Georgia’s Only Black Engineering Program Fighting Closure

ATLANTA

Yemaya Stallworth came to Clark Atlanta University to be an engineer,
pursuing her destiny at a school where her teachers and classmates
looked like her. Working at General Electric while taking classes full
time toward an electrical engineering degree, the 20-year-old sophomore
embodies the historically Black school’s motto: “I’ll find a way or
make one.”

But time is running out on Clark Atlanta’s engineering department,
which is slated to shut down by May 2008 as part of a cost-cutting move
by the school’s board of trustees. Eight engineering professors and a
group of engineering students filed a lawsuit last week in hopes of
getting a judge to reverse the decision.

“There’s a dire need for us to produce Black engineers,” said Kester
Garraway, a mechanical engineering senior and president of the Student
Education Reform Group. “The faculty can better relate to our struggles
— some of us need that one-on-one time that we get at CAU.”

Clark Atlanta’s board voted in 2003 to eliminate the engineering
department, along with the school of library and information studies,
which closed in May, the international affairs department, the allied
health professions program and the systems science doctorate program.

The board cited the university’s $7.5 million deficit and a need to
concentrate more on other areas of study like business, mass media,
biology, education and social work — disciplines President Walter
Broadnax said would draw more donors and raise the school’s profile.

The school said the engineering program doesn’t fit into its strategic
plan because it is not specialized, not accredited and would be too
costly to bring up to accreditation standards.

In the lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court, faculty and
students said that Broadnax based the phase-out on personal
preferences, not on financial needs or department performance.

“We want the issue revisited,” department chairman Lebone Moeti said.
“It will be clear that the department should be put back together.”

Provost Dorcas Bowles said the trustees’ decision is final.

“I don’t want to revisit the decision,” Bowles said. “The board of
trustees approved the decision, and the process of phasing out the
program has begun. That’s basically it.”

College spokeswoman Debra Miller said the school needed time to review
the lawsuit before commenting. Broadnax has previously stated the cuts
were needed to right the school’s finances. Clark-Atlanta is up for
reaccreditation at the end of next year.

“We got into financial trouble because we had spread ourselves too
thin,” Broadnax wrote in his March 2005 presidential address.

Clark Atlanta’s program, which began in 1994, offers students majors in
mechanical, chemical, electrical and civil engineering. With the
program closed, students would rely solely on an existing program where
students attend Clark Atlanta for three years before transferring to
one of 11 other schools to finish their engineering education, getting
two degrees after five years from both institutions. One popular choice
is engineering powerhouse Georgia Tech, the primary educator of
engineers in the state.

But through the partnership, students are forced to leave their beloved
alma mater. And at a school like Georgia Tech, they miss the unique
experience of attending a historically Black college — a choice that
drew many of them to Clark Atlanta.

“The drive they have to get postdoctoral degrees, to create their own
businesses, to become consultants, is because of the foundation they
got at a historically Black college,” said Temitayo Akinrefon, a
graduate engineering student at the University of Central Florida in
Orlando and regional chairwoman with the National Society of Black
Engineers.

The move also means paying for an extra year of tuition, which can be a
challenge for Clark Atlanta’s students, many of whom receive financial
aid.

The department’s closing also would bring the number of engineering
programs at historically Black colleges nationwide to 13. Most are at
schools in the South, including two each in Alabama, Louisiana,
Maryland and Virginia. Georgia would lose its only Black engineering
program.

“The need that led to the creation of the program at Clark Atlanta has
not been fully met or addressed,” said Georgia Tech engineering
professor Augustine Esogbue, his school’s longest-serving Black
professor. “Apart from educating more Black engineers, there’s a need
for our people to develop the ability and the skills to run technical
institutions that will not be met by Tech or any other majority
school.”

Clark Atlanta’s department has produced 102 graduates between 1999 and
2003, almost as many as the total number in the entire history of the
partnership program. Many have gone on to careers in academia or
well-paying jobs with NASA and companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing
and Ford — corporations that also give thousands of dollars in grants
to the school to fund research and pay for student expenses.

The faculty counter that their program is not a drain on Clark Atlanta,
but actually makes money — generating more than $2 million a year in
corporate sponsorships.

The faculty argue that the university wouldn’t even have to pay for the
department’s accreditation because of the sponsorships and that the
program is in position to meet all the standards. In a January 2004
letter to Broadnax, the faculty said the trustees’ decision was based
on misinformation from Broadnax — who they say chose to close the
school “on a whim.”

“He’s never met any of us,” engineering professor Cyril Okhio said. “He never came into the building.”

Okhio’s eyes sparkle when he talks about teaching students like
Stallworth, who hopes to open private and charter schools in Black
communities with an emphasis on mathematics and science.

“The higher I got in school, the less African-Americans were still there, especially when I got into college,” Stallworth said.

And the crowd is thinning at Clark Atlanta. The program has lost about
200 students and nine faculty since the decision to end the program,
Moeti said, adding some left because of uncertainty about the future.

Georgia could also lose if the school closes, since companies looking
to relocate to the state could take a second look if the availability
of minority engineers decreases, said Bert Brantley with the state’s
economic development agency.

“The more engineering programs we have here in the state, the more
likely they are to stay here and work here. We could now be at a
disadvantage,” Brantley said, adding that Georgia competes fiercely
for business with Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and
Mississippi — all of which have engineering programs at historically
Black colleges.

“That’s a major concern for us,” he said.

— Associated Press



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