UGA eng. money can be better spent

The Board of Regents should not approve the UGA’s request to add mechanical, civil and electrial engineering majors to its curricula. UGA’s enthusiasm in improving Georgia’s science and technology industry is well-founded, but misplaced. The $600 million that UGA has requested to start these engineering programs is better spent on improving science and technology (S&T) teachers in primary and secondary school. The state government, in particular the incoming governor, should use the energy this debate has generated to craft a S&T strategic plan for the state that includes all stakeholders and lays out a clear path.

UGA has been slowly expanding its engineering program for the past several years, but the situation developed further when the Board of Regents voted to add the consideration of these new engineering programs to its October agenda. Both Institute President G.P. “Bud” Peterson and the Undergraduate SGA Executive Board have weighed in since then.

This issue understandably generates much passion among members of the Tech community. We’ve been doing engineering for the past 125 years, and we’re pretty darn good at it. Why should UGA go after what’s historically been Tech’s?

If UGA were funding these majors entirely in-house, this whole discussion would be pointless. However, UGA will reportedly ask the Board of Regents for $600 million, making this a state-wide discussion of the best use of precious resources.

UGA has responded by saying that these programs will address shortages in the supply of engineers in the state. The simple answer is that Georgia is not hurting for mechanical, electrical or civil engineers. Tech has produced studies which show the amount of engineers it graduates, the third highest in the country, is sufficient for the needs of the state. Also, according to the Technology Association of Georgia, the fastest growing high-tech industries are in the software and internet technology sectors, neither of which require large numbers of new engineers.

So what should the Board of Regents do with these resources if it doesn’t give the money to a UGA engineering program? The answer is not to spend the money on us, as the Executive Board of the Undergraduate SGA has claimed in a statement released this week. Instead, the Board of Regents should play to UGA’s strength of producing quality primary and secondary school teachers. Using the money to enhance the University’s ability to teach educators who can make S&T something Georgia schoolchildren get excited about will help those children, the S&T industry and the state.

The fact that this issue is gripping the entire University System is indicative of a lack of guidance in the direction it should take in helping to develop the S&T capability of the state. The state founded Tech in 1885 and reopened UGA in 1866 to promote engineering and the agricultural sciences. Since then, both institutions have done admirable jobs in developing Georgia’s economy. But now the playing field has changed, and the state of Georgia needs to decide how to wield its resources as we plunge into the 21st century.

I spoke with Marlit Hayslett, Director of GTRI’s Office of Policy Analysis and Research (OPAR), to better understand Georgia’s S&T landscape. For the past several years, OPAR has been speaking with S&T stakeholders in academia, government and industry. Based on that experience Hayslett told me, “Our state enjoys a rich and active S&T stakeholder community of both public and private sector organizations…The challenge is that they are driven by their independent missions, and coming together for a common statewide purpose is a not a priority.” In order to address this, OPAR suggests that the state develop a state strategic plan that includes a role for S&T.

Having seen Tech just go through our own Strategic Planning session, which produced recommendations specifically calling on Tech to delve further into S&T policy, I am sure that the Institute will welcome such a plan and join with the other schools in the University System in developing one which will include all of the stakeholders involved in S&T.

Both the Statehouse and the soon-to-be-governor should take notice of the debate taking place and use the passion it has generated to begin the creation of such a plan. It will ensure that each insitution, department and agency within the state is driving at the same S&T goal.