Posted on Nov 26, 2001

As readers of this column know, I love to travel. However, between work family, my travel is fairly restricted these days. I did, though, take a week this summer to go to Korea to trek and work out in a dojang, since I have long been a devotee of the Korean marshal art of tae kwon do.

While trekking in monsoon-like rains, I thought back to my last column in which I spoke in generalities of the need for institutions to have the courage to change. Now I would like to be more specific and to state clearly where these changes leave us.

The Plan for Union, which has been discussed in detail in past issues of the magazine, sets forth a number of
objectives that will enable Union to become stronger. When fully accomplished, I believe that we will have a college that is better in every measurable way. Yet it is the two changes in tradition that most concern alums and that are, in my judgment, most essential to our future well-being. In each instance, the
traditions of which they are a part will – and here I want to be as unequivocal as I can be – continue, albeit in modified fashion.

The first of these traditions concerns our residential and social life. As most alums know, the fraternity
tradition at Union goes back to 1825. Fraternities have served a very useful
function to Union over the years and have benefited immeasurably a large number of the student body who were members. But the fact remains that all – all – of the data that we have gathered, and that colleges like Union throughout the Northeast have confirmed with their data, shows that a domination by fraternities is a
major deterrent to students seeking a college like ours. Obviously, there is a
paradox. Since Union has seen a fifty percent increase in applications during
the past decade and has had full enrollment during that time, why should we be concerned? Because the prospective students who are saying that they do not want to go to a college at which fraternities dominate the physical and social life are the best students in the applicant pool. And if we are to attract those students, and in the process move Union forward, we have to address this

In dealing with this matter we did not choose the easy route that most of our Northeast counterparts followed by banning fraternities. Instead, we are creating a house system that will
provide all students with an enriched social life and, at the same time, enable fraternities to continue the tradition begun in 1825. Yes, a number of the fraternities that will be moved from the center of campus will clearly and obviously have a different residential experience. However, their fraternal organization, and all fraternities, will continue. At their best, fraternities can be a very positive part of the Union community, and we will do our part to help them succeed.

Engineering also has a long and
rich tradition at Union. Beginning in 1845, when Eliphalet Nott brought civil
engineering to Union, we have been engaged in an effort to bring the liberal arts and engineering closer together. When I challenged Dean of Engineering Bob Balmer to refocus our efforts in engineering – a challenge that, if successfully developed, will provide a comparative advantage for us vis-à-vis our competitors – he proposed the concept of converging technologies. And, since knowledge is increasingly occurring at the intersections of disciplines, I felt that his idea made great sense.

Basically, with converging technologies we will continue to offer computer systems, electrical, and mechanical engineering degrees, while exposing students to the concepts of bioengineering, mechatronics, and nanotechnology, through the interaction of biology, chemistry, physics, and ethics with engineering. At the same time, given the fact that we were putting a disproportionate amount of our
resources into engineering, I felt that we could not afford to deal with the
need for more full-time faculty in engineering by adding greater resources to the engineering division. For this reason, we will phase out civil engineering, thereby meeting our need without adding resources. It is important to note that we will spend no less than we are now spending on engineering and that we will raise $9 million to renovate our engineering facilities and to provide for
enhanced programmatic support.

Neither of the changes in tradition – the fraternity or engineering
traditions – should be perceived as anything other than changes. Although some have said that changes in the fraternity system and engineering program are simply precursors to their abolition, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is change not tantamount to abolition, but change is essential if Union is to marshal its resources in the most effective way. Neither of these decisions will be popular. Just, though, as it is not always popular to do the right thing, so it is not always right to do the popular thing. Union as an institution
is more important than any one of its individual parts. However, in this
instance, the fraternity and engineering parts that concern so many alumni will continue to be significant pieces of the College's fabric for the foreseeable future.