Fall 2000

Duct Tape & Determination


The Kansas state motto — “To the Stars through Difficulty” — describes the progress of countless sweat-equity ventures, but WSU's College of Engineering has ample reason to lay claim to that slogan. This college exemplifies success wrested from setback.

Mel Snyder '50, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering says, “Freshman and sophomore courses in engineering were being taught as early as 1926, the year Fairmount College became the Municipal University of Wichita.” However, students had to transfer credits to either the University of Kansas or Kansas State University to finish their degrees. But Wichita's burgeoning aircraft industry needed trained professionals, which the new university perceived as justification for developing its own degree program. So in 1928, Wichita University began offering a four-year bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, one of only six such programs nationwide at the time.

Program gravitas was more implied than actual. In 1926, Wichita University boasted four colleges, one of which was the College of Commerce and Industry; according to Snyder, “The words 'and Industry' were included so it could house the engineering courses.” There was neither a formal engineering school nor an engineering faculty in the modern sense. Craig Miner, WSU's Willard W. Garvey distinguished professor of business history, comments, “The president of the university, Harold Foght, contacted engineers at the Wichita plants and talked them into teaching courses in their areas of expertise, and the plants into contributing equipment. Classes were held downtown, in factories and in machine shops.”

Cloudy and Overcast

The new program did have a director: Alexander Petroff, who “was one of the few holders of a master's degree in the field at that time,” says Snyder. One of Petroff's first major tasks was the construction of an on-campus wind tunnel. He designed a 4-ft, open-return tunnel made of wood that was installed in the unfinished attic of the Science Building — later renamed McKinley Hall — after its completion in 1929.

Among the few students enrolled in the program was Dwane Wallace, who used the wind tunnel to design and test an airplane as his senior project. After he graduated, says Miner, “Wallace went to Cessna's stockholders and asked them to support the building of his airplane. The plane became the first of a series subsequently named the Air Master, which in turn became the classic airplane of the 1930s that saved Cessna, and it all began in the Science Hall wind tunnel.” Miner remarks that Petroff also procured an airplane engine and sited it outside Henrion Gymnasium; the tranquil ambiance of academe was shattered when he and his students regularly fired it up.

In 1930, five students received the Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering. It looked like clear skies ahead for the fledgling program. Instead, the program was abruptly canceled. That same year a new stadium was built for the football team; the year before President Foght had hired Al Gebert, a former Notre Dame quarterback, as coach. “It was rumored,” Miner says, “that the program had been sacrificed to pay Gebert the much larger salary he wanted, and got. That salary disturbed the faculty, but, more importantly, it was one of the concerns that led to the North Central Association's deaccreditation of the university in 1933.” Snyder, however, attributes the cancellation to falling enrollment brought on by the Depression. Whatever the reason, the reality was engineering at Wichita University had crashed and burned.

Visibility Unlimited

That might have been the end of it, but World War II — and its demands on Wichita's aircraft industry — began another chapter in the program's erratic history. Since Petroff had long since left, then-President William Jardine hired Kenneth Razak in 1943 to teach classes in aeronautical engineering. Razak remembers, “The aircraft plants had engineers, but they were civil engineers, sanitary engineers, architects. They needed to become aeronautical engineers — fast — to build airplanes.” Since these students held day jobs, Razak instituted night classes.

The aeronautical engineering department was still part of the business college, and Razak became both program director and its first full-time faculty member. When the war ended, WU was inundated with returning veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. “At one point,” Razak recalls, “We had 1,800 engineering students. That was maybe a third of the entire student body.” The war proved to be a windfall in other ways, as well; war surplus materiel was made available to many colleges and universities, and Wichita University obtained as its share six fighter aircraft, buildings and machine tools, as well as a half-boxcar of electronic materials.

Wings and Prayers

Yet this largest of departments did not have a building worthy of that designation on a campus boasting several stately brick structures. Instead, students and faculty made do with two surplus army air base buildings that were moved to campus in 1947 A one-story, 10,800-sq-ft, white-frame, former PX building provided classrooms and office space for the seven faculty and staff members, and a triple Quonset hut housed the engineering shops. These facilities were installed on a barren, wind-swept field southeast of where Ablah Library stands today. The wind tunnel from Science Hall joined them on the “East Campus.”

The war years provided one final bonus: “Beech and Cessna needed a quality wind tunnel to test post-war airplanes,” Snyder recalls. “And they offered to finance one on campus.” President Jardine asked Razak how much such a wind tunnel would cost, and, Razak says, “I told him the biggest figure I could conceive of at the time: $100,000. Well, I missed it by $60,000, but they gave us the money anyway. I designed the wind tunnel — we still had to cut some corners, even though we saved money by using the engines and components from four of those surplus fighter planes — but we got it up and running.” Named in memory of Wichita aviation pioneer Walter Beech, the 7-by-10-ft Beech Wind Tunnel immediately began producing research dollars for the university, as it continues to do to this day.

Many of the returning veterans wanted to major in other kinds of engineering, so in 1949, a four-year program in industrial engineering was added to the newly named School of Engineering, followed in 1952 by programs in civil and mechanical engineering.Razak initiated the first Engineering Open House in 1950, which continues to attract prospective high school students and area industry leaders to campus annually to view senior engineering projects. In 1952, the School of Engineering became a freestanding entity separate from the business school. Razak was appointed its dean.

Gaining Altitude

Watershed events continued. The School of Engineering was final according a home commensurate with its credit–hour production; the Engineering Building, designed by Razak, was finished in 1953. Master’s degree programs were begun. The first faculty member to hold the PhD, John Ruptash, was hired in 1954 to oversee the graduate program in aeronautical engineering, and, says Snyder,  “Inspired by the mentoring, students formed the Engineering Council,” which continues to thrive today. In 1955, a $5,000 private gift enabled Razak to purchase an IBM 610 computer, the first one at WU, for the school. Civil engineering was dropped in 1957, but an electrical engineering program was accredited in1961.

In 1964, WU entered the state system of higher education, and the School of Engineering became a full-fledged college. On the horizon were faculty-coveted PhD programs. However, Razak explains, “My forte was in the field of engineering design not the PhD or research program development, so I thought it would be better to turn that mission over to someone more qualified in that area.” He resigned to become a consultant and expert witness on transportation-related accidents.

Charles Jakowatz was hired as the new dean in 1965. His accomplishments indeed included laying the foundation for the new state university’s PhD program in engineering: the Department of Aeronautical Engineering had been named one of the five departments most ready to begin that planning. But in the familiar two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern of progress that had been the program’s hallmark since its earliest years, Snyder explains, “the Board of Regents decided in 1966 that WSU should continue awarding baccalaureate and master’s degrees and the single PhD in logopedics, but that additional doctoral program should be developed cooperatively with KU, and KU would confer the degrees.”

Flying High

In 1976, Velma (Lunt) Wallace and Dwane L. Wallace established a $500,000 endowment fund to support undergraduate scholarship in engineering. Dwane Wallace had become CEO of Cessna Aircraft some years after he graduate from WU. 

Miner recalls, “Dwane told me he couldn’t have afforded to go to college anywhere else and that he was so grateful there was a program in aeronautical engineering at the university because it enabled him to pursue his dream career.” To date, 200 Wallace scholars have earned engineering degrees. The endowment is currently worth more than $2 million and supports more than 50 students annually.

In 1977, an additional engineering facility was built just north and east of that structure. The impetus for Wallace Hall arose from rapid technological advances requiring modern laboratories plus an ever-growing need for office and classrooms. “Dwane Wallace was very influential in persuading the state to provide that funding,” Miner comments. Wichita State named the 787,204-sq-ft, state-of-the-art building — which enfolded the Beech Wind Tunnel and included a new 4-ft wind tunnel that replaced the original one built in Science Hall — in honor of the Wallaces.

All Systems "Go"

William J. Wilhelm succeeded Jakowatz as dean in 1979. His mandate from then-president Clark Ahlberg was to develop the PhD program across the board in engineering. “The administration felt that, to be considered a true peer institution of KU and K-State, the university needed doctoral programs,” Wilhelm declares. “Given local industry and regional needs, engineering was the logical place to begin.” Having come from the University of West Virginia where he had gained nine years of civil engineering administration experience, Wilhelm knew the nuts and bolts of graduate education and program accreditation, but, he says, it still took four years for the Kansas Board of Regents to authorize the PhD program in all four departments — aeronautical, electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering.

“The limit to aeronautical engineering had never made academic or intellectual sense to Ahlberg,” Miner says. “It was a political compromise with the other engineering programs in the state unrelated to the capacity of the faculty.” Efforts to expand the PhD program at WSU would likely have been shot down had not prominent area corporate CEOs lobbied fervently for the request. As it was, the regents narrowly approved the request by a vote of 5-4.

Wilhelm also spearheaded the effort to increase crucial research support. When he arrived on campus, that support stood at $800,000; currently it has grown to more than $4 million. Faculty numbers grew from 35 to 50, as did their doctoral diversity; while all current faculty members hold the PhD, the earliest ones earned were, comments Wilhelm, “from universities relatively and regionally near WSU. Now the doctoral faculty represents 35 universities from all over the country, which is a healthy development.”

Wilhelm also made a concerted effort to increase the number of women in engineering; currently three faculty members and two professional staff members are women. Of the 150 students who have earned the PhD to date, 13 have been women 106 women have received the MS degree; and about 14 percent of the college’s enrolled students are women.

“Those numbers are not hugely impressive, but they represent a good beginning,” Wilhelm says. Velma Wallace agrees: “Dean Wilhelm’s success at bringing women into engineering is important, because they bring a different perspective to the field, and a necessary one.”

After 21 years at the controls, Wilhelm retired, and Dennis Siginer, who came to WSU from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, began his tenure as dean in August. Paramount among his goals for the college is increasing research funding. “Such funding is crucial,” he says. “State funding for public universities has been decreasing for the past 15 years and will continue to decrease. To grow, the university must exploit alternative income sources, and research dollars, which the College of Engineering has been bringing in for university–wide benefit for many years, fuel growth. Even more important, a strong teaching program is dependent upon a strong research program.”

That increase in research necessitates additional faculty numbers; by Siginer’s reckoning, faculty research productivity doubled during the last five years despite the fact that the engineering faculty shrank by 12 to 15 percent during the same period. “The existing faculty can only do so much. Right now, they are stretched to the limit,”
 he says.

In addition, he notes that a needed “new building is in the works, but we are only at the planning stages. In terms of research, engineering is the break basket of Wichita State, but we have the smallest faculty on campus. That needs to change very soon.”

Into the Unknown

Engineering at WSU continues to evolve in fits and starts, adapting to the times and re-envisioning the future as it did from the beginning. In 1992, aeronautical engineering became aerospace engineering. In 1995, industrial engineering became industrial and manufacturing engineering and electrical engineer, electrical and computer engineering.

Nearly 30 percent of the current engineers at Cessna, Raytheon and Learjet/Bombardier have earned their degrees from WSU, as well as more than 500 engineers who work for Boeing worldwide — something the five students in engineering’s first graduating class could have not imagined.

Building on success both anticipated and unexpected, the college perseveres and thrives, according to Everett Johnson, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering, “with duct tape and determination.”


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