Nanney Autobiographic Essays
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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney

18. Luring Engineers Across Green Street

Out of the STS discussion arose a proposal to engage active research scientists in classroom exercises that would utilize their technical expertise and also challenge them to articulate the broader humane and social values of modern society.  Scientists would be requested to focus on their own research area and to explore its relevance in a social context.  For example, an automotive engineer could present a course on the automobiles, but would not stop with the details of the internal combustion engine. The past and the future of the automobile would also be discussed, along with questions about fuel supplies from Saudi Arabia, the Alaskan wilderness and the Illinois corn fields.  Other relevant cognate topics would include the effect of the automobile on housing patterns and the emergence of the suburbs, the construction of highways and the quantification of human value in the liability and insurance industries.  Similarly, courses could be developed from anything from medical genetics to refrigerators or the measurement of intelligence.

The implementation of this concept required cutting across the barriers between colleges, and particularly reaching into the human resources of the College of Engineering, which characteristically had little role in general education.  Would it be possible to lure engineers across Green Street?  The answer to this question would require appeal to a higher power – in this case the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs – Bob Berdahl.  The paper work for the new program in general education was sent ahead to Berdahl and a meeting with the STS council was scheduled in Berdahl’s office.  The meeting was something of a sweetheart meeting.  Berdahl was a historian, for one thing, and the history of scientific and technical developments was expected to be a major component of all the courses.

Berdahl was enthusiastic about the STS program, but recognized a serious constraint.  Though several faculty members from engineering were on the STS committee, no administrative officers from the College of Engineering were involved.  Berdahl proposed a solution to the problem of administrative engagement.  The Dean of the College of Engineering was in fact long in the tooth, and soon to be retired.  His functions were in fact already delegated to subordinates, and a search committee was being established for a successor.  Berdahl’s impression was that his own role in the search for a new Dean in engineering was significant. He believed that he could assure us that a new Dean would be selected who had substantial interest in undergraduate education, and who would be supportive of a program similar to the STS proposal.

A year passed.  Bill Showalter was appointed the new Dean of Engineering.  Bob Berdahl resigned as Vice-Chancellor and went to the University of Texas, where he apparently soon grew disillusioned with the oil and cattle barons before going on to Berkeley to finish his career in 2005.  Before he left the campus at Illinois, I asked him what happened.  As a good administrator should, Bob kept a close mouth, but apparently he had misread the organizational charts – like Jack Peltason before him. Berdahl said: “You win some and you lose some, but you don’t cry about it.  You move on.” He apparently wasn’t in charge of selecting the engineering dean after all.  I doubt that Bill Showalter ever heard about the STS proposal for general education.  And now Showalter has retired and the College of Engineering has another dean, whose name I do not even know, though I could look it up.