LINCOLN — Faculty in Omaha and Lincoln who would be affected by a proposed merger of two University of Nebraska engineering programs say they want to test the idea before moving forward.
They propose jointly offering several classes, possibly starting next fall, by using cutting-edge distance education technology to link classrooms in Lincoln and at the Kiewit Institute in Omaha.
If the experimental classes prove successful, more steps could be taken toward a complete merger, said Mathias Schubert, president of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Faculty Senate and an electrical engineering professor.
Schubert was among about 30 faculty members from Omaha and Lincoln who met last week at the Quarry Oaks Golf Club — neutral territory about midway between the two campuses. Closed to the press, the meeting was the first in which faculty discussed the controversial proposal to merge the Omaha-based Department of Computer and Electronics Engineering (CEEN) with the Lincoln-based Department of Electrical Engineering.
Both programs are administered by UNL, as are all NU engineering programs offered in Omaha, which include civil engineering, construction engineering and architectural engineering.
UNL Engineering College Dean Timothy Wei recently proposed merging the two departments to eliminate redundancies and to broaden the curriculum offered to students — those based in Omaha particularly, but also in Lincoln. Wei was hired last year from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to help boost UNL's program to the level of the rest of the Big Ten Conference, which UNL joined two years ago.
Wei did not attend the meeting at Quarry Oaks, and he said Monday that he didn't yet know the specifics of the discussion. However, he said he would work with faculty members to address their concerns. He said he believes only a few faculty members strongly oppose the merger.
“As long as they're meeting, having conversations and coming up with constructive and productive ideas, we'll give them time to work things out,” Wei said.
“If it happened by the start of the next academic year, that would be great,” he added. “If it takes a little longer, that would be fine, too.”
Wei's proposal has the backing of UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and prominent alumni who serve as advisers to the UNL Engineering College.
Supporters of the Omaha program, however, seem to be suspicious of the merger proposal. Less than two decades ago, UNL agreed to provide additional engineering instruction in Omaha after a hard-fought battle led by the Omaha business community. Supporters worry that a merged program would erode the hands-on, business-oriented culture of the Department of Computer and Electronics Engineering.
Businessmen Rick Gregg and John Smith, who serve as advisers to the CEEN program, have said they will ask the NU Board of Regents to consider separating the Omaha-based engineering programs from UNL. They are calling for a separate College of Engineering tied to UNO.
With about 800 students, the Omaha-based programs now represent about 30 percent of NU's engineering undergraduates. About 80 of the Omaha students are enrolled in CEEN.
In a telephone interview Monday, Smith pointed to a 1995 letter from former NU President L. Dennis Smith to Omaha business leaders. In the letter, Dennis Smith announced plans to significantly increase engineering programs in Omaha, though he said student demand did not warrant a new College of Engineering.
At the time, 87 students took engineering classes in Omaha; a task force said a new college would require at least 300 full-time students. Dennis Smith said he would reconsider a new college if Omaha engineering enrollment grew.
In light of that letter, the regents ought to review Omaha engineering education before a merger goes forward, John Smith said Monday.
Neither academic department is entirely happy with the merger proposal, said Professor Bing Chen, who attended the Wednesday meeting at Quarry Oaks. Until recently, Chen headed CEEN in Omaha. Though Chen remains on the faculty there, he was removed as chairman partly because of his resistance to the proposed merger.
Chen said it seemed clear to him that the two departments would prefer not to merge. “There are a number of steps that need to be taken and proven to be successful before taking any consideration of a merger,” he said.
From Chen's perspective, the biggest impediment to a merger is classroom culture.
“In Omaha, we're oriented on preparing students for industry and preparing them to contribute on day one” of their first job, he said. “The Electrical Engineering Department (in Lincoln) is more research-oriented. Their students are more likely to go on to graduate school.”
Schubert, the UNL electrical engineering professor, is more supportive of the merger than is Chen. However, he acknowledged that electrical engineering faculty members also are concerned, because a merger might weaken their department's research reputation.
Yet UNL loses far too many students, particularly from the Omaha area, to Iowa State University, which has a higher-ranked engineering college, he said.
“CEEN is very narrow, though it maybe meets a current need,” Schubert said. “More students might stay in Omaha if they can do electrical engineering there. That's the attractiveness of a merger.”
Schubert said that as faculty members discussed their work and their classes, it became clear that the two departments overlap and that faculty are interested in offering more academic programs.
They identified two or three upper-level courses that could be used to test technology that would link classrooms in Lincoln and Omaha so that students and instructors could see and hear one another from all sides.
No votes were taken during the meeting. Schubert said he now believes the merger could be successful if a broad majority of the faculty comes to support it.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, firstname.lastname@example.org