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Engineering College Looks To Improve ‘Grand Experiment’

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Three years after lawmakers debated splitting up the engineering college jointly run by Florida A&M University and Florida State University, the school is at a critical juncture.

J. Murray Gibson, hired last year as dean of the engineering college, is dealing with longtime challenges, including pay inequity among faculty, a decline in minority students and a need to increase faculty and research dollars.

But in an interview, Gibson, who started on July 1, said he sees tremendous potential in the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering because of its unique role in bringing together Florida A&M, a top member of the Historically Black College and Universities, with Florida State, a university striving to become one of the top 25 public research institutions in the country.

Gibson, who has a doctorate in physics from Cambridge University and has worked at top research facilities, including Bell Labs, said the FAMU-FSU engineering partnership is poised to address two major issues: increasing the number of African-Americans in engineering professions while also addressing the overall shortage of engineers.

While acknowledging “a long and complex history” for the college, which was created in 1982, Gibson said he sees the school as “a grand experiment in the sense it bridges a divide in the world of research engineering that is not bridged anywhere else.”

With the National Science Foundation reporting only 4.3 percent of the engineers in the U.S. were African-Americans in 2015, Gibson said the joint engineering school has the potential to become one of the nation’s top producers of minorities with bachelor and graduate engineering degrees.

But he said Florida A&M students currently only represent about 15 percent of the college enrollment, which has about 2,300 undergraduates and 300 graduate students. That’s down from a previous high of about 40 percent, he said.

“We have to turn it around,” Gibson said.

He said the joint college offers minority students the chance to attend a top historically black university while at the same time being able to enroll in school backed by Florida State, a research institution that has far greater resources than historically black universities.

From Florida State’s perspective, an engineering college with a large number of minority students will help attract more research dollars and support from industries and groups looking for top-quality research while at the same time seeking to diversify the workforce, Gibson said.

Gibson said the school has about 100 faculty and staff members and about $20 million in research funding, which he said are inadequate for FSU’s expectation to join the ranks of the top-tier research institutions in the country.

“We have something that nobody else has and something that can really address that challenge,” Gibson said. “And I believe that it will benefit both institutions because it will attract resources to the college and it will give our students access to capabilities and things they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Gibson also said it is critical that both FSU and FAMU remain committed to the partnership.

“It can only be done by both partners,” Gibson said. “Neither partner alone can really accomplish that.”

Gibson was the founding dean of Northeastern University’s College of Science, which saw a dramatic improvement in faculty, research dollars and students under his tenure. He said FAMU and FSU administrators have been committed to making the joint venture successful.

FSU President John Thrasher, who as a member of the state Senate in 2014 supported taking steps to split up the engineering school, said the joint college “is one of the keys to the future success of Florida State.”

Thrasher said he agrees with Gibson’s assessment that “the future is bright” for the college.

“We are doing everything we can to support Dean Gibson to enhance the quality and potential of the college,” he said.

As part of that effort, FAMU and FSU are backing a $7 million request in the 2017 legislative session for the college.

It would provide $1 million to level pay equity issues between FSU and FAMU faculty, Gibson said, adding if the issue is not resolved it could be “corrosive” to faculty morale.

Another $3.63 million would go to hire five new faculty members, with the bulk of the request targeted for equipment, laboratory renovations and other items required to attract top-level researchers.

Some $1.2 million is slated to help retain engineering students, with the school now experiencing about a 50 percent drop-off from students who begin pre-engineering classes but move to other degree programs or drop out.

Gibson said if lawmakers back the funding request, it will help move the joint college “in the right direction.”

“This is almost like a new beginning, that’s why it is really important,” he said.

The News Service of Florida’s Lloyd Dunkelberger contributed to this report.

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