Faculty members at the School of Engineering and Applied Science want to replace Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora, but the University will not remove him from office, Interim Provost John Coatsworth told Spectator on Wednesday.
Coatsworth said that seven of the nine engineering department chairs sent him a letter in August expressing "dismay" with Peña-Mora, and that in October he received a letter from a "large number" of tenured SEAS professors demanding Peña-Mora's removal.
"The morale of the faculty and their trust in Dean Peña-Mora are reaching an all-time low,” the letter, obtained by the New York Times, said. Faculty members said Peña-Mora had worsened SEAS' long-standing space crunch, sacrificed graduate students' education for short-term profits, and compromised the quality of the faculty, among other complaints.
Coatsworth said that while "the complaints from the faculty were real," Peña-Mora will remain dean and work with SEAS professors to address their concerns.
“Any time faculty are unhappy, and problems are not being solved in a way that keeps our school moving forward, of course it poses a challenge, so the only question really is, what’s the best way to respond to the challenge," Coatsworth said. "And in the case of Dean Peña-Mora, who has done a great job in some respects, our decision was to help out by making some suggestions about administration and governance” at SEAS.
Asked if there's a possibility that Peña-Mora could be removed down the line, Coatsworth said that "we'll take stock at the end of the year."
“I think Dean Peña-Mora is committed ... to the school," Coatsworth said. "And we need to get through this academic year and see if the problems can be addressed."
Peña-Mora, traveling in China, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. SEAS spokesperson Holly Evarts said Wednesday night that she was not privy to the faculty discussions about the concerns and could not comment.
An 'overwhelming' loss of confidence
In the October letter, faculty members detailed a litany of grievances against Peña-Mora, saying that if he remained dean, it would cause “irreparable damage—including loss of key faculty and complete alienation of those who remain.”
The letter concludes, "The loss of confidence in Dean Peña-Mora is overwhelming. With each additional day faculty unhappiness is growing."
Among professors' charges was that Peña-Mora had hired outside consultants "to reclaim 25% of the school's space for other purposes," and that these consultants did not discuss space usage with faculty. A space crunch at SEAS has long been a source of concern for faculty and administrators.
Peña-Mora acknowledged in an interview with the Times that the culture of Columbia "takes some getting used to," and said that he had not understood the extent of Columbia's space constraints when he first came to the University. According to Coatsworth, Peña-Mora had on several occasions promised space to new hires, before having to renege on those promises "either because of a miscalculation, or, more likely, because the space intended for the person hired is in an area that needs to be reconfigured" to make more space available.
“I think what we’re dealing with is a communication problem, rather than any attempt on the part of Peña-Mora to mislead people," Coatsworth said.
The letter also attacked Peña-Mora for mandating an increase in the size of the engineering school’s master's program. Administrators have acknowledged that master's students receive very little financial aid at SEAS.
“Doubling class sizes when there are not classrooms to hold them and people are sitting on the floor or in the halls just to increase the school's revenues may provide quick cash—but it ultimately hurts our reputation among future Master's students and undergraduates alike—our future alumni,” the letter said.
Coatsworth, though, defended the decision to increase enrollment of master’s students, saying that for SEAS to improve in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, it needs to attract more top-flight professors, and “it’s the tuition revenue that pays for the professors."
“If you’re going to have a top-10 engineering school, you have to have a top-10 engineering faculty … we just don’t have enough people in enough fields to make the top 10,” he said.
But faculty members charged Peña-Mora with unfair hiring practices as well, citing "a critical mismatch between the Dean's academic values and our own."
"Candidates with impressive academic records and outstanding recommendations are discounted if their fields do not promise major funding for the school. Metrics for evaluation are focused upon financial measures rather than academic quality," the letter said.
Coatsworth said that a potential hire's ability to bring in grant money is one of several important factors when hiring, in part because so much of SEAS' money comes from grants, and in part because of what it says about the research itself.
"A faculty member’s ability to secure external grants … is a criteria that suggests the quality and interest of the research itself, so this is not an uncommon factor," Coatsworth said.
These allegations come to light at a time when SEAS is looking to bolster its standing among engineering schools, both within New York City and nationally. Columbia’s proposal for a data sciences institute on its Manhattanville campus is one of five to make the shortlist in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Applied Sciences NYC competition.
The University faces strong competition from Cornell and Stanford to win Bloomberg’s bid to bring a new engineering campus to the city.
SEAS faculty referenced the ongoing competition in the letter, acknowledging that "an immediate public change in leadership" might hurt Columbia's chances.
“However, the fact that a number of us who have invested time and effort in creating Columbia’s proposal are signing this letter should tell you how serious the current situation is,” the letter said.
Coatsworth told Spectator that while “it’s impossible to tell how the city will react to this, I can’t imagine it will be positive.”
“I hope the city recognizes that the Columbia engineering school is not alone in facing growing pains from time to time,” he said.
U.S. News ranked SEAS the 16th best graduate engineering school in the country in 2011. The University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, at which Peña-Mora was an associate provost before coming to Columbia in 2009, was ranked fifth. The undergraduate component of SEAS was jointly ranked fourth with Columbia College.
“The dean here has for the last two years told us that we need to be improving our rankings if we want to be seen as being on par with the other engineering schools,” chemical engineering department chair Sanat Kumar told Spectator in March. “Over the last two years he’s been here, the rankings have turned around. We are on an upward trail.”
Looking for solutions
Coatsworth said that Peña-Mora is working on several initiatives to address professors' concerns. Among the changes is the creation of a SEAS Executive Vice Dean, who will focus on "faculty affairs, space, and instructional support," according to an email sent two weeks ago announcing that engineering professor Donald Goldfarb had been appointed to the position.
Additionally, a committee chaired by engineering professor Michael Mauel has been formed to examine SEAS’s administrative structure and potentially suggest changes, and a development specialist has been brought in to look at these questions as well. SEAS currently has “very little faculty governance at the level of the school as whole,” Coatsworth said, with no standing committees outside of the department chairs.
Coatsworth noted that he, Goldfarb, Mauel, and Peña-Mora met with about 75 senior faculty members three weeks ago to discuss the initiatives. He said the meeting was “constructive.”
“I’m optimistic that over the course of this academic year, that some of the problems can be addressed successfully,” he said.
Coatsworth confirmed that the August letter was signed by all SEAS department chairs who had been appointed before this semester. Those department chairs are Kumar, Irving Herman of applied physics and applied math, Raimondo Betti of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, Shree Nayar of computer science, Klaus Lackner of earth and environmental engineering, Keren Bergman of electrical engineering, and Cliff Stein of industrial engineering and operations research.
Coatsworth said he had "no idea" whether faculty members would leave if the attempts at solutions don't work out.
“I certainly hope that faculty who are now unhappy will give this new arrangement time to play out," he said.
The faculty letter stated that concerns about Peña-Mora have been "festering" for two years, but those concerns came as a surprise to some student leaders. University Senator Tim Qin, SEAS '13, said that while he could not speak for the rest of the Engineering Student Council, he had not been aware of any of the faculty concerns. Engineering Graduate Student Council President Andrew Kang also said that he and other EGSC members were surprised to hear about the accusations against Peña-Mora.
ESC President Nate Levick, SEAS '12, said in an email to Spectator that both he and his predecessor, Chris Elizondo, SEAS '11, have "good standing relationships with the Dean."
"General undergrad student sentiment toward the Dean is largely positive. He has been receptive to working with the ESC as well as undergraduate students and groups," Levick said.
Kang said that Peña-Mora has been hugely supportive of EGSC, helping them facilitate events with employers to make it easier for students to find jobs and answering students’ questions at EGSC-sponsored town halls.
“He’s only been very transparent and very open in being receptive to all of our concerns,” Kang said.
The faculty letter also said "the Dean's decision to change the entire structure of the SEAS teaching assistant system because one department had abused it" had caused "chaos for faculty, Ph.D. students, and all those enrolled in our classes."
According to current TAs, Peña-Mora limited TAs to teaching for only one year and created a SEAS-wide committee to appoint them. Previously, TAs were appointed by departments.
Luc Berger, a first-year Ph.D. student in the department of civil engineering and engineering mechanics and a current TA, said that he was especially disheartened by Peña-Mora’s decision to limit the TA positions to one year because he “likes to teach and interact with students.” As a first-year TA, Berger said he was concerned he may be out of a job next year.
“The timing is so bad,” he said. “People are leaving.”
Suparno Mukhopadhyay, a Ph.D. student in SEAS, also expressed concern over the new structure.
“It’s very difficult to concentrate on our work because we are worried if we will be here or not next year,” he said. “It definitely is a problem. One student left because this policy was coming into effect.”
Mahesh Bailakanavar, a graduate student in the department of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, said that while the changes to the TA system were untimely, a lot of schools, such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have these systems in place.
But he said he was still sympathetic to graduate students who have difficulties funding their educations. "There is something wrong about this situation," he said. "It's very, very difficult."
Sarah Darville and Mikey Zhong contributed reporting.