Killing majors in sustainable development at New York University

Elaine Lee is a mechanical engineering student at NYU’s Tendon School of Engineering.

After nearly a year of almost no communication, students majoring in Sustainable Urban Environment at the Tandon School of Engineering have seem to have lost all hope that their specialty will continue to exist. Many faculty are working tirelessly to incorporate sustainability lessons into many engineering programs. Everyone I spoke to exuded passion for the field. Some dream of one day leaving Tandon to become urban planners or designers, while others hope to inspire their students to transform industries that pollute our world.

Towards the end of the Fall 2021 semester, Sustainable Urban Environments students received the following message: “Please Note: Applicants are no longer accepted for this program.” Environmental engineering is said to be a major enabler, but the issue has been largely unreported since then.

NYU needs to do better when it comes to teaching sustainability while treating its faculty better.

“You have to be sleepwalking to not see sustainability as a critical issue in our time,” said Richard Wehner, who was co-director of the SUE program and is currently a professor emeritus.

Wehner and his colleagues developed a specialty that combined the technical, scientific, and political aspects of sustainable development. It was focused on the urban environment because “the city is where most of the problems and most of the solutions will come from.” Although it was difficult to attract students in the first few years of its concept as a major, after Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute merged with New York University in 1973, people from all over the United States were drawn to SUE .

NYU’s attempt to get rid of the major is a very bad setback for the school.”

— Kaylin Yamanashi, senior specialist in sustainable urban environments

According to Vener, the major was intentionally kept small, limiting enrollment to 25 students. Also, unlike other majors, SUE does not have a dedicated floor. There is also a lack of full-time teachers – after Vener’s retirement, only the associate professor and the deputy vice-rector remained, the rest of the professors were adjuncts.

In the fall 2022 semester, the union representing NYU’s adjunct faculty, threatened to hit if the university did not raise wages, offer more educational resources and ensure job retention, among other demands. Only after the end of the union contract did the university and the union come to a compromise. SUE is not the only major taught primarily by adjuncts; in music education program on Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development this too. As in SUP, in the fall of 2022, the major stopped accepting applicants. So it will be close completely in the fall of 2023.

“When all the faculty are adjuncts, there is much less success in guiding students after hours,” said Ricardo Scheller, a junior in the SUE program.

SUE was the reason Scheller even applied to New York University, believing the program produced “great critical thinkers about social issues.”

Following Venera’s retirement in January 2020, Associate Professor Alisa Reznikkova was hired as the new director on a five-year contract. But in August, after NYU announced the future of SUE, Reznikova resigned and no one replaced her. To date, the current SUE advisor, James Lewis, does not even specialize in sustainable development, but rather in humanistic psychology. As a result, many students felt put off by the question of career prospects in the field of sustainable development.

“I gained empathy and compassion for the environment and people around me,” he said majoring in SUE and minoring in science and technology.

As a person who was close to the former director, and aware of Reznikkova major plans, they were confused as to why a major that meant so much to them had been canceled.

“NYU’s attempt to get rid of the major is a very bad setback for the school,” said Kailyn Yamanashi, another SUE senior.

Yamanashi also studies urban design and architecture at New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Although the Urban Design and Architecture Studies program has some similarities with SUE, it focuses more on the theoretical side of urban planning rather than the technical side. Moreover, the lessons at SUE are better contextualized just by virtue of being in an engineering school.

All three students liked the affordability of the major and the relatively light workload. They liked the professors and The flexibility of SUE that allowed them to explore different courses in ways that a traditional engineering program cannot. However, like many of their peers, they were disillusioned and uncertain about their future.

In a virtual town hall attended by PSU students, questions remained unanswered about what to do when prospective employers question the validity of the PSU program. Career resources and reassurance were not given.

When Scheller asked, “How does this decision fit into the real goals of … creating a sustainability-focused engineering school,” the answer lacked depth and detail.

“From my perspective, it looks like they’re just beating around the bush, but it looks like they’re determined to get rid of the major,” Yamanashi said.

I hope at some point we don’t have to call it the Sustainable Engineering Initiative, I hope we could just call it engineering.”

— Miguel Modestino, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at NYU Tandon

In my own capstone design mechanical engineering class, sustainability was just shoved in as a topic. I can’t remember a time when a professor even addressed this in detail after nearly four years at Tandon.

“[Sustainability] should be an important topic that is mentioned in all labs, but it is only mentioned in two of the 11 labs,” said Olivia Wu, Teaching Assistant EG1004, an introductory course required for all students pursuing degrees in engineering disciplines and computer science.

Many teachers have also noticed this pattern of neglect. Miguel Modestino, an Associate Professor of the Department of Chemical Engineering, has always found ways to incorporate sustainability into his lessons. While Modestino has advocated for sustainability lessons since 2017, it wasn’t until the fall 2022 semester that the Tandon Initiative for Sustainable Engineering launched. This program seeks to interweave sustainability across multiple curricula while doubling the number of sustainability-focused faculty.

“I hope at some point we don’t have to call it the Sustainable Engineering Initiative, I hope we could just call it engineering,” Modestino said.

But why can’t NYU promote sustainable engineering while promoting SUE for those less inclined to engineering? Why can’t they coexist? If NYU wants to differentiate itself from other schools, it should favor smaller majors and not limit their numbers.

The Opinion section of WSN aims to publish ideas worthy of discussion. The opinions presented in the Opinion section are solely those of the writer.

Contact Elaine Lee at [email protected]

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