Need for new Engineering building covered in Wisconsin State Journal

The Sunday, February 12, 2023 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal included a front-page article on the need for a new Engineering building at UW–Madison, excerpted below. Read the full article on WSJ’s website.

In dire need of more space, UW–Madison Engineering gets System’s top priority

By Kimberly Wethal

UW–Madison will aggressively seek a new College of Engineering building as its top priority in the upcoming state budget cycle as growth stagnates and faculty compete with one another for coveted and increasingly limited lab space.

Even with six buildings, space is limited. The college’s newest building is two decades old; space constraints are immediately obvious throughout all of the buildings as equipment and filing cabinets line the hallways regardless of where you are. In many of the labs, the only open space left is narrow walkways.

A proposed new 340,000-square-foot building on the Engineering campus would offer flexible lab space adaptable to future technology. It would also allow the college to increase student enrollment, as it can currently accept 1,200 new students out of 8,000 yearly applicants, College of Engineering Dean Ian Robertson said.

Admissions staff tell Robertson that of those applicants, 2,000 are deserving of a spot in the engineering program. With more space, the college would partially close that gap and increase its population to 5,500 students, Robertson said. It’s not possible without it, he added.

Where they’d live is another matter, as UW–Madison grapples with on- and off-campus housing crunches.

“We’re leaving an awful lot of students to pursue engineering somewhere else,” Robertson said. “That, to me, is a problem, especially when I look at Illinois, Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State. They’re almost double our size … we haven’t grown at all.”

Both UW–Madison and the University of Wisconsin System have listed a new engineering building as their top priority in the state’s 2023-25 biennial budget. The $356 million project will be partially funded with $150 million in grants and gifts, but the remaining balance will require borrowing, which must be approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

In addition to making more space for engineering students, the proposed building would open up space for those who teach. Lab-stealing and physical space constraints are persistent problems for the College of Engineering, which is bursting at the seams.

With so little wiggle room, it’s hard to guarantee new hires office space and harder to offer research amenities, Robertson said. Limited space also means researchers are having to turn away grants or federal projects because there isn’t the space to expand.

Mechanical engineer Christian Franck, who studies brain trauma and prevention, is getting close to the root of what causes brain injuries at cellular and even molecular levels.

Franck has been able to make progress in recent years as his program has grown, now with eight graduate students. But it’s getting more difficult to recruit the next wave of top talent and simply find the physical space to put new equipment necessary to advance Franck’s research.

“When you’re space-limited, we can’t bring in any more high-tech equipment to help us go after some of those more nuanced, deeper problems,” Franck said. “Not having the kind of scientific equipment that we need to solve these problems, not having the personnel that we need, it just limits the speed by which you can provide solutions back to people and communities.” …

Space needs

A new building won’t alleviate pressures on the college immediately — if the project is approved in the 2023-25 budget, the earliest it might open is 2028. Design plans are expected within the next few weeks.

The university plans to tear down one of the college’s oldest buildings to make way for the new one. Formerly a state highway lab, the 83-year-old building’s configuration makes it difficult to renovate, College of Engineering spokesperson Renee Meiller said.

The Republican-controlled legislative budget committee removed the then-$300 million project from the budget in 2021, but last March, the state gave UW–Madison $1 million to start design work for the building. Those funds lay the groundwork for, but don’t guarantee, potential funding in the upcoming state budget.

“Engineering badly needs a new building, which we hope will be funded jointly by the state and by philanthropy, and which when built, will open significantly more spots for students at a time when engineers are in high demand in our state,” UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin told the UW Board of Regents during an address Thursday….

National pressure

In the meantime, companies who seek out UW–Madison engineering graduates are getting frustrated.

The college graduates about 750 engineering students into the workforce each year. That’s irritatingly low for the 400 companies who are hoping to hire, Robertson said.

Only some of those graduating show up to job fairs because many students have been offered employment long before they graduate, Robertson added.

Not being able to meet employer demand is a problem for the state, Robertson explained, as those companies are now recruiting out-of-state graduates out of necessity. Or opportunities may pass by the state altogether — companies who can’t find workers in Wisconsin might take root elsewhere.

Other universities’ engineering departments enroll twice as many students as UW–Madison. While Ohio State’s engineering school is a little less than twice the size of UW–Madison, at 8,235, Purdue and University of Illinois boast populations even larger with about 10,000 students each.

That competition isn’t just a problem for UW–Madison. Wisconsin faces a shortage of 140,000 workers, and the need is expected to increase in coming years.

“We need to be able to attract more students here,” Robertson said. “If you look at demographics of Wisconsin, they’re on the decline. So, if we’re going to meet current workforce (needs), it means we have to be able to attract more students into the state.”

Read the full article.