Aerospace engineering department deals with internal strife

The Mississippi State University Department of Aerospace Engineering is experiencing troubles as faculty and administration clash over how the department should be run.

MSU released a statement on Facebook regarding the department Feb. 19.

"The future of the MSU Department of Aerospace Engineering is bright, sound, and one that our students and their families can rely upon. MSU values the opinions and input of our faculty members and actively seeks dialogue on ways to proactively improve our programs," the Facebook statement said.

Following several instances of perceived administrative abuse, several faculty members expressed concerns over how the department is currently functioning, but according to an e-mail sent by a prominent aerospace professor, the concerns were not addressed and were dismissed.

Jason Keith, the dean of the Bagley College of Engineering, said the administration is continuing to support the faculty and students by listening to their concerns, and he plans to meet with every faculty member in the department to speak on the current situation to work toward a resolution. Keith also assured any faculty departure will not affect the education students receive at MSU.

Keith said the College of Engineering plans to hire a new tenure-track professor, a clinical faculty member and up to five new positions to accommodate the growing student body.

“I meet almost every single faculty candidate when they come on campus for interviews,” Keith said. “I expect them to have the ability to be excellent teachers and have the potential to also perform excellent research with both our undergraduate and our graduate students. By requiring this, we aim to satisfy the land-grant mission of Mississippi State University.”

The current department faculty received a 4.2 out of five on their 2017 student teaching evaluations, with over 50 courses of either ASE or engineering mechanics.

Keith assured Space Cowboys, MSU’s rocket-building team, will be fine if its advisor leaves. For many of MSU’s teams, including the EcoCAR3 team, have flourished despite their advisors leaving.

However, Greg Olsen, one of the 18 aerospace professors, sees the aerospace department differently. Olsen resigned this week to return to an aerospace industry job. He worked at MSU for a total of 11 years, from 2004 to 2009 and 2012 to present. 

According to Olsen, the timeline of events spans a couple of years. The first offense occurred when the faculty of the Aerospace Department was searching for a new department head, and on the second search, Davy Belk was recommended by a split vote to the dean.

Belk has no previous academia experience, but has over 30 years of experience working for the Air Force in various positions.

“My fear was that he wouldn’t fit into the academic system or conform to its practices and policies,” Olsen said.

Olsen said he and other professors became frustrated at Belk’s hierarchical and exclusionary administrative style. Olsen explained Belk began to require his personal signature to allow graduate students to receive their master’s thesis, but Olsen said he believes Belk exercised this ability only once.

Olsen also said Belk required the aerospace’s external advisory board to begin advising only himself, excluding the faculty as a whole.

“First time in 11 years I’d seen that,” Olsen said.

Belk presented the idea of using $450,000 to renovate the Walker Engineering Building’s front office without consulting the faculty, Olsen said. In addition, Olsen said Belk wanted to stop students’ ability to have a one-on-one with prospective faculty candidates before they are hired, but pushback from students and faculty prevented him from doing so.

“Me, personally, I’ve been told I need to leave if I cannot make a positive contribution to the department,” Olsen said. “Now, I teach three to four classes a semester. I’m the AIAA advisor, formally SAE One car team co-advisor, Theta Tau engineering fraternity incoming advisor. I advise a third of our graduating seniors on their senior seminar, but I am not contributing enough.”

Olsen said the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which is an accreditation board for applied science college programs, submitted an inaccurate report on the aerospace program’s capabilities.

Olsen also explained after a meeting with Provost Judy Bonner, some faculty threatened to leave the university. After Olsen asked what the administration was doing to fix the leadership problems in the Aerospace Department, Olsen said Bonner replied there is not a leadership issue, and the issue truly lies in troublesome professors.

Olsen said this was the last straw in the faculty’s attempt to work within the system. He said following this meeting, members of the faculty turned to messaging alumni to alert them to the situation, in hopes of forcing administrative action.

Parallel to these actions the MSU Office of Public Affairs published the previously mentioned statement on Feb. 19 by Keith, dean of the Bagley College of Engineering, and Belk stating the aerospace department was doing better than ever, boasting an increase in enrollment, funding and faculty members.

The post referred to “recent social media posts and dialogue,” the statement outright denied claims of the department being in danger, and said the claims were “patently misleading, irresponsible and inflammatory.”

The budget for Aerospace Engineering increased from $1.44 million in FY 2012 to $1.69 million in FY 2018. However, according to the National Science Foundation, research expenditures in ASE have increased from $3.7 million in FY 2014 to $4.8 million in FY 2016. The statement also mentions the faculty plans Keith outlined, as well as noting undergraduate enrollment has increased by over 150 students from 2012 to 2017.

Factoring in inflation, the ASE budget has effectively increased around $110,000, while the research expenditures by about $900,000.

In addition, Keenum and Bonner plan to give $100,000 each from their respective budgets toward Patterson Engineering Laboratories renovations, including a new wind tunnel.

Belk commented on the situation, assuring the Aerospace program is stronger than ever.

“The main point that I will restress is that the Aerospace Engineering Department has a long, proud history at MSU, and we are looking forward to a strong, bright future,” Belk said. “We don’t have the shiniest equipment, but we do deal with the brightest minds – our students, faculty and our international network of collaborators are top tier. I am not the authority on relative cost of an education, but I believe the return on investment in an MSU ASE degree is huge.”

Olsen said the department will see some internal upheaval, but he hopes for positive change.

“The department is going to survive no matter what. I hope and pray it does," Olsen said. "Personally, I don’t know what people are going to do, I don’t want to predict that, but we’re going to see some upheaval. If you are not changing, you are going backward, but I just want the change to be positive.”

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Following several instances of perceived administrative abuse, several faculty members expressed concerns over how the department is currently functioning, but according to an e-mail sent by a prominent aerospace professor, the concerns were not addressed and were dismissed.
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