As Scott Knowles has shown in his work on disasters in Science and Technology Studies, times of crisis can reveal institutional hypocrisy, hidden priorities, and systematic exercises in power, as proposed “solutions” often produce the real disaster. Tulane University’s treatment of its engineering program in response to Hurricane Katrina offers a case study for analyzing such disaster response.
Whereas regular, day-to-day institutional operations can obfuscate intentions and construct an edifice of concern for community equity (which makes discerning true motives difficult), emergencies allow one to peek behind the curtain of the entrenched system. This paper will offer a first-person narrative account from the perspective of an incoming engineering freshman whose move-in day degenerated into evacuation day and whose first semester in college was consequently spent at an alternate university as a “displaced student”. The account will focus on Tulane’s post-Katrina response, ranging from its rhetoric to its policies and actions. In particular, four themes will frame the discussion: (1) Tulane’s role in the city’s recovery and the inconsistent messaging it communicated about engineers’ roles; (2) the implicit messaging about the public role of engineering with regards to public engineers versus the privatization of engineering at Tulane; (3) the broader messages transmitted by an institution’s decisions to the community at large; and (4) lessons about institutional priorities in the current economic climate.
In Katrina’s wake, Tulane's rhetoric around community engagement and working to bring back New Orleans stood in stark contrast with its dismantling of engineering degree programs and departments, the narrowing of topics covered in the remaining engineering curricula, and institutional policies such as partnerships with select local schools for its new service learning program. The relative absence of discussions regarding the implications of engineering in public life taught students that engineers largely work for industry, and therefore they should direct their focus away from the public realm. A clear need for engineers in public service exists - not only for rebuilding infrastructure such as levees in New Orleans, but also for designing transportation systems, protecting the environment, and much more, throughout Louisiana and beyond. Despite this obvious mandate, Tulane would not acknowledge a sustained role for engineers in the community. The paper will identify lessons for undergraduate engineering education, universities as social institutions, and the communities they claim to serve.
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