New Network Seeks to Form a 'Meta-University' to Link Engineering Schools

July 10, 2011

If ambitious plans outlined here last month come to fruition, several of the world's leading universities could soon be collaborating on engineering-design projects and research activities, exchanging students and professors, and pooling their expertise to work more closely with industry.

At a two-day conference at Columbia University, deans and other leading faculty members from Ivy League engineering schools and their counterparts from elite institutions in Brazil, China, and India gathered to discuss the formation of a new alliance called CIBI.

Feniosky Peña-Mora, the dean of Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, is one of the driving forces behind the fledgling group. "There are already a lot of networks of universities," he acknowledges, adding that many of those groups unite diverse institutions with very different institutional profiles. The new alliance would instead be based on "universities that have similar missions and share key characteristics," he says.

Strong relationships already exist between several institutions that will be participating in the new network, such as the longstanding ties that Columbia's engineering school has with China's Tsinghua University. Setting up such partnerships can be time-consuming and often involves signing several agreements. "We are inventing the wheel every time," says Mr. Peña-Mora. The new organization would be able to build upon many existing relationships.

Joseph J. Helble, dean of Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, says the alliance grew out of discussions the Ivy League engineering deans have had about what they "can do as a collective group of high-quality universities," he says. Engineering is the only professional graduate school that all Ivy League institutions have in common, and the deans have talked about ways in which they might share students and collaborate on design projects. For example, they could focus on energy challenges one year and clean-water problems the next.

"Out of those conversations we started talking about international outreach, to see if there was interest on the part of these international partners in these leading countries where engineering is such an important component of their education system," Mr. Helble says.

The Thayer School, for example, has about 20 dual-degree programs with other liberal-arts institutions in the United States but has no such programs at the graduate level or internationally.

Increasing collaboration at the graduate and faculty level is one focus of the new network. Participants proposed several ideas, including developing programs to facilitate short-term mobility of doctoral students and creating a shared repository of research opportunities for doctoral students.

Collaborative undergraduate programs were also discussed, including a proposal to have at least two students from each of the participating national alliances work together on design projects that could last a semester or even a year. Another focus was on industry-academe partnerships, including such issues as incorporating an international-leadership dimension in engineering education and fostering entrepreneurship among faculty and students.

Sanjay Dhande, dean of the Indian Institute of Technology's Kanpur branch, says the new network could resemble a kind of "meta-university," in which institutions retain their identities and independence but work together in a global context focused on specific challenges and areas of interest.

The group agreed to meet again in a year, most likely in China, where the dean of the Harbin Institute of Technology offered to host an all-expenses-paid meeting. While the conference generated a fair bit of excitement about possible future collaborations, Mr. Helble cautions that the alliance is still in its very early stages.

"Coming up with something workable will be a challenge," he says. "We need to get department chairs and faculty members on board and excited about this."


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