Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 23, 2001Volume 29, Number 23

Paul Fleury

Fleury charts future of Yale Engineering

Last fall, Paul Fleury became the new dean of Yale's Faculty of Engineering, and set about the task of raising the program's visibility.

With the help of Yale's $500 million commitment to expand science and engineering facilities, Fleury is confident that the many goals he has for enhancing the program can be accomplished.

Fleury, who was most recently the dean of engineering at the University of New Mexico, succeeded D. Allan Bromley, who was dean for five years. The new dean is an award-winning scientist and engineer who has served in a wide variety of top-level research and executive positions in industry, government and academia for the past 30 years. He has received prestigious awards for his research in condensed matter and optical science, and is a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

As the engineering program prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2002, Fleury plans to use his broad knowledge of applied science and his proven managerial skills to implement the initiatives started by his predecessor to strengthen engineering education and research at Yale.

What are your goals for Yale's engineering program?

I would very much like to expand the visibility of the program, both inside and outside of Yale. Achieving this goal involves some expansion of the program itself, particularly in the areas of biomedical and environmental engineering. But expanding visibility also involves articulating our message in a more compelling way and effectively delivering it to the broader outside world as well as to our colleagues in the engineering and applied science communities.

What message are you trying to get across?

The message, particularly for undergraduates, is that Yale has the best liberally grounded education for engineering or applied science in the country. I want potential students to understand that Yale offers a unique environment in which to study for an undergraduate or graduate engineering degree. The combination of Yale's strong liberal arts base and the rigor and technical content that goes along with an engineering program produces students with a foundation that prepares them not only for science and engineering careers, but also for virtually any other field, such as medicine, law and business.

I think one of the reasons we don't have more students coming into Yale engineering as undergraduates is that many of those who could best benefit from this kind of rigorous, but exciting, program, don't even consider Yale seriously because they're so technically focused. We need to become a part of their considerations. At the graduate level we share many of the problems that others face in attracting the best students, but are in a very good position to deal with them. Here again, getting the message out is essential.

What challenges do you face in achieving your goals?

Given the history of engineering at Yale over the last 150 years, there is a certain amount of skepticism remaining in the outside world about the University's commitment to engineering and science. Therefore, I think it was particularly important when President Levin announced a year ago the very substantial initiatives for science and engineering to the tune of $500 million. The world took notice of that. As the first real embodiment of this commitment, the generous gift from John Malone [a 1963 graduate of Yale's engineering program and chair of Liberty Media Corporation] has already enabled our start on a new engineering building. That initiative, combined with our recruiting of top-notch senior and junior faculty, will certainly help us achieve our goals. It's been very important that President Levin made that commitment so firmly and so publicly.

Besides public attention and new facilities, in what other ways will the $500 million commitment help Yale engineering?

The announcement came at a particularly opportune time for the engineering program. The start on our new building is an admirable launch for the 150th anniversary of Yale engineering in 2002. This presents a unique opportunity to highlight our programs, and to make a major outreach to the community, alumni and students. Planning for our sesquicentennial is now underway. We will use it, for example, to bring people to the campus -- leaders in the various fields of research -- to highlight the research of our own students and faculty and to show prospective students and collaborators what is really going on at Yale. But equally important, the commitment will give a lot of our alumni and friends confidence that Yale is serious about us, so, hopefully, they'll want to join the effort.

Has the commitment boosted alumni interest and giving?

I think so. An important indication of the increased involvement of our alumni has been the several endowed chairs donated over the past few years, most recently by Tom Golden, an alumnus who's celebrating his 50th anniversary. Allan Bromley was instrumental in fostering such alumni involvement. Indeed, he started many of the initiatives I've mentioned and has put Yale engineering back onto the national map. It is my job to make sure that position is even more secure and visible in the future.

Do you think the world's perception of Yale engineering is beginning to change?

I definitely do. One of the best signs that the world is being convinced of this commitment has been the quality of the faculty we've been able to hire here in the last few years. The last half-dozen or so hires into the engineering faculty have been courted by some of the best engineering programs in the country. They had offers from schools like MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Stanford, and chose Yale. We will always have fewer faculty than such schools, but we need to make sure that our quality is at least as high.

How does Yale's engineering program compare with others?

In engineering, there's a reasonable correlation between the size of programs and their reputation and ranking. I believe that Yale's faculty and student body is, on a pound for pound basis, quite competitive with the best programs in the country. But because we cannot rely on size, we have to be particularly selective in focusing on areas of research excellence while ensuring coverage of the academic disciplines we teach. In particular, we must incorporate our research excellence with exciting undergraduate offerings that allow our students to take full advantage of the Yale College experience. As we do this I believe we will build the numbers of undergraduate majors up to a level that is, on a per faculty basis, comparable to the best programs in the country. And, of course, our graduates will have received the finest undergraduate education available anywhere.

What areas of engineering can students specialize in?

Yale Engineering offers several undergraduate degrees in four departments and two programs. The departments are applied physics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and electrical (computer) engineering. The engineering departments offer ABET [Accreditation Board on Engineering] accredited degrees as well as other degree options. Our applied physics degree program is competitive with the very best programs anywhere in the country. We also offer undergraduate degrees in biomedical and environmental engineering. Graduate students can pursue studies leading to master's and Ph.D. degrees in any of these specialties. In addition, we have the Select Program, which allows undergraduates to take a fifth year and get a master's degree, which involves working with industry in a specified committed way.

Can you describe the relationship between Yale's undergraduate and graduate programs?

At Yale and in engineering programs in general, there's a closer tie between graduate programs, research and undergraduate programs than perhaps in just about any other field. That's something we need to take more advantage of to build on. You cannot have first-class faculty without a vigorous research program. Engineering and science are not spectator sports. You have to be involved in the discovery and creation of the new knowledge in order to really excite students and to be on the forefront of imparting that knowledge.

There is a growing call to increase technical talent in the United States. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve this?

The technical talent in the United States required to realize societal benefit from new technology is increasingly being supplied by people from other countries. It is wonderful to have people come to this country to work and contribute, but we are not doing our part as a nation to supply the needed talent. For example, over a quarter of a million 'critical skills' people are needed every year. Yet we produce only about 65,000 engineers and scientists annually.

I think that is a national issue. Although various programs have been initiated to encourage the interest of young students in science and technology, they have not been successful in addressing the problem far enough down into the grade schools. The challenge of math and science preparation right from the beginning demands qualified math and science teachers at all levels, as well as well-educated practicing scientists and engineers. This is something of a pet issue for me.

What strategies do you have for attracting and retaining more students to engineering here at Yale?

We want to improve our programs by making the earlier courses more interesting and more exciting for undergraduate students. We will improve our participation in the recruiting and admissions process, so we get more of the students who are interested in engineering to come to Yale in the first place and, once they are here, to attract them into the engineering program. About half of the undergraduate students who come here with the initial intent to major in engineering end up doing something else. We must do more to inform and involve these students in the excitement of engineering and science.

Unfortunately, national enrollments in graduate engineering programs have been decreasing over the last several years. To some extent this affects us by increasing the competition among the top programs for the best students. Our approach must be to emphasize our world-class professors who are executing very exciting forefront research projects and to give appropriate prominence to our achievements in our outreach efforts.

Are there opportunities for interdisciplinary research at Yale?

Engineering is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, partly because the traditional practice-oriented engineering approaches are being supplanted by a stronger scientific base and partly because real-world problems are seldom solvable within the confines of a single academic discipline. While fields like biomedical and environmental engineering are inherently interdisciplinary, all fields today are depending on concepts and approaches from many others.

Yale is especially well equipped to lead in interdisciplinary research with a capital "I", that which involves very different fields, not merely different subfields of science or engineering. For example, biomedical engineering research requires creative ways of working with traditionally disparate communities, such as the medical school and the medical research community on the one hand, and the engineering and physical sciences communities on the other.

Environmental engineering involves a lot of policy, political and social questions, as well as hard-core engineering. Here we have opportunities to work with the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and perhaps with the Law School, the School of Management and a variety of departments in arts and sciences.

Future technologies will be increasingly woven around the themes of biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology (very small parts and systems). Nanotechnology involves integrating materials, physics, engineering approaches and even biological systems to enable entirely new functions. Information technology combines computer science, engineering and mathematics to devise new approaches for storing, transmitting and processing information. It also involves such complex issues as human computer interfaces and issues of privacy and information security.

I believe that the main purpose of engineering is to improve the human condition by applying the discoveries of science for the benefit of humankind. This is a very complex challenge, which requires continual improvement in our interdisciplinary approaches. Yale is among the best-equipped institutions in the world to meet this challenge. I am delighted to have the opportunity to play a part in bringing that about.

-- By Karen Peart


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