School of engineering must ensure that students get broad education

Dear Professor Frieder Seible,

I want to extend to you my congratulations for your nomination last July to the position of interim dean of the School of Engineering, stepping in after Bob Conn’s long tenure. I — and, I am sure, all the students, faculty and employees of UCSD — wish you the best luck in this prestigious but difficult endeavor.

I also want to express my hopes that your tenure will be more enlightened than the previous one and that you will reverse some of the preoccupying trends that started over the last eight years. Trends that, though they allowed the School of Engineering to climb in those silly top-so-many lists that administrators like so much, posed a severe threat to the quality of education at the school and to the independence of university research from corporate agendas.

For better or for worse, engineers have assumed in the last decades a prominent and crucial social role. In a society that depends so much on technology, engineers, as keepers of technological expertise, are a prominent force for the economic, social and cultural development of society.

This fact demands that a school of engineering provide a comprehensive humanistic education to its students. I hope that you will strive to create, first and foremost, curious individuals with a broad culture, politically active and socially aware citizens, and that you will always consider the — necessary, of course — technical education as subordinated to this higher ideal of humanistic education. Knowing the latest operating system, integrated circuit technology or programming language will not create the engineers that our society will need in the future, unless this knowledge is accompanied by a broader understanding of human culture and a critical appreciation of the role, the opportunities and the dangers of technology in our human landscape.

With today’s relevance of engineering disciplines, technological naivete and simple-minded love for technological gadgets are no longer viable options, and I hope that you will resist better than your predecessor the pressure of transforming this institution of higher education into a technical school in which students are just taught a few tricks and techniques to make them easily employable.

As it is, there are serious lacunae in the general culture of engineers, lacunae that will, inevitably, be reflected in the human quality of the work that students will do in the future, as well as in the connection between their work and the more general aspirations of the society in which they live. I hope that during your tenure, the problem will be at least seriously addressed, if not completely solved.

Concerns about the quality of research carried out at the university and about the independence of the school have also worsened in the last decade, due to the increasing corporate presence in the school and to the increasing power of corporations to dictate the school’s research agenda. You would do UCSD a great disservice if, in your new capacity, you would not give these concerns due consideration.

Things are changing rapidly around us, and the university must change to respond to the changed necessities of the times in which we live. In the past, the main concern for the independence of the university came from the government and political pressure groups. Since the 14th century, universities have struggled — sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much — against political pressure. In the past century, institutions like the National Science Foundation have been created so that the essential funding for research will be kept shielded from government pressure as much as possible, and subject only to the most rigorous process of peer review.

Today, the major concern for the independence of the university doesn’t come from political forces but from economic ones, and we must make sure that the free pursuit of research will be guaranteed against this new influence.

More and more research funding is coming from private sources, and with it comes the accompanying corporate pressure that, on one hand, is contributing to narrowing and trivializing the education of the average engineer and, on the other hand, is narrowing and trivializing university research. Corporations need the university for extremely specific application-oriented projects, tend to finance only research of restricted scope and in restricted application domain, and threaten the free distribution of knowledge to which the university is committed. You must not allow the school of engineering to become the research and development department of local companies.

Initiatives like California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology contain the potential for increased corporate control of research and for permeating the university with corporate logic — a logic that already allowed the Jacobses to give their name to the school not for their scientific merit (which is limited in Jacobs’ case) but for having a few million dollars to spend.

In this new scenario, the university, particularly the school that you are going to lead, needs to change in order to defend the independence of research from corporate agendas. I invite you to place the school at the forefront of a movement to shield engineering research from corporate influence, creating non-profit organizations that will collect corporate research money and will do for corporate funding what the NFS did for the government: guarantee that university research will move by its own internal logic, subject only to a rigorous peer-review process.

The problems that you will face in your tenure are many and complex, and I wish you all the wisdom, strength and luck that you will need to face them.