UGA engineering plan may challenge Tech's turf

They compete over whose students have the highest SAT scores (Tech in 2009), whose freshmen had the best grades in high school (UGA in 2009), and who has the best football team (historically, Georgia).

Now yet another turf war may be emerging — this time in engineering, with Tech as the reigning champ and UGA as the underdog.

UGA wants to launch new engineering programs, even though Tech, which is about 70 miles away, has one of the top engineering schools in the country. President Michael Adams proposed new undergraduate degrees in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering — disciplines that have long been Tech’s expertise.

Now the state’s two most respected institutions are battling to prove why they’re the best option for any program expansion.

Provost Jere Morehead and other UGA officials declined to comment, saying the matter is before the State Board of Regents. The board is scheduled to vote on it next week. If approved, UGA would start the first program in fall 2012.

Adams wrote allowing UGA to expand its engineering degrees would give students more options and keep in the state those who can’t get into Tech. UGA could compete for additional federal grants and provide more engineers to meet work force needs, he wrote.

UGA said it will spend about $3 million to run the programs by fiscal year 2016 and wrote that it won’t request more state money. Some doubted that UGA won’t eventually need more money, saying that money isn’t there with lawmakers cutting funds because of the recession.

Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson wrote that his school is “not only equipped, but also prepared to educate every qualified in-state student who wants to be an engineer.”

Tech can increase its undergraduate engineering enrollment with minimal costs, said Don Giddens, dean of its College of Engineering.

“I’m not worried about competition, this isn’t football,” Giddens said. “We have supported other engineering programs at UGA and elsewhere. When there is a need that is real rather than imagined, we understand that. We’re trying to protect and maintain quality.”

Last month, the regents debated expanding engineering — which is the second-most expensive degree program behind medical education. Three members voted against adding UGA’s item to this month’s agenda.

“I will not argue that we don’t need more engineers in the state of Georgia,” Chancellor Erroll Davis, an engineer, said. “But the question becomes where is the best and most affordable place to teach engineering for our students and state.”

UGA established a school of engineering in 1866, but after the Great Depression, state leaders decided most of the training would take place at Tech.

Over the past decade, UGA has rebuilt an engineering program. It established the Faculty of Engineering in 2001. The university offers degrees in agricultural, biological, biochemical, environmental and computer systems engineering. None overlap with Tech in a meaningful way.

Civil, electrical and mechanical engineering programs at UGA would retain Georgians who wind up in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina because they couldn’t get into Tech, according to the UGA proposal.

UGA also cited a 2002 report showing that nearly half the state’s engineering jobs are filled by graduates from out of state and foreign countries.

Georgia Tech graduated more than 1,500 engineers with bachelor’s degrees in 2009, and about 800 took jobs in Georgia, Giddens said. While some students may not be able to get in as freshmen, Tech has transfer agreements with other campuses, he said.

There’s national debate over whether the country needs more engineers, Giddens said, adding that placement rates have declined because of the recession. What’s needed is diversity among engineering graduates, he said.

Regents Chairman Willis Potts, an engineer and Tech graduate, supports UGA’s proposal.

“Will the two be competing?” Potts asked. “Well, there’s competition for students everywhere. We need choices for students who want to study engineering but don’t want to go to Tech. I don’t see them targeting the same students.”

Georgians have options. Southern Polytechnic State University has 335 students in evening engineering programs. At the private Mercer University, about 80 percent of the 418 engineering undergraduates are from Georgia.

Freshman Andrew Gabrielsen, an agricultural engineering major, was accepted to Tech but attends UGA. Engineering programs at UGA feel like a small, close-knit community, he said.

“I grew up close to Atlanta, but I’m not a city boy,” the Lilburn native said. “Georgia Tech has such a heavy workload. It’s not that I wanted an easier option, but I wanted a life outside of studying. I wanted to be at UGA. “

UGA’s civil engineering program would begin in fall 2012, with the other two beginning the following year. UGA projects to enroll 500 students in the programs by fall 2015.

Tech has 727 undergraduates in civil engineering, 854 in electrical and 1,763 in mechanical.

UGA wrote it can establish the three majors by “using existing institutional resources.” While Davis said an engineering program for 600 students could cost between $30 million and $40 million, UGA said it won’t cost that much because it has facilities and some existing faculty. Hiring initiatives will be supported through tuition.

UGA leaders also said they regularly eliminate programs with low enrollment and have cut 31 programs over the past five years.

Potts said UGA’s cost projections are reasonable and reliable, but Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, doubted they won’t ask for money.

Lawmakers have not been briefed about the plans although the regents worked with them before expanding other expensive programs, said Ehrhart, who heads the committee that oversees college budgets.

“Are they really trying to tell me that they’re not going to come back and tell me that they want a new building?” Ehrhart asked. “I can’t see how the argument can be made to expand engineering programs in this economy.

“First they have no money, now they have money to do this. This doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Regent Ben Tarbutton III worried UGA will ultimately need additional money and take resources away from other colleges in the University System.

“I’m not against expansion, but how do we know we really need it?” Tarbutton asked.

“It seems like UGA just wants it. This can’t be done just to give them access to more money.”

UGA wrote that the new programs could put them in a position to add more than $25 million a year in new research grants and contracts. UGA officials plan to add graduate degrees, and Tech officials said the two campuses could compete for graduate students and research money. Tech’s graduate programs are nationally recognized.

Tarbutton, a Tech alum, said campuses should maintain academic niches.

While Alabama has multiple colleges offering the same engineering degrees, none has the reputation of a Georgia Tech, he said.

“I wouldn’t support Tech offering agricultural engineering or starting a law school, so why should we support UGA going into Tech’s areas?” he said. “Wouldn’t [Tech] be in the best position to increase the number of engineering graduates?”

Tech would spend about $5.5 million to increase undergraduate engineering enrollment by 300 students, but the students would bring in about $6.3 million between tuition, fees and other revenue, Giddens wrote.

Potts said UGA is just proposing incremental additions that won’t harm Tech.

“This isn’t about one school or another,” Potts said. “It’s about what is best for students and the state. I don’t expect UGA to be the same as Tech. I wouldn’t ever see UGA getting big enough or having a desire to be like Tech.”

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