William Grogan spearheaded a campaign to toss a university's curriculum out the door. Doing so changed engineering education as many other universities now pursue undergraduate project work and innovation.
The Presiding Genius of the Place by Alison Chisolm. WPI, Worcester, Mass., 234 pp., 2016.
Engineers love to discuss, and often criticize, engineering education. They often claim — based on their own experiences that could have occurred years ago — that their undergraduate education was too theoretical and not practical. Such was the case at WPI. That's why WPI changed its curriculum from being entirely classroom-based to project-based long before most other universities. This book tells how Dean William R. Grogan made the switch.
If you have any connection whatsoever with WPI, you owe it to yourself to read this book. If you have an interest in engineering education and organizational politics, you'll learn much about how to bring about change in an organization that can be long set in its ways. Indeed, Grogan's tactics can be applied outside of academia, something he did at his fraternity and at his church.
Bringing about such change is never easy, but Grogan pulled it off. Not only did WPI change from a traditional university to one based on project work, it changed from the usual two semesters to four seven-week terms. That in itself had far-reaching effects, down to how the bookstore operated. No longer could students buy a book three weeks into a term. If you did, you probably missed the first exam. Professors had to, almost overnight, change how they had been teaching to cover the course material in seven weeks. Though implemented in 1971, the WPI Plan didn't reach full fruition until the fall of 1974 (class of 1978). When I arrived in 1976, nothing remained of the old school.
This book is as much about how to affect change as it is about teaching technology. Imagine the politics needed to pull this off. It didn't involve the faculty alone. After all, it was the students who would be most affected by this change. To collect ideas and gain support, Grogan and others included serious input from some 90 students.
Change always breeds resistance. Grogan proved to be a master politician, something that engineers are perceived as not having much of in the way of savvy and persuasion. Grogan knew that he'd have to give in on some of his plans to win votes. For example, department heads wielded considerable power, but Grogan's new organization chart threatened them. By listening to department heads and making sure they understood their new roles, Grogan and his team won them over.
Grogan and proponents of the WPI Plan gave everyone a voice in its development. Thus, people felt empowered and were willing to go along. Faculty were also given the ability to try new things that were stifled under the old curriculum. He'd ask, "Does it have intellectual integrity? Is it demanding?" If yes, Grogan would encourage faculty to give their ideas a try.
In addition to pulling off a complete overhaul of the university, Grogan applied his problem-solving skills to his WPI fraternity chapter (Grogan was a WPI alumnus), which had violated rules and was shut down. Grogan was instrumental in reviving the chapter, which still exists today.
The book is divided into roughly three parts. In the first part, Chisolm describes the politics and engineering education involved in the WPI Plan. The middle section covers Grogan's Naval career, which helps you understand where he built his negotiation skills. That section, however, could have been shorter. The final section explains how Grogan used his political skills to save his fraternity and improve his church. You'll surely get some additional tips on how to change organizations from the final chapters. You just need to want to make changes enough to be willing to bet your job on it.
—Martin Rowe covers test and measurement for EE Times and EDN. Contact him at email@example.com