Barber said that while agricultural engineering at the U of S and across North American has a long and proud history, it has struggled to maintain its identity as a discipline over the past several decades because the developing agricultural sector requires specialists in many different engineering disciplines. The result has been a “fracturing of the discipline,” said Barber, that grappled with a sense of loyalty to agriculture but also pressure to meet broader societal needs for engineers with an appreciation for biological systems.
Engineering colleges, in recognizing this reality, began to develop biological science-focused programs – biosystems engineering, biotechnology engineering and others – to better address the needs of industry and society. But the fact that individual university’s took different approaches and called new programs and departments by different names meant that “research and curriculum did not develop the same everywhere. Agricultural engineering lost its niche.” Enrolment declined everywhere, including at the U of S, and enrolment, said Barber, is often “the crude stick” used to measure the sustainability of an academic department.
As the College of Engineering was considering the future of agricultural engineering, it was also facing the challenge of operating five departments of varying size, said Barber. “Add to declining undergraduate enrolment and an imbalance in our department structure the synergies that should be there between chemical and biological engineering, especially in a bioresource-rich place like Saskatchewan, and it seemed not illogical to combine the two.” The result is the new Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in a college that continues to offer eight different undergraduate programs now shared among four departments.
Barber said that the structural change will “use the natural inclination or identity that departments get through their undergraduate programs … to discover where the synergies and efficiencies are.” At the same time, a task force is being established to “take a blank canvas look at biological engineering. We need to stand on fresh ground with fresh eyes and ask what we could do that would make us look distinctive and best serve our pubic. That will take engagement from across campus.”
He pointed out that the change in the college’s department structure and the retooling of an undergrad program “are intersecting but distinctly different things” although together, they represent an important step toward decoupling academic innovation from organizational structure.
“Universities have a history of programs tucked neatly into departments of the same name but I don’t think that’s where we’ll be in the future. We will have to recognize that society has demands for us to provide particular programs but we won’t be changing our organizational structure every time we change a program. That just slows down academic innovation. These new, smaller non-departmentalized colleges will eat our lunch because they are less constrained by organizational structure. We don’t have to be non-departmentalized but we need to find a way to be innovative in the design and delivery of our undergraduate programs. What we’re doing in engineering may be a step in that direction.”