’t have significant experience outside of academe so our students enjoy having opportunities to interact with outstanding individuals who have moved into very high levels in companies,” Banks says. “For example, we have an astronaut, a former chief drilling engineer of Exxon, high-level NASA officials, and individuals who have created startup companies. We have professors of practice who have made a mark in their fields. They bring something special to the classroom.”

Professors of practice stay at least a year; some select to remain permanently. In a few instances, companies have chosen to continue paying their employee’s salaries while these individuals are working on campus. The payoff for the company, Banks explains, is that “they have the opportunity to assess and recruit the best and the brightest students.”

Challenges Can Be Overcome

Although it appears to be smooth sailing for now, the 25 by 25 initiative hasn’t been without challenges, asserts Ed Pierson, chief information officer. “How do you change a tire at 55 miles per hour?” he asks. “We were already moving pretty fast. Now you add to that one of the most aggressive programs in the country in terms of engineering. You’ve got large-scale changes in technology and the footprint of the organization. There are a lot of lessons and challenges in that process.” Following are several examples:

“A significant part of our growth is retention,” she continues. “Today, we have 55 percent retention in engineering; in other words, 55 percent of the students who enter our engineering program graduate with an engineering degree. Our goal is 75 percent. An increase in engineering student numbers through retention does not require more students on campus. Right? People assume we’re bringing many more undergraduate students to campus. No, we’re just going to make sure that we have programs to support the students we already have in our programs to succeed and graduate in our college.”

To calculate the unit cost to educate an engineering student, Anand began by dividing the engineering budget by total number of engineering students. Then he added in the amount he estimated the budget was underfunded at the time. He did not include costs for the admissions office, landscaping, financial aid, and university police, all of which were handled by the provost office.

“We concentrated on the money that it is costing us to educate a student, taking into account faculty, staff, technician, business office, and advisor salaries,” he says. “We extrapolated that number and adjusted for inflation. That’s how we planned our course.”

The college of engineering budget currently hovers at $100 million.

Although a new building is on the horizon, the engineering college needed additional classroom space prior to the facility’s scheduled completion date in early 2018. When some old rundown greenhouses with broken windows were brought to Banks’ attention, she envisioned innovative classrooms with an open, industrial feel—and they just happened to sit next to dorms.

“They’re perfect,” she pronounced and proceeded with a renovation. “Instead of tearing them down and investing $50 to $100 million in a new building, we spent less than $4 million and transformed those greenhouses into eight innovative classrooms that will hold 100 students each. They are state-of-the-art, technology-driven education spaces.”

Between each of the greenhouses is an outdoor area with seating of sorts for students. “A creative young Aggie who is a landscape architect had the idea of covering mounds of dirt with AstroTurf and forming them into shapes,” Banks recalls. She remembers being rather dubious that anyone would want to stretch out on what was essentially a pile of dirt. She is now convinced.

“Students sit in the indentations or lay down on their stomachs and work on their laptop computers,” she says. “They love those mounds, which are like big outdoor beanbag chairs. They sit, they talk, they interact. They hang out.”

Banks embraces the philosophy of trying the untried and being open to possibilities. “I tell my group, ‘Step back. Look at the situation from 30,000 feet. For example, we can’t look at these buildings as greenhouses that must be demolished. We have to envision them as classrooms that could help us innovate the way we teach.’ That’s what we’re trying to do for every challenge that we face. Innovation. Transformation. That’s what 25 by 25 is all about.”

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


 

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