Students raise concerns as vehicle design program hangs in limbo
Note: This is a continuation of the piece, “Vehicle design legacy on line,” originally published in the print edition of The Western Front on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.
Nestled in a far corner of the Ross Engineering Building is the second home of a small community of students in the industrial technology vehicle design program, the Vehicle Research Institute.
Drill bits, wrenches and welding equipment line the walls, and cars hand-built by Western students await maintenance, their aerodynamic outers emblazoned with the Vikings logo.
Pointing to a blue and grey race car on the far side of the room, senior Mitch Hooper smiled.
“We built that,” he said.
The vehicle design program is small, with about 12 students per class and one faculty member, but its students have been designing and building cars from the ground up since 1975. But now, the students in the program have a cloud of uncertainty looming above them: they don’t know how long it’s going to be there.
In May 2018, the engineering and design department announced a proposal to put the industrial technology vehicle design program into moratorium. A moratorium would mean an end to the 43-year-old program that has produced graduates who now work at engineering companies including SpaceX, Paccar, Boeing and Tesla.
In October, the proposal was approved to move forward by the College of Science and Engineering and was sent to the Academic Coordinating Commission for a vote to put the program into immediate moratorium, meaning no new cohorts of students would be accepted.
However, after students, faculty and alumni came forward with complaints about a lack of transparency surrounding the issue and the voting process, the proposal is back on the docket.
Junior Ruth Runge was a student in the program before switching to the manufacturing major. She said she felt many students were left in the dark throughout the process and were given little to no opportunity to share their perspectives with faculty and administration.
“[The meeting and vote] was very secluded and only a few people knew about it,” Runge said. “I think that because it affects so many students that it should be more broadly known and talked about.”
Runge said students were informed about the ongoing issue over email and that no meetings or discussions about it were held with students. She said that lack of communication from the department meant students were left with lingering questions about their educational futures.
Hooper said the email left him not only confused, but disappointed that the department hadn’t kept students in the loop.
“There wasn’t really any [student] involvement and our futures are at stake, not theirs,” Hooper said.
Some weren’t sure if they’d even be able to get their degrees.
That uncertainty brought students to consult people they knew would share the same passion for their program: alumni.
Former vehicle design post-baccalaureate student and researcher Edward West has been mentoring students in the program for the past several years. West graduated with an engineering accreditation from the University of Florida, but crossed the country to Bellingham to work in the VRI.
West said he regularly meets with students from the program to advise them, but that the mood of one of their last meetings changed dramatically.
“I met with students two days after the [moratorium] email came out and they were shell-shocked, I could see it in their faces,” West said. “It was palpable how different their moods and sense of wellbeing was that night. It was gut-wrenching for me to be with those students that night and I still get choked up when I talk about it, because of how impactful it was.”
West said after seeing the reactions from students, he knew he wanted to take action. Along with other alumni, West collected 38 letters written in support of the program and met with students and faculty.
Alumni Edward West, first on left, with Viking XXV, rebuilt in the VRI lab. West and Seal’s team brought the car to the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Competition in 1995. // Photo courtesy of Eric Leonhardt
Engineering and Design Department Chair Jeff Newcomer said since the proposal became more public, there has been widespread confusion within the department about the motivations behind the move and what the future will look like for students currently enrolled. Newcomer said the department has effectively entered into a contract with its students, guaranteeing them the education in the program they were admitted to. So, the college will work to ensure all vehicle design students can still graduate, even if the program goes away.
He said the decision to propose a moratorium was motivated by multiple factors, including declining enrollment in the program and lack of funding to expand the program faculty enough to get it accredited.
However, West said this decrease in the number of students enrolled was prompted by the moratorium proposal, not a decline is popularity. He said several students transferred out of the major after finding out about the potential moratorium, which would account for the lower numbers in 2018.
Currently, graduates from the industrial technology vehicle design program leave Western with an engineering and technology certification. However, students in other similar programs, like manufacturing and plastics and composites engineering, receive an engineering accreditation, which requires more courses.
Newcomer said he and other faculty members felt the program was not setting students up for success because of this difference in accreditation, which is highly-valued in the industry. He said in recent years, graduates from the vehicle design program have been turned away from jobs because they aren’t considered as competitive as candidates with full accreditations.
“We want our graduates to stay ahead of their peers, we want to them to move into leadership positions and we want to them to be setting the standards,” Newcomer said. “But this degree, as it is now, is not getting that job done.”
Newcomer said a common misconception is that the changing a program to be accredited only requires minor tweaks, like adding another math course. However, for the vehicle design program to become accredited, other resources like lab space and faculty – which are already in short supply – would be needed.
For West, this didn’t seem like a strong enough reason to bring the program to a close.
“[This is] a program that has a tremendous legacy of doing amazing things and doing a lot for its university and the community and graduates,” West said. “And to make it about the emotional frustrations in the faculty and lack of accreditation is missing the point.”
The biggest obstacle standing between the vehicle design program and accreditation is funding. Newcomer said the department has repeatedly submitted budget proposals to Western on behalf of the program but to no avail. One in particular that requested funds to expand the program for accreditation made it through the university and was sent to Olympia for consideration at the state level. It was turned down.
Newcomer said with the department’s tight budget, he feels the program is no longer serving students in the best way it could.
“If somebody’s willing to fund it, we will do our absolute best to make it work,” Newcomer said.
Regardless of the state of funding or accreditation, Runge and Hooper both said the program provides a unique learning environment with hands-on opportunities they wouldn’t have been able to find elsewhere.
Runge said part of what made her time in the program so special was the small classes she took that gave her hands-on experiences right off the bat. She said on the first day of one of her classes, she and a partner had already been given an engine to tinker with.
“We were told, ‘Disassemble it, learn about it, try to figure out all the different parts and try to match it up to what we’re learning about in class, take some measurements,’” she said. “It was just really cool to apply what we were learning in class to something real in front of us and get our hands dirty a little bit.”
Hooper said the program allowed him to bring his knowledge from the classroom to the race track as a part of Western’s Formula SAE, Society of Automotive Engineers, racing team. Each summer, the team builds a car from the ground up for the Formula SAE Lincoln race in Lincoln, Nebraska. In the most recent race in June, the Western team made an impact, placing 10th out of over 65 teams from around the world, according to a Western Today article.
Hooper said he was brought to the team through its connection with the vehicle program, and it’s allowed him to apply what he’s learned in the classroom to create a tangible product. Last year, one of the projects he worked on for class was to design a plan for a Formula-style race car of his own.
“It was really neat to go through that whole [design] process,” Hooper said. “We all made models at the end. I 3D printed mine.”
The Formula cars add to the long list of vehicles students from the program have helped to produce since its founding in 1975 by then-professor Michael Seal. Seal, now in his 80s, said he’s currently working with a team of vehicle design alumni, some of whom are driving up weekly from as far as Olympia, to restore the program’s very first car, Viking I.
Seal said the founding of the program was inspired by students who approached him asking for more in-depth vehicle courses. It quickly picked up speed and began to produce cars for competitions, both in racing and innovative, energy-efficient design.
In 1982, Seal and his team brought their aerodynamic Viking IV car to the General Motors Bonneville Salt Flats proving ground and achieved an unprecedented 103 miles per gallon at 35 mph. They also brought Vikings II, V and VI, all of which were featured in an article in Popular Science. In 1990, Seal and his team built the solar-powered Viking XX, which placed second in the 1990 General Motors Sunrayce and fifth in the 1990 World Solar Challenge in Australia.
Once the program started to gain acclaim, Seal said students traveled internationally to join the program, coming from Germany, Holland, Canada, England, Japan and China. Cars built at Western were brought to competitions across the U.S. and in Europe and Australia.
Contrary to Newcomer, Seal said the program sets students up for success by getting them to professional-level competitions like these, which often help them build strong networking connections as well.
“The automotive industry has pretty much given up on going to universities to recruit. They just don’t do that anymore,” Seal said. “They go to the competitions because they want students who’ve actually had hands-on experience building cars.”
Both Seal and West said students are aware of this and come to Western because of it.
“When I talk to the students, I’m learning how many of them came to Western specifically for this program,” West said. “They’re not coming to college to find themselves, they’re here to participate in a community of excellence which has been so prevalent over the last 43 years.”
Seal said looking back at the vehicle design program’s reach and legacy, he feels confused as to why Western would consider getting rid of it.
“I think the university is making a mistake,” Seal said. “And a number of faculty feel the same way.”
Some of those faculty, along with students, community members and alumni in support of the program met with Associated Students Vice President for Academic Affairs Levi Eckman on Tuesday, Nov. 6 to share their concerns about the moratorium proposal. Eckman said the room was packed – extra chairs had to be brought in from the hallway.
After hearing student comments, Eckman said the gravity of the proposal and the exclusion the students had been experiencing sunk in for him.
“To be candid, my heart broke for them,” Eckman said. “They told me, ‘Thank you for talking to us, this is the first time since spring  someone has gotten together with us and asked us what we thought about this.’”
Eckman expressed concern about what students described as a lack of transparency throughout the initial proposal and voting processes, saying they felt unheard throughout. He said students also suggested that the proposal had other motivations behind it aside from student welfare and funding; several said they believe it was prompted by a conflict between faculty members in the department.
Hooper was among these students. He said he felt there were other intentions behind the moratorium proposal.
“The [engineering and design] department has always had a gripe against the major,” Hooper said. “As long as I’ve been here there’s always been almost a prejudice against it, but we never thought anything would really happen because of it.”
Eckman said these allegations were a serious red flag to him, signaling that the process to move forward with the moratorium vote should be slowed down and further examined.
Newcomer said there will be a revote on the moratorium proposal. The 19 tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the engineering and design department will vote in the coming weeks and if enough votes are in favor, it will again move on to the ACC.
“If the issue was that this felt rushed and that erodes its credibility, we don’t want to rush it,” Newcomer said.
After the meeting, Eckman followed up with Dean of the College of Science and Engineering Brad Johnson for clarification regarding the college’s plan moving forward.
As of now, Eckman said Johnson and the department do not have a plan of how to bring the program back should it come out of moratorium. This means a vote in favor of the proposal could potentially bring the program to an end entirely.
“The only difference between moratorium and extinction of a program is the plan of how to get it out,” Eckman said.
West said he hopes Newcomer and the department will take a step back to more thoroughly examine how this change could affect students. He said while he looks back fondly on his time in the vehicle design program, his advocacy for it isn’t about preserving those memories for himself.
“If this didn’t involve students, and it was going to be the end of this program that I have affection for, I would be okay with it going away,” West said. “But it’s the students. There have been dozens of people affected by this and that’s what keeps me and everyone else going. [We’re] just trying to do the right thing for the students.”
A series of photos of vehicles made in the VRI is available on Western’s website.
Additional reporting help was provided by Anelyse Morris.
Corrections from Nov. 7 print edition:
The engineering and design department was incorrectly named as the engineering and technology department.
In the original article, it was stated that the program began in 1979, however, the Vehicle Research Institute, and by extension, the program, was founded in 1975. The incorrect age of the program was listed. It has been around for 43 years.
Corrections from Nov. 8 online edition:
Nov. 8: It was incorrectly stated that there was a decline in popularity in applications to the industrial technology vehicle design program. There was a decline in enrollment numbers from 2017. There is also not a lack of space, part of the VRI is now used by other programs.
Nov. 9: The faculty vote for the moratorium proposal will be done remotely, so all 19 tenured and tenure-track faculty will vote.