A convoluted road to a degree

January 2009 » Columns
A convoluted civil engineering degree program partnership being offered by Tulane, Johns Hopkins, and Vanderbilt Universities raises many questions.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E.

I would be remiss if I did not, sadly, report the passing of Neal Bettigole, distinguished bridge engineer, civil engineer, and dear friend. He died this past October and will be missed by all who knew him. This column is dedicated to him

Bettigole was a Yale graduate, circa the early 1950s. One of the things he used to talk about—and lament—was the fact that his alma mater no longer had a department of civil engineering. In my November 2003 Perspective column, "Civil engineering: More than technology," I also complained about that sad fact. Subsequent to publication of that old column, I received numerous e-mails from noted civil engineers who decried the Yale attitude.

Bettigole’s passing brought the subject to my mind again, as did a recent article in the JHU Gazette, the house newspaper of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The article described an interesting partnership that has grown among three respected institutions of higher learning as the direct result of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Because of the damage, the civil engineering program at Tulane’s School of Science and Engineering, located in New Orleans, was eliminated.

The joint educational program enables undergraduate students enrolled in Tulane’s School of Science and Engineering to earn dual degrees in physics and engineering. After three years of study at Tulane, followed by two years of study at one of the partner universities, graduating students receive a bachelor’s of science (B.S.) degree in physics from Tulane and a B.S. in civil engineering (or other technical discipline) from either Johns Hopkins University or Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Thus, the four engineering degree programs that were eliminated at Tulane because of Hurricane Katrina would be available to Tulane students through this cooperative program.

According to E.R. Schenerman, vice dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins, that school will offer one of four engineering degrees—civil, mechanical, electrical, or environmental—to Tulane students who completed three years as physics majors in New Orleans. Vanderbilt will also offer civil, mechanical, or electrical engineering degrees under the program.

When a Tulane student opts to participate in the dual-degree program, faculty members of the universities involved will be joint advisors to assist in preparing studies in academic programs. From my reading of the JHU Gazette article, successful students will graduate with two undergraduate degrees in the same (fifth) year of study.

Although the road being traveled by the three prestigious universities seems convoluted and difficult to grasp, I can visualize both the advantages and disadvantages of the inter-varsity program. From the standpoint of the universities, extending the period of undergraduate education to five years is probably in their best financial interests. Many colleges may have already extended their civil engineering degree programs to five years.

Willing to assist Tulane and its present and future students, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt are to be commended for trying to be helpful. But it seems to me that they are doing something that is also self-serving.

Traditionally, the first degree in a college has been a bachelor’s. The second degree, also traditionally, has been a master’s. If I were enrolled or considering enrolling at Tulane, I would much prefer to receive a B.S. degree there and a master of science degree at Tulane or at one of the other participating universities after five years of successful college work. In my view, that fifth year of study should result in the awarding of an advanced degree in a specialty such as hydraulics, traffic, or structures. There is also the question of the doctoral track. Would a Ph.D. require eight years of college instead of the traditional seven years?

Educators may challenge my opinion, but until it is demonstrated that the road charted by the three schools is the right one, I believe the traditional route is better. Many questions should be answered before I would buy into the programs being offered by Tulane, Johns Hopkins, and Vanderbilt.


Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 201-441-9719.


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