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Slimmed-Down and Well-Connected

The leader on this front might well be venerable Yale, where in 1996 president Richard Levin unveiled the principle of “selective excellence.” Levin explained that “no university…has the resources to be the best in the world in every area of study.” Therefore, he explained, “our programs should be shaped more by an aspiration to excellence than a compulsion to comprehensiveness.”

Talk about taking on the status quo. Yale was about to shift its historically much broader focus to its core-Levin called them “distinctive”-strengths. That meant protecting first of all its noted arts and humanities programs. The biological sciences and medical school, accounting for some 40 percent of Yale’s revenues, were also untouchable. For other fields, though, it was often a matter of picking specialties where a few key faculty hires could make Yale a world leader-and letting others slip as tenured faculty retired. As deputy provost Charles Long explains: “The good get more and the not so good get less.”

Yale’s approach to engineering might best illustrate its new climate. Ever since its engineering school was disbanded in 1966-in favor of a scaled-down faculty of engineering-Yale has struggled to get its program back on the world map. Selective excellence could give those efforts a boost.

Seeing no way to compete on the scale of powerhouses like MIT or Stanford, Yale has already moved to strengthen the most successful areas-including microelectronics, imaging technology and acoustics-while adding efforts in biomedical and environmental engineering. It then worked to strengthen these programs further by joining forces with other disciplines: Witness its proposal to the National Science Foundation to create an engineering research center that would host 22 tenured faculty members from 11 departments at Yale and the University of Connecticut.

D. Allan Bromley, who spearheaded many of these changes before stepping down as engineering dean last June 30, says his organization now has teaching or research collaborations “with just about every one” of Yale’s schools and departments. “This is vitally important,” Bromley adds, “because we would not have a chance to hire faculty members to cover all these topics if we had to do it department by department, or school by school.” In this way, he notes, while Yale may not match bigger programs in turning out bench engineers, it is preparing students to better understand how technology will be developed in the future.

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