By LINDSAY ELLIS
September 26, 2019
John McMasters didn’t mince words. It was 1991, and the principal Boeing engineer had become frustrated by the company’s new hires. When they worked in teams, these recent college graduates flopped. They leaned too heavily on computers and didn’t understand the data they analyzed.
The culprit, to McMasters, was clear: American colleges. Engineering professors by and large had no industry experience, and they valued impractical research over preparing students for the work force. Boeing faced sharp global competition — and it no longer wanted to spend the time and money to get its new engineers up to speed. Engineering education, McMasters argued in a 1991 paper, desperately needed change.
By the turn of the century, Boeing would deliver it.
McMasters and Boeing ushered in a groundbreaking shift in the ethos of U.S. engineering colleges. They helped rewrite the discipline’s accreditation standards and pursued professors through industry partnerships, efforts that turned the field’s focus more explicitly toward what graduates could do, not merely what classes they took.
Boeing’s little-known quest had widespread reverberations on American college campuses, helping entrench a core assumption: Employers are higher education’s customers — and new hires need to meet their standards.
McMasters set the effort in motion. By 1991, he had spent three years meeting with dozens of professors, department chairs, and college administrators. The company was concerned, he wrote in the paper. “As potential employers of the universities’ graduates, we see a pale reflection of what could be.”
The problem was well understood, and he said industry should be prepared to lobby for what it wanted. The story of what ensued is based on troves of company papers, including some tucked away in Boeing’s Bellevue, Wash., archives, and interviews with former Boeing employees, college faculty and administrators, and accreditor staff.
“While some believe a real revolution in engineering education is necessary,” he wrote, “it is our opinion that it can be a peaceful one.”
In the years before McMasters eyed academe, Boeing’s top executives were getting worried. Globalization was presenting new competition and emerging markets. The rise of Japan made corporate giants tremble. American industry needed every possible competitive advantage.
But the quality of Boeing’s work force was lagging. It took up to five years to entirely train new hires, recalled Ronald Bengelink, McMasters’s boss at the time. Boeing no longer had that kind of time.
“We believe that we face a serious long-range problem,” Bengelink wrote in an introductory memo to a 1993 position paper by him and McMasters. “There is so much inertia in the current university system that it will take a major long-term and sustained effort to affect the sort of changes we believe are necessary.”
It’s no wonder that McMasters saw the deficits clearly. He knew higher education well. As a young man, he had dreamed of teaching engineering at a university, eventually earning a doctorate. But the life of an aspiring academic was unsteady, and he couldn’t land a tenure-track position, instead turning to Boeing, where he started in 1976. His colleagues described him as professorial and a bit of a hippie — offbeat in Boeing’s buttoned-up corporate culture. But McMasters’s big-picture outlook earned their respect.
“If we had too close alignment of any individual company, we’d be in jeopardy of not being able to serve a broader set of needs for our graduates.”
When McMasters, the systems thinker, looked at higher education, he saw a clear set of incentives. Professors were deeply invested in their research, funded generously by the federal government’s investments after World War II. In this moment, scholars of engineering education say, colleges increasingly hired professors not from companies but out of graduate school, with deep knowledge in mathematics and the hard sciences. That’s who could compete for grants. That’s where the money was.
And that meant they were less motivated to teach students about the practicalities of engineering, McMasters thought. The gulf between what students learned and what they needed for professional success was wide. Boeing, he believed, would suffer for it.
Particularly lacking in new hires were skills like collaboration and design, according to Boeing employees, whose pleas joined a chorus of complaints against the discipline from government and academic groups. McMasters, who would call himself a “John the Evangelist” on work-force development and education issues, heard those calls. He felt Boeing had the leverage to do something about it.
McMasters knew higher education. Bengelink had connections with company leaders. Together, they took their case to Boeing’s top brass, proposing new steps in higher education that the company should pursue. Executives’ responses, in meetings and notes after their proposal, were enthusiastic. The nation’s educational system wasn’t just an annoyance. It could make or break the company’s future competitiveness. They needed to try something new.
Boeing’s senior vice president for engineering and technology put it plainly in one meeting, according to minutes reviewed by The Chronicle: “Boeing is getting old, and if we don’t change, we will die.”
It was time for action.
The moment was right for Boeing. In the early 1990s, engineering colleges needed a steady hand.
The field was changing, as computing gained prominence
. Fewer students were graduating from undergraduate engineering programs, with the number of degrees awarded dropping nearly 15 percent over five years by 1990. But any attempts to overhaul programs or innovate ran the risk of rejection from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, the dominant accreditor. Red tape increasingly weighed down program approval.
ABET had been criticized for “bean counting” departments’ courses, auditing, for example, the number of credits in required subjects like math and design. The intense regulations had the effect of prescribing much of a discipline’s curriculum, said John W. Prados, the ABET president from 1991 to 1992. “This wasn’t the way the system should work.”
Administrators chafed at the demands — and the rigidity — of ABET’s requirements. In one encounter, an irate provost walked out of a meeting with Richard Seagrave, who visited campuses for ABET in the 1980s, after Seagrave docked an otherwise strong program at a prestigious university because it had too few credits in one area. “That was one of the more embarrassing moments in my career,” Seagrave recalled.
As ABET took fire, and Prados asked its board to consider big changes, McMasters saw an opportunity. The accreditor was focused on a curriculum’s credits. But what if it looked instead through a different kind of lens, one that focused on what students could do?
McMasters, in fact, had such a list of skills. Boeing in 1993 detailed what the company wanted in new hires in a single document dubbed the “Desired Attributes of an Engineer.” It envisioned its ideal work force with broad strokes. Sure, there were the fundamentals. But it included far more industry-applicable qualities, too. Like understanding design. Teamwork. Communication.
It’s not that other employers’ lists would have been entirely different from Boeing’s, said Jeffrey E. Froyd, an engineering education professor at the Ohio State University. But the fact that the company published it was rare — and gave the list traction, he said. “They were willing to be very out front and very explicit about their requirements,” he said.
In ABET’s new standards, a rewritten version of Boeing’s desired qualities sat at its core. That was no accident, said Prados, the former president.
“After all,” Prados said, “we were trying to say, what should our graduates be able to do? The Boeing list was ready-made for us. We just picked it up and used it. It was out there.”
“I’m not sure everyone on the board understood or knew that we were the drivers for the change in assessment criteria … But it was there.”
The very premise of these new outcomes-oriented standards, dubbed Engineering Criteria 2000, was revolutionary. They rested on the principle that an engineering degree should demonstrate that graduates held certain skills, not just completed certain classes. Outputs, not inputs. Prados said the new ABET curriculum, which had fewer credit-hour restrictions, allowed for greater emphasis on project work.
Boeing had pulled off something remarkable. It helped rewrite the accreditation rules for the discipline that produced its work force. ABET’s board approved the new standards for public comment in 1995 and began pilot evaluations in 1996.
“I’m not sure everyone on the board understood or knew that we were the drivers for the change in assessment criteria,” said Patrick Antony, who worked with McMasters at Boeing on these changes. He added that it wasn’t something the company bragged about. “But it was there.”
The Boeing-endorsed standards were in place. But implementing them fell to America’s engineering faculty, scattered across campuses nationwide. Boeing needed to win them over.
Narayanan M. Komerath would be tough to persuade. The Georgia Institute of Technology aerospace engineering professor viewed the new ABET standards as altering the engineering curriculum to suit the whims of business.
“It’s like going to medical school,” he said, “and learning how to negotiate a good deal on a Porsche. The hard-stuff curriculum gets chopped, and chopped, and chopped.”
He knew McMasters. When the pair had met face-to-face at a National Science Foundation meeting in 1994, they argued about the qualifications of students that Boeing hired, the professor recalled. So when Komerath heard of Boeing’s latest initiative — a faculty internship of sorts — he was skeptical.
The Welliver Faculty Fellowship, named after a senior Boeing leader, kicked off in 1995. It brought professors to the company in hopes that they would learn how industry worked. Fellows described to The Chronicle seeing gigantic airplane fuselages and other parts, walled off from the outside world. After the program, Boeing said, they could take what they observed back to the classroom. And these people could serve as an objective party to weigh in on Boeing’s procedures.
That’s not how Komerath saw it. The fellowship was an “industry brainwashing exercise.” But near the turn of the century, something caught his attention. NASA had been considering a high-speed civil transport supersonic aircraft. Boeing extensively studied the issue for NASA’s Langley Research Center. The program held sharp interest for Komerath, who made the long flight to India once or twice a year.
But the NASA program shut down, and Komerath wondered why. He applied to Welliver, seeking answers. To his surprise, he got in.
Once he arrived at Boeing in 2004, the program made him see the company in a new light. He wandered the company’s Seattle-area facilities and felt awe. Money can’t buy this kind of experience, he thought. He began to understand Boeing’s anxieties, about a future wave of retirements. He also learned about its frustrations — that it wanted engineers who understood the whole problem before jumping onto a computer. That told him that Boeing valued engineers who understood the issues in depth.
“It was a huge revelation,” he said.
After their summer together, Komerath and McMasters were excited by potential collaborations. “Clearly, the Welliver program has built enough bridges between industry and academia to move on to the next level in collaboration,” they wrote in a 2005 joint paper. Komerath came back to Georgia Tech and, when he discussed high-speed aerodynamics in class, mentioned Boeing’s approach.
Several other participants — there were about 150, according to the company — told The Chronicle they incorporated lessons from the summer into their classes, too.
James Oliver was one of them, coming to the program from Iowa State University in 1996. That summer, he said, the fellows joined Boeing’s CEO for dinner at his home. Oliver sat next to him, the professor recalled, and they discussed what was happening on campus. Since then, Oliver’s relationship with Boeing has continued.
He began directing Iowa State’s Virtual Reality Applications Center, which has partnered with Boeing, in 2004. In January, Oliver began as director of Iowa State’s Student Innovation Center, for which Boeing has contributed $6 million. A portion of that will fund at least 12 student researchers, and Boeing will receive their names and contact information, according to terms reviewed by The Chronicle, “for talent acquisition and recruitment purposes.”
Boeing’s footprint at Iowa State extends far beyond Oliver. Two alumni have held the title of CEO, including Dennis Muilenburg, the current leader. Over about a decade starting in January 2009, more than two dozen Boeing gifts averaging about $305,000 have supported Iowa State programs, professors, and students.
Provost Jonathan Wickert said he’s proud of Iowa State’s relationship with Boeing. But he and other officials said the company is just one of many with ties to Iowa State.
“If we had too close alignment of any individual company, we’d be in jeopardy of not being able to serve a broader set of needs for our graduates,” said Sarah Rajala, who retired this year after serving as dean of Iowa State’s engineering college since 2013.
And Boeing’s influence, including through the fellowship, has transcended any one campus. The company has brought professors into its fold — and they’ve stayed even in Boeing’s lowest moments.
Several Welliver fellows described as much to The Chronicle after two fatal crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max planes killed more than 300 people. They expressed deep sadness — for victims and for Boeing. One compared employees to family members: “You can tell they’re going through something traumatic and devastating.” Added another, “I find myself feeling really invested in Boeing. I want them to do well.”
McMasters, who died in 2008, expressed in his writings his “utmost regard and respect” for university professors. After Welliver, participants in turn expressed mutual respect.
“Welliver fellows,” two wrote in a 2002 paper, “are like disciples of industry needs.”
In 2006, McMasters took stock of the company’s work in higher education. Boeing, he wrote in an evaluation of its higher-education group, had achieved “some success” in its efforts to “aggressively influence academe” as a “prime supplier of future talent.” He perhaps undersold his victory.
Boeing argued that by hiring recent graduates, employers were colleges’ customers. That philosophy has sailed beyond engineering, further than McMasters could have ever dreamed.
It was propelled by forces beyond the company’s walls. Ubiquitous internet access reprioritized the teaching of skills — like Boeing’s desired attributes — over rote knowledge. Calls to increase the number of STEM graduates prompted a wide effort to improve teaching in those disciplines, seizing on project-based learning and other strategies to reduce the number of students dropping out. Amid skepticism of a degree’s value, campuses have developed new programs that offer expertise demanded by companies. An unmistakable feature of a college degree today is preparing for what comes after it.
“While some believe a real revolution in engineering education is necessary, it is our opinion that it can be a peaceful one.”
Scrutinizing the outcomes of that degree are the university’s other customers — not just employers, but students staring down high tuition bills and politicians reluctant to shell out state dollars. And the college leaders responsible for responding to that scrutiny are increasingly coming from a discipline now dominant on college campuses, one with soaring enrollments, corporate investments, and immense buzz: engineering.
Talk to some of these provosts and chancellors and it’s clear that the ethos of the discipline shapes how they do their jobs.
They say it’s logical to measure outcomes. To think at the highest level about what people want from higher education, and how to give it to them. It doesn’t sound radical, the way they explain it. It makes sense.
A quarter-century ago, Boeing helped bring this mind-set to higher education. The revolution, indeed, went peacefully.
Sue LaLumia is art director. Erica Lusk is photo editor and project manager.