Engineering: Essential to the Liberal Arts

Dec. 1, 2014

Published in the Dec. 3, 2014, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

As student interest in engineering soars at Princeton and nationwide, conversations at institutions like ours often revolve around the benefits of liberal arts studies for engineers. In reflecting upon the growth and future of engineering education at Princeton, I want to emphasize the flipside of that coin — engineering clearly is now an essential part of an excellent liberal arts education.

The quality of a liberal arts university today depends greatly on the strength of its engineering programs, which serve as windows upon human experience and as models of problem-driven, rigorous inquiry in addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges. That is a shift: indeed, a generation ago, engineering felt distant from Princeton’s core.

Engineering’s interdisciplinary ties are growing. Here, students perform in “Flock Logic,” a dance concert inspired by research on collective motion conducted by Naomi Ehrich Leonard ’85, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. (Image by Evelyn Tu)

In my undergraduate days in the early 1980s — a time that seems like yesterday to some of us, and like the Dark Ages to our current students — engineering was literally and figuratively at the margins of campus. The Engineering Quadrangle was separated from the rest of campus mostly by parking lots. Few non-majors took engineering courses. (As a physics major, I took one computer science class, taught by Forman Acton ’43 *44.) Engineers were not well represented in senior University leadership.

When President William G. Bowen *58 described the University’s mission in a 1982 report for “A Campaign for Princeton,” he wrote: “Princeton is a university of international standing distinguished by its overriding commitment to a carefully limited but ambitious role: to pursue liberal education, scholarship, and research of the highest quality primarily in the arts and sciences” (emphasis in the original). He lauded the schools of engineering, public and international affairs, and architecture for advancing fundamental knowledge, but noted that those schools “are agreed that it is the arts and sciences which define the basic academic orientation of Princeton.”

Times have changed. In the subsequent three decades, Princeton has invested heavily in making the School of Engineering and Applied Science part of the lifeblood of our liberal arts education.

During President Bowen’s tenure, for example, the Department of Computer Science was established as a standalone department in 1985. (Its building opened across from the EQuad four years later.) Through the leadership of presidents Bowen, Harold T. Shapiro *64, and Shirley M. Tilghman, Princeton’s engineering school enhanced traditional programs such as electrical and civil engineering; created cutting-edge initiatives that combine fundamental science with societal needs including energy and the environment, health, and Internet security; and forged interdisciplinary connections with arts and sciences departments across campus. Sir Gordon Wu ’58 and Gerhard Andlinger ’52 aided the school with two of the largest gifts in Princeton’s history; Dennis Keller ’63, who co-chairs the school’s Leadership Council, made major gifts to support the Keller Center and to help build the Friend Center; and other generous alumni have helped tremendously. Engineers today are well represented in University leadership: Dean of the Graduate School Sanjeev Kulkarni and Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti are engineering faculty members, and Dean of Engineering Vincent Poor *77 is a member of my cabinet.

Student interest in engineering is skyrocketing. The number of junior and senior concentrators in our six engineering departments — computer science, electrical, civil and environmental, chemical and biological, mechanical and aerospace, and operations research and financial — has jumped from 440 to 695 in just the past five years. The number of women studying engineering has risen significantly, with some departments achieving gender balance. Today, roughly 70 percent of A.B. candidates take at least one engineering course.

This upsurge in activity and interest has brought stronger connections between engineering and the basic aims of a liberal arts university. Disciplines in liberal arts universities often claim implicitly to offer a perspective not just on a specific subject, but on all human experience. While this is certainly true in areas such as philosophy, history, or literature, it is less obvious but no less true in engineering. Take computer science — its ascendancy does not simply reflect greater interest in machine building and computation. Computers function as models for human intelligence, and help unlock and advance knowledge in all fields and endeavors. They are integral to our efforts to inspire students to make a positive impact in our increasingly data-driven world.

Engineering also exemplifies the values of interdisciplinarity, creativity, and intellectual entrepreneurship that are key to the University’s success today and in the future. Partnerships between engineers and humanists, artists, and social and natural scientists abound. In 2010, for instance, Naomi Ehrich Leonard ’85, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, teamed with Susan Marshall, director of the Program in Dance, to teach an Atelier course and produce “Flock Logic,” an inventive performance of studentcreated dances inspired by studies of collective motion in nature and robotics.

In addition, many initiatives have arisen from the EQuad on subjects not typically associated with engineering. For example, Mung Chiang, the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical Engineering, has become a national leader in studying the effectiveness of online education. Such research could occur anywhere on campus, but Professor Chiang is able to tackle key questions about online learning through the lens of his expertise in communications networks.

As our University-wide strategic planning progresses, engineering is a critical area of focus. Princeton’s ability to provide the highest-quality liberal arts education, and to be visibly present and impactful on questions of public importance, will depend heavily on the continued vitality of our spectacular School of Engineering and Applied Science.