UGA engineering bid finds favor with regents despite Georgia Tech’s dismay

By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Friday, October 8, 2010

The University of Georgia has failed to make much headway in past attempts to win permission to expand its engineering program from the state Board of Regents.

But people close to Georgia Tech, home to the fourth-ranking engineering school in the nation, are worried that this year could be different.

In fact, some Tech insiders do not believe an expected Oct. 12 board vote on a UGA plan to offer three additional engineering degrees at the Athens campus — essentially a showdown between the two universities — will be a fair fight.

Of the 18 regents, 12 have ties to UGA and only four have ties to Georgia Tech. Although not all of the regents are expected to vote according to their university affiliations, it appears that UGA has the upper hand.

As recently as last year, UGA officials were before the regents with a proposal to launch a comprehensive engineering program. But it did not have the support of then-Chairman Bob Hatcher, a UGA alum who is president and CEO of MidCountry Financial Corp., and the proposal didn’t advance.

But this year’s board chairman, Willis Potts, a Georgia Tech graduate and former engineer, supports the proposal.

Also, there’s a leadership vacuum. Gov. Sonny Perdue is in his last few months in office and is considered a lame duck.

Erroll B. Davis Jr., the current chancellor of the University System of Georgia, could be moving on when a new governor takes office, which means he’s also viewed as a lame duck.

This could be UGA’s window of opportunity to get a green light for its engineering program.

“This is a highly emotional issue,” Potts said. “[But] I’ve looked at all of the data, and I believe this state needs more engineering graduates.”

Georgia Tech leaders aren’t convinced that UGA has made a solid case that Georgia’s workforce is short on engineers.

Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson, in a recent talk to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta, said the regents need “to understand what the statewide need is and what is the best way to fulfill that need.”

Both UGA and Georgia Tech have submitted their proposals and counter-arguments to the Board of Regents. There has not been an independent study conducted to answer those questions.

Strong arguments have been made on both sides, and that’s why “there has to be an impartial review,” according to Bill Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition and a past president of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association.

Much is at stake. If the regents approve UGA’s proposal, other state institutions, namely Georgia Southern University, also will be seeking to expand their engineering programs.

Todd said that could dilute Georgia Tech’s pre-eminent national reputation.

“Florida has five engineering programs, none of which is very distinguished,” he said. “Taking a very expensive program and trying to replicate it in other places just dilutes the state’s investment in engineering education.”

But Regent Richard Tucker, a UGA alum who supports the school’s proposal, said Georgia Tech’s national reputation for engineering is strong enough to stand on its own, regardless of how many other Georgia schools offer engineering degrees.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Tech loyalists,” Tucker said. “I haven’t heard one of them tell me where it’s harmful to Georgia Tech.”

Georgia Tech and UGA have different views on whether there is a need for more engineers in the state.

Georgia Tech currently graduates about 3,000 engineering students each year in its undergraduate and graduate programs.

“At the bachelor’s level, we graduated in 2009, 1,500 engineers — 800 took jobs in Georgia and 700 took jobs outside of Georgia,” said Don Giddens, Georgia Tech’s dean of engineering and president-elect of the American Society for Engineering Education. “We are supplying more than the local demand.”

But Potts said Georgia Tech’s stringent admission requirements keep out many Georgia high school students who are interested in majoring in engineering and have the intellectual wherewithal to become productive engineers.

UGA President Michael Adams, in a letter to the regents, said many of those students end up enrolling out of state at Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Clemson University or the University of Tennessee.

Georgia Tech and UGA also have different views on what it would cost to establish a comprehensive engineering program in Athens.

UGA has estimated that it would cost $7.2 million to build its engineering program by the third year. By that time, 295 students would be enrolled in the program, according to UGA’s proposal.

But in a paper submitted to the regents, Georgia Tech said a review of a program similar in size to UGA’s proposal found it actually requires $35 million to $40 million a year to operate, an estimated confirmed by the chancellor.

Giddens said it would be cheaper to expand Georgia Tech’s offerings because it already has the “full infrastructure” for engineering, including research laboratories and a relatively expensive engineering faculty. In fact, if an independent review determines that Georgia needs more engineering education, Tech could add another 300 engineering students in 2011 at a net profit, he said.

“We think we can meet the needs of the state for the foreseeable future,” Giddens said.

But Potts noted that UGA wouldn’t be starting an engineering program from scratch. UGA already offers 10 engineering degrees — five graduate and five undergraduate, he said.

“Each institution is looking at it as an incremental cost,” Potts said.

Adams vowed in his letter to establish the three new undergraduate engineering majors at UGA “using existing institutional resources.”

Emory University President Jim Wagner, who is an engineer by training, said a potential compromise approach for UGA and Georgia Tech might be to look for ways to collaborate with each other in their engineering offerings instead of trying to compete.

To meet its engineering needs, Emory has joint ventured with Georgia Tech in a bioengineering program.

“They are distinguished in engineering. We have medicine,” Wagner said. “If you had collaboration between two public institutions for a common program, it could be all the more powerful.

Tech’s No. 4

U.S. News & World Report ranked Georgia Tech fourth on its 2010 list of best engineering schools.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Stanford University

University of California-Berkeley

Georgia Institute of Technology

University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign

Carnegie Mellon University

California Institute of Technology

University of Michigan

University of Texas

Cornell University

Source: U.S. News & World Report

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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