In Praise of a Blue-Collar Transportation Engineering Education

At a reception at the TRB annual meeting a few years ago I ran into Sue Langdon, one of my former students, and we talked for a while about the remarkable accomplishments of those students who graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee with a specialization in transportation engineering.  Sue suggested that it’s a blue-collar attitude that explains her and people she knew from our program.  Bob Gutierrez’s story is not all that unusual.  A recent award winner, he is leading one of the largest civil engineering projects in the US.  He is a first-generation college graduate, like so many others that I have met.

Our transportation engineering grads have reached the highest levels in their profession:  Company presidents/CEOs, state DOT secretaries, directors of public works, city engineers, and people with exceptional technical abilities and accomplishments.  Beyond a love of transportation engineering, these people share one trait – they get the job done.

UWM changed greatly during my time there.  It is now a Carnegie Doctoral Research 1 institution and a “destination” university.  In my early career it was a school of necessity – someplace affordable, local and without a hint of prestige.  The physical campus was cramped and in shambles.  UWM was and is still chronically underfunded.  The average state budget per student, compared with UW-Madison (“Wisconsin” to football fans), is honestly shameful.  So how did our program find amazing outcomes with meager resources?  Working hard and working smart, mostly.

We set academic standards equivalent to the better universities; we hired the best faculty we could convince to come to Milwaukee; we instilled a sense of teamwork that included all faculty, academic staff and support staff; and we fretted over every academic decision and every penny spent.

We lost many a student along the way who couldn’t hack it, but this is not too unusual for engineering programs around the country.  Those that succeeded did so by force of will.  There was an occasional, truly gifted student who appeared to glide through the curriculum, but most students struggled to achieve academic excellence while taking on part-time or full-time jobs to support themselves and their families.  I would guess that a majority of my students graduated with relevant work experience, making them very attractive to prospective employers.

I had occasional conversations with Ed Beimborn, my colleague over many years, as to whether these graduates would have fared better had they attended a well-funded and famous engineering program.  Our conclusion was “no”.  We are not in denial.  A highly motivated young person can achieve admirable goals anywhere that will let them.  One of our most important strategies is to break down barriers to knowledge.  When students have access, they can learn.  I often described my teaching as being 50% imparting technical material and 50% motivating.

Our students were great to teach, not because they had IQ’s that rivaled kids at MIT or CalTech (they mostly didn’t), but because they were grasping onto the one chance for big success in their lives, and they were determined to make the most of it.

One of my memorable students was Tim Diebels, who was initially an utter bust at UWM.  He took my Statics course very early in my tenure at UWM, attending class rarely and failing every exam gloriously.  I gave him an F with great delight.  He flunked-out and disappeared.  About two years later his wife, Christine, showed up as a student in one of my classes.  She had an engaging personality, and it wasn’t long before our conversations got around to Tim’s future.  I told her to encourage Tim to try again.  Tim had by then served his time away from the program, got readmitted and became my advisee.  Instead of racking up F’s, Tim racked up A’s.  He graduated and went to work at WisDOT where he quickly became their EIS guru.  He was on a fast track to top management at WisDOT when he was sadly cut down by poor health at the age of 37.  Tim remains one of my prime examples of what can happen with a change of attitude and the right support network.

A blue-collar education is a bargain for our citizens, and I hope UWM personnel and its alumni never lose those proverbial chips on their shoulders, despite their successes.

Alan Horowitz, Whitefish Bay, May 16, 2017 (lightly edited, May 19, 2017)