From the time you wake up in the morning until you arrive at work, you continually encounter the modern wonders of civil engineering.
You can thank civil engineers for the sewer system that is so vital in that morning trip to the bathroom, the running water used to wash out your breakfast cereal bowl, the roads or bridges you travel over on your way to work and even the building in which your office is located.But, despite having a hand in some of society's most basic creations, civil engineering is now on shaky ground in Utah. The state's oldest program for educating civil engineers, the University of Utah department of civil engineering, with approximately 230 students, has battled budget cuts for the past three years that have threatened its very existence.
While admitting problems, U. officials say the department's obituary has not been written. "There are no plans afoot to close civil engineering. More and more people are coming to understand the importance of civil engineering within the university and for the community," said U. President Chase N. Peterson.
College of Engineering administrators, who acknowledge that civil engineering has faced its share of problems, say some of the $264,800 funded during the recent legislative session to enhance engineering education will go to stabilize civil engineering.
But the department's return to the caliber of only a few years ago will take more than the few dollars appropriated by the 1989 Legislature.
The ax hanging over civil engineering was publicly pointed out when, during the Legislature, a civil engineering graduate student, Larry DeBirk, presented a petition with 65 student signatures to the Higher Education Joint Appropriations Subcommittee, warning that the department "is on the brink of extinction."
DeBirk and his classmates were tired of living with the persistent rumors that the College of Engineering, if increased money was not forthcoming, would cannibalize civil engineering to feed its other engineering departments.
But civil engineering's troubles go back farther than this legislative session.
In 1986, when the U. and the state's eight other institutions were ordered to slash budgets by 6 percent, civil engineering's share necessitated dropping faculty from 12.5 to 8.5 (actually nine individuals but one was half-time). "With nine we barely had the curriculum covered," said Sam Ghosh, who was department chairman at the time.
Departing faculty meant more than saving salary dollars. It also meant that experts who taught specific subjects left. Civil engineering lost a professor who taught one of most basic engineering classes - surveying - and others who taught geotechnical, environmental and transportation classes.
The situation called for creativity. Ghosh worked out an agreement with the College of Mines for his engineering students to take a mining surveying class to fill the surveying requirement. The department still does not offer its own surveying class - a fact that leaves many professional engineers shaking their heads.
To offer the adequate number of classes in the other areas, the department turned heavily to hiring adjunct professors, professionals in the community who come to the university, usually after hours, to teach in their specialty.
While adjuncts are qualified and bring a practical approach to class, they also must fit their teaching around work, often making them inaccessible to students, and most are novice instructors.
"When some of the professors left, the students became orphans. Some were left without the necessary person (in their field). It became a constant hassle to do something for them," Ghosh said.
DeBirk, for instance, only has two of the necessary three faculty on campus for his master's thesis committee. The third slot is filled by an adjunct professor.
Another problem has been inadequate laboratories and antiquated equipment, which Ghosh believes hinders teaching and is an obstacle to attracting research money. A 1985 accreditation report by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology noted the department's numerous equipment/laboratory deficiencies.
"They felt our labs are full of Smithsonian equipment, plus we don't have any money for lab technicians," Ghosh said.
Then, in the two years since the big budget cut, three additional faculty members left. In addition, a fourth faculty member was accused of plagiarism.
"At this point, a lot got scared. This was a very destructive environment. They couldn't work with an ax constantly over their heads," said the former chairman, who believes civil engineering suffered a more severe blow than the other engineering departments in budget cutbacks.
David W. Pershing, dean of engineering, said all engineering departments suffered in the '86 budget massacre, although he admits the most severe reductions hit the civil department and the mechanical and industrial engineering department. Industrial engineering was dropped completely, with its last students scheduled to graduate this June. The state has no educational program in industrial engineering now.
What do they do?
Civil engineers plan, design, construct and operate facilities such as:
- Bridges and dams
- Streets and highways
- Transit systems
- Energy installations
- Municipal systems
- Drainage and irrigation systems
- Water and sewer systems