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That Old Familiar Feeling

photo: Poly chemistry lab in the 1920s

When Richard Thorsen looks to the future of engineering at NYU, he could be forgiven for feeling a twinge of déjà vu.

Back in the fall of 1972, Thorsen was teaching at his alma mater when he got the troubling news that NYU would be selling off its University Heights campus in the Bronx—and with that, relocating or even closing the school where he’d worked since 1964 as an instructor and earned his PhD in 1967.

A mechanical engineer whose doctoral research at NYU had focused on swirl-flow turbulent heat transfer, Thorsen suddenly found himself involved in contentious negotiations over what would happen to NYU’s School of Engineering and Science. When it eventually merged with the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which took the new name Polytechnic Institute of New York in 1973, he was one of many faculty members to make the move across the river. The institution where Thorsen had taught and earned his doctorate had officially vanished, but he and other Bronx transplants would carry the spirit of NYU engineering forward at Poly.

Then, decades later, as a Poly veteran, Thorsen took the lead in yet another set of talks—this time bringing Poly into its current affiliation with NYU in 2008 and paving the way for the official consolidation of its technology and engineering departments into the NYU School of Engineering, slated for January 2014. (Click here for a timeline of key events for engineering at Poly and NYU.)

In his 40 years at Poly, Thorsen has served at various times as associate provost for computing and information systems, dean of graduate studies, vice president for research and advanced programs, vice president of development and university relations, and vice president for student affairs. Today, as head of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, vice president emeritus, and de facto custodian of Poly’s complex history with NYU, Thorsen is in a unique position to reflect on major milestones at both institutions, and on the mergers that have tied them together.

He recently sat down with NYU Stories in his MetroTech Center office.

Was it a shock to learn that the Heights campus was closing?
Like many people, I felt sad when the Heights campus was sold off, but you get over it. The Heights experience had been very pleasant. From a campus point of view, it was a very enjoyable location. The facilities were good, the faculty were good—so what’s not to like?

At one point, the University considered moving engineering to Washington Square, right?
That’s when things got interesting! In higher education, there’s a certain competitiveness between schools. You’re competing for various kinds of resources. Poly said, “It isn’t in our interest to have an engineering school comparable in size, mission, and quality so close to us. We’ll be draining each other of limited resources.” And both NYU and Poly were experiencing financial difficulties at the time.

So what happened then?
Poly was in a very strong political position at the time, because it was in the district of Stanley Steingut, the speaker of the New York State Assembly. Poly enlisted him as an ally to block the transaction of NYU selling the Heights campus if they were going to move the engineering school to Washington Square, and that’s when the political hardball began. NYU said, “If you do that, we’ll persuade the legislature to stop the state aid that Poly is getting.” The state then essentially put a gun to the head of both schools and said, “You shall merge.”

Sounds like a tumultuous beginning to a partnership.
The merger was effected in a rather short period of time—about a year and a half, compared to what happened since 2008, which has been a five-year, or if you count the period of negotiating in 2007, more like a six-year process. It’s sometimes therefore referred to as a shotgun wedding. I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, as a great deal of thought and effort went into doing it as well as possible at the time, though there was political pressure to make it happen.

As a former NYU professor, did you feel welcome at Poly after the merger?
There was absolutely no rivalry, bitterness, or jealousy among the faculty. In about two years, you really had to stop and think: Who came from Brooklyn, and who came from the Heights? We blended very, very quickly.

Has the transition since 2008 been as smooth?
That’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, because in 1973 there were only two schools involved—NYU School of Engineering and Poly—and when they came together they were roughly equal in size. NYU is a federation of many schools, and today Poly is just one of them. Many faculty have welcomed opportunities to explore relationships, and interactions have taken place between Poly, the Wagner School, the medical school, the dental school, Courant, and so on. So it’s been very cordial on that level, but you can’t expect the complete blending we had in 1973, because the situation is so different.

Is there a sense that Poly’s been swallowed up by NYU?
Let me say something a little impolitic. For most of the time that NYU and Poly have coexisted, particularly in the 20th century up to the 1970s, Poly was more highly regarded than NYU, in terms of reputation, prestige, and perception of quality. Of course, since then, NYU has made great strides, in my opinion. But older alumni may have this frozen image of Poly being the better place, and so they see NYU as the bigger giant swallowing it up. I like to think that we, Poly, can bring changes to NYU that will continue to improve it. It’s a win-win.

Poly faculty, students, and alumni have been responsible for so many important breakthroughs and discoveries over the years. What are the standouts, in your mind?
Where to begin? A case can be made in a very real sense that Eugene Kleiner, a 1948 graduate of Poly, is the father of Silicon Valley. With a few other people he developed the first integrated circuits, and then went on to form the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield, Byers, which provided venture capital to more than 50% of companies in Silicon Valley. Then there’s Gordon Gould, who was on the faculty of Poly, and did much of the work in the development of the laser—an invention that pervades so many other technologies today. And, going back a little bit earlier, one who makes me feel good in a different way is Jasper Kane, who graduated from Poly in 1928 and worked at Pfizer prior to World War II. Penicillin had already been discovered, but it was made in a painfully slow process. Kane figured out how to mass-produce it, which is credited with saving over a million lives of soldiers and civilians during the war.

Maybe the most important one is Poly alumnus Joe Owades, who patented light beer. That’s the one the students like. But I’m hopeful going forward that some of our graduates will go on to great things, too.

How has engineering education changed in the 40 years you’ve been at Poly?
I’ve heard a joke that goes, if you took somebody from the Middle Ages and took him to Times Square, he’d be incredibly disoriented. But if you took a college professor from the Middle Ages and you transported him to a classroom today, he would feel right at home! That’s a way of saying that the way that education is delivered hasn’t changed that much in hundreds of years. That’s an overstatement, and we, like so many other schools, have made important strides in introducing technology into the classroom, and it’s aided the learning process. But in the academic world these changes occur rather slowly.

Now, unquestionably, the content of what we teach has changed. Nanotechnology didn’t exist 40 years ago in any recognizable form. Bioengineering, biotechnology and the interplay between science, engineering, and the medical profession was in its infancy back then. Prior to the infusion of computers into the educational process, the image of an engineer was a guy carrying a slide rule wherever he went! And it was definitely a guy, because there weren’t very many women in engineering.

Is the engineering field more diverse today?
In later years, engineering has been very proactive in trying to engage women and minorities, with some success, but not as much success as many of us would like. But back when I was a student at the Heights, then there wasn’t even that proactiveness in trying to recruit such students, and you didn’t have the diversity that we currently have, and which I think is healthy. Still, it doesn’t make me happy, being the father of four daughters and six granddaughters, that engineering even today is such a male-dominated profession.

Having started your career at the Heights and now officially returning to NYU, do you feel that things have come full circle?
Well, there’s an institutional journey and there’s a personal journey. On a personal level, I feel that way in some sense, though institutionally it’s a little hard to say. There are very few people remaining at Poly who were here in 1973 as a result of that merger, so the institution has changed and therefore not quite come full circle.

But on a personal level I like to think that this is not a merger, but the returning of engineering to NYU, after engineering was in Poly’s safekeeping for 40 years.

For more of Thorsen’s memories, as well as historical photographs from Poly and NYU School of Engineering, view the slideshow above. Click here for a timeline of major milestones at both institutions.

—Eileen Reynolds

(Top photo: A Poly chemistry lab in the 1920s. Courtesy of the Bern Dibner Library of Science and Technology Archives.)

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