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Tumultuous Past, Uncertain Future: Inside Chem-E’s Turmoil And Rebirth

 

A QUADRANGLE INVESTIGATION

by ROSE BRENNAN & STEPHEN D. ZUBRYCKY, Managing Editors

“We don’t talk about the department.”

These were the words of Ava, a current student in Manhattan College’s chemical engineering department, who has been given a pseudonym to protect her identity.

Over the course of the past year, The Quadrangle has spoken with more than a dozen current and former students like Ava about the recent state of the chemical engineering program. In addition, The Quadrangle has received input from chemical engineering faculty members and top administrators at the college.

In the past five years, chemical engineering, or “Chem-E” as the department’s members call it, has been marked by uncertainty, division, student action and a widespread lack of student confidence in technical skills and abilities required in the job field.

It is through this article that The Quadrangle aims to separate fact from rumor, shedding a light on the cryptic happenings of the chemical engineering department and what they mean for the program’s students.

A Brief Chronology of Chem-E

Once ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top five chemical engineering programs of its kind in the U.S., and regarded as one of the college’s finest programs, the department has continuously struggled since 2013.

In the five years since, chemical engineering has cycled through six department chairs and swapped out half of its faculty. Of the seven current full-time faculty, four are new to the program this academic year, including Department Chair Sasidhar Varanasi, Ph.D.

According to multiple students, this uncertainty in staffing began with the departure of Eric Huang, Ph.D. in the fall of 2013.  That same academic year, then-Department Chair Ann Marie Flynn, Ph.D., went on medical leave for Spring 2014.

During this time, James Patrick Abulencia, Ph.D., was elevated to interim chair. Flynn’s absence extended into a sabbatical in Fall 2014, during which Gennaro J. Maffia, D.E., was made interim chair of the department. Upon Flynn’s return the following spring, she was not reinstated as chair.

It was around this time that students began to notice a change in the quality of their education.

“Professors weren’t teaching whatever they needed to teach,” 2015 graduate Ray Lumokso said. “The standard that they were holding us to was not the same.”

In Fall 2014, the program, along with the four others in the School of Engineering, was evaluated by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). After evaluations had concluded, ABET determined that two of the five programs, one of which was chemical engineering, would receive follow-up evaluations two years later during the fall of 2016.

During Fall 2016, rumors surrounding the program’s re-accreditation consumed the department. Despite this, much of the faculty and administration were confident in the program’s ability to maintain its accreditation.

Tim J. Ward, Ph.D., the school’s dean, said he had “absolutely no doubt” in the program’s prospects.

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The Reynolds Retreat, a lounge located in the chemical engineering department. STEPHEN ZUBRYCKY / THE QUADRANGLE

“It’s very difficult once you have ABET accreditation to lose ABET accreditation,” Ward said. “ABET is not here to punish a program. ABET is here to make programs better. If you listen to ABET, if you follow what they’re saying, if you work with them, they’ll work with you.”

Maffia’s tenure as interim chair concluded with the hiring of Chien-Pin Chen, Ph.D., who was installed in the fall of 2016, following a survey process among the department’s faculty, students and board of advisors.  It was during this time that the program received its follow-up visit and was ensured accreditation until Fall 2020.  Chen departed the college after one semester due to personal reasons, and the department was back to square one.

Following Chen’s departure, the position of chair was filled by Moujalli C. Hourani, associate professor and former chair of civil engineering, for the Spring 2017 semester.

“We felt he was the right person for that time for the department, in terms of providing the leadership that was necessary,” said William C. Clyde, Ph.D., provost and executive vice president of the college.  “There was some concern about having a civil engineer in, initially, but I think…pretty quickly into the spring term, they appreciated… what he could bring.”

Varanasi, formerly of the University of Toledo in Ohio, was hired last fall to serve as co-chair alongside Hourani.  Varanasi then became the sole chair of the department this spring.

Division in the Department

As new faculty members cycled in and out and student frustration reached a fever pitch, fault lines took shape between factions of students and faculty.

“It felt like there was two teams, and we never had that,” Liam, a 2015 graduate who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “We spoke up and felt there was a lot of retaliation from the teachers.”

Lumokso agreed.

“It was at that point where there was like, a separation, between the students and Dr. Flynn on one side, and then all the other teachers against the students and Dr. Flynn,” Lumokso said.

According to Liam, this division could have been caused by failure to appoint adequate professors in the department.

“The wrong people were hired, and it caused division in the department,” Liam said.

Students in the department had particular issues with then-assistant professor Joseph Menicucci, Ph.D.  Notably, he had asked students if Flynn was “harassing” them.

“He proposed to ‘eliminate any contact she has with students’ by he [sic] testifying against her,” wrote Hector, a member of the class of 2017 who wishes to remain anonymous, who was approached by Menicucci regarding Flynn.  “Although it did not mention it directly, the conversation strongly suggested termination.”

After Hector and another classmate met with Menicucci on another occasion, he ultimately decided not to pursue further action, and instead informed Flynn of what had occurred.

“I ended up having to defend Dr. Flynn which was one of the hardest things that I had to do but I ultimately went through with it because I believed that [Menicucci] was in the wrong for placing students in tough moral predicaments,” Hector wrote.

Hector’s experience with Menicucci was not unique. Nicole Palmieri ‘16, ‘17 was also approached by Menicucci about Flynn.

“He asked me if Dr. Flynn was harassing me,” Palmieri said.

Menicucci, who declined a request for comment, is no longer an employee of the college.

However, Hector also accused Flynn of sowing division in the department.

“She’d just talk about irrelevant class material… and it was mostly about… why the department’s bad, why the administration’s bad, why Dean Ward isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing… basically diminishing the reputation of Manhattan College, in particular, Manhattan College faculty,” Hector said.

Flynn denied the claims made by Hector.

“Did what was going on in the department come up in class?  Of course it did.  It was all students cared about, asked about and talked about,” Flynn said.  “Did it consume my life and my classes?  Absolutely not.”

Flynn was not only named as a possible player in the division in the department, but as a victim as well.  Upon her return from a leave of absence in Spring 2017, she was targeted in two break-ins.

The first occurred in late February, in which an unidentified person defecated in the trash can in her office.  Flynn was not made aware of this incident until two weeks later.

On March 2, Flynn discovered she had been targeted again.  In the aftermath of the second break-in, Flynn noticed an odd smell upon entering her office, finding a rotten banana in the top desk drawer.

“I do not buy or eat bananas,” Flynn wrote in the email.

Flynn also noticed some of the binders in her credenza had been turned upside down, and that several had been stolen.  Upon further investigation the following day, she discovered that binders containing heat transfer and transport exams, kinetics and transport course notes and a binder with “personal, confidential documents” had been taken.

In addition to the missing binders, Flynn also noted that a Cartier Ballon Bleu watch had also been stolen.

“My goal is that transparency will minimize potential embellishments and inoculate the sensationalism of the story. More importantly, information ensures that everyone’s safety remains the first priority,” Flynn wrote.

Student Take Action

Feeling that their education was in jeopardy, many of Chem-E’s students decided to take action, airing their grievances before administration both in direct meetings with upper-level college administrators and on paper in numerous documents.  These documents were distributed among chemical engineering faculty and college officials, as well as ABET.

This flurry began in April 2014, coming in the form of a memorandum signed by 50 chemical engineering students.  Tyler-Kate “T.K.” Starzyk ‘15 was a junior at the time the memorandum was written and distributed to college president Brennan P. O’Donnell, Clyde, Ward, Flynn, Abulencia and Michelle McGrath, a member of the chemical engineering board of advisors.

“We felt we were really getting, I guess, shafted in what we were paying for, so [the class of 2015 was] kind of heading the charge,“ Starzyk told The Quadrangle over the phone.

The memorandum held several condemnations of the department.  For instance, one student wrote, “I am not learning anything in Kinetics except how to read graphs,” while another complained, “In Spring 2014 there was a complete drop in quality of effort put in by teachers.”

It was that spring that students began to meet regularly as a department with college administrators, including both Clyde and Ward.  Clyde estimated about six to eight meetings were held in total.

“There were several meetings that were going on with the provost and with… the series of department chairs that were coming through at the time,” said former student James, who wishes to remain anonymous. “During all this time, we were coming up with questions or concerns about the department we were trying to get answered.”

According to Clyde, these meetings continued until Spring 2016.

Student activism in the department continued that summer.  Concerned with the quality of their education, as well as the pending follow-up visit with ABET in the fall, then-rising juniors Emma and Oliver, who wish to remain anonymous, called the director of ABET, Michael K.J. Milligan, Ph.D.

On their first attempt, Emma and Oliver were not able to get in contact with Milligan, According to Flynn, this was to be expected because, “that is akin to picking up the phone and saying, ‘I’d like to talk to the Pope.’”  Instead, they left a message with Milligan’s executive assistant.

Ultimately, they were able to speak with Milligan directly, who expressed concern for the department.

“One of the first things [Milligan] said to us was, ‘Why haven’t you transfered?’” Emma said.  “[He said] ‘if any small amount of this is true, you guys should not have the accreditation.’”

Milligan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

That fall, then-senior James distributed a survey amongst the classes of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. The survey asked respondents to offer thoughts on faculty members, administrators and courses. Ninety-six students responded.

The survey questions were emailed to students with instructions, which began, “So most of us are aware that the accreditation of the department has been put at risk over the last two years […] None of us can afford to have paid for a degree from a department that is no longer accredited.”

On a scale of 1 to 10, respondents in the class of 2018, on average, rated their “ability to design a system, component or process to meet desired needs” a 4.8. Class of 2015 respondents averaged a 6.4. Respondents rated the department’s quality of teaching a 3 out of 10.  About 75 percent of respondents said they would not recommend the department to a high school student or freshman in the School of Engineering.

The results were compiled into a 620 page report, which was then emailed to 155 students, handed to the ABET evaluators during their interim review that fall and given to Clyde and Chen, who was chair at that time.

“The results were discussed,” said Clyde, who believed the integrity of the survey was problematic. “If I compare it to the course evaluations that we give, I know how they’re given.  We can control which students took them.  We manage that process with great integrity.  So we’re sure exactly what it is we’re getting, so that we can try to interpret it knowing that we think it’s good data.”

According to the report, the survey was conducted and the data was compiled free of faculty intervention. The report reads, “The data of this survey has not yet been shared with any of the faculty or administration as to not influence or alter the responses from them.”

The latest instance of student activism came at the hands of Palmieri, who circulated a petition last spring, which called for the reinstatement of Flynn as department chair.

Palmieri was motivated to do so by the Spring 2017 appointment of Hourani, a civil engineering faculty member, as the chair of the chemical engineering department.  Palmieri believed the position rightfully belonged to Flynn.

“I believe that the department chair of chemical engineering should be a chemical engineer,” Palmieri said. “And it felt like a slap in the face to all of us who had begging for Dr. Flynn to come back.”

In Palmieri’s estimation, the petition gathered roughly 90 signatures. Palmieri sent the signed petition via an anonymous email account to Clyde and Ward, as well as some chemical engineering faculty and members of the board of advisors.

“In my mind and in the minds of many others, everything would’ve just been fixed if they made [Flynn] chair again,” Palmieri said. “To be honest, from the second she left the second semester of my sophomore year, everything  just went downhill and got worse and worse.”

While circulating her petition, Palmieri noted several students who felt that they would be putting their grades at risk by signing it. According to Palmieri, one student felt the need to withdraw from the petition after signing it due to fear of retaliation.

“They were terrified of their teachers finding out and failing them,” Palmieri said. “We had scary situations where people were absolutely retaliated against.”

Hector, who took a class with Menicucci, recalled an incident where he believes he was retaliated against because he had told Flynn of his earlier conversation with Menicucci.

“The next test I had from him, I had a zero.  And I was just shocked,” Hector said.  “I got a 90 and a 100 on the last two tests.  And just to see a zero, no partial credit at all…I lost words at that point.”

The Quadrangle has not found further evidence or proof of this claim.

Palmieri’s campaign did not have the unanimous support of the student body.

“I thought that what Dr. Hourani was going to do was going to be fine and that there’s no necessary need for Dr. Flynn to do it,” Paul, a current junior who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “There are strong people other than Dr. Flynn.”

Palmieri said that Flynn was never consulted on this matter, and that she urged the petition’s signatories to exercise discretion in discussing it.

Flynn eventually discovered the petition about three weeks after it began circulating.

“I appreciated the students’ support and I was happy they believed I did a good job as chair, I knew the administration would spin it to say I had put them up to it,” Flynn said in an email statement to The Quadrangle.

Lack of Student Confidence

Upon graduation from the chemical engineering program, several recent graduates had difficulty finding employment in chemical engineering and had to search in other similar fields.

Lumokso, who currently works in environmental engineering, felt he had difficulty finding a job in chemical engineering because he felt his foundation in kinetics was lacking.

“[Kinetics] is the class that would separate a chemical engineer from a mechanical or environmental engineer or a water supply engineer…the fact that you would be able to distinguish different reaction rates that go on in a process,” Lumokso said. “I can’t do that, and I think that’s one thing that kind of steered me towards the environmental field. Because that’s something I’m not capable of, and that’s something I did not get out of going to school [at MC].”

Starzyk, who is employed in the oil and gas industry, thinks her MC chemical engineering education put her at a disadvantage when compared to her peers in the field.

“Although my current role has not been super technical, I’m working with refiners all the time. And if I could actually have had quality education to really get the foundational chemical engineering principles, it would’ve made it a lot easier to be quicker on my feet and respond to the group and issues that I’m working with,” Starzyk said. “If I ended up in the refinery, […] I would be severely behind the other chemical engineers.”

Hector, however, pursued an entirely different career path, and is now employed at a non-profit tech start-up.  He asserted that this choice was because of the lackluster education he received in the department.

“[My experience at MC] led me to not want to be a chemical engineer,” Hector said.

Other students, including Palmieri, chose to pursue graduate school in lieu of an entry-level job.  Palmieri originally wanted to be a teacher, but was encouraged to pursue chemical engineering by her parents. Upon graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Palmieri had intended to combine these interests by pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering in hopes of becoming a professor.

By the time she received her bachelor’s degree in 2016, Palmieri had come to the conclusion that she would be unable to pursue further education at another institution because she felt unprepared by the undergraduate education she received at MC.

“Because of these professors who did not teach me these fundamental courses, I am unqualified to get a Ph.D.,” Palmieri said.

One of the fundamental concepts that Palmieri says she missed out on was distillation, which is typically incorporated as part of the Separation Process Design courses.  Palmieri’s professor, however, did not include it.

Palmieri was not the only student affected.

“We did not learn any sort of distillation,” James said. “My [current] job literally [revolves] entirely around that.”

Both Varanasi and Paul, who is currently enrolled in the course, said that the current Separation Process Design courses discuss distillation.

Students also critiqued the rigor of the college’s Process and Plant Design Courses.

“I had an interview in October… and I was talking to some of the other students that were there… and we were talking about our senior capstone, and one of the girls that was there…she was like, ‘Oh, you guys have it so easy…our professor gave us the plant and we had to design it’…but we…only had [to design] a certain part of it,” Matthew, a current student who wished to remain anonymous,  said.

He continued.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘What’s the purpose of a capstone when we only get a small part of the plant?’ In an interview, I’m going up against other people… and… her senior capstone is already levels above my senior capstone,” he said.

Liam agreed.

“I don’t know what the heck our capstone was,” he said.

Varanasi defended the course.

“What we are teaching in […] process design to our students isn’t inferior to what the courses are elsewhere in the country,” Varanasi said. “As far as the content and the techniques and the technology, it is no different, in fact much better, than the […] process design class that’s offered in many other schools.”

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 4.50.43 PMThe Future of Chem-E

Despite persisting challenges, the college’s faculty and administration believe that the program has begun to turn the corner.  Much of this has been attributed to the appointment of new faculty members.

“I believe the department’s in the strongest shape that it’s been for a very long time,” Clyde said.  “We’ve brought in some very strong faculty with very strong connections to different industries, which create pathways for students into those industries, and can ensure that our preparation of the students is appropriate to those industries.”

“The department, in the last one year, has, including me, four new faculty that have joined,” Varanasi said, calling it a “complete makeover for the department.”

New additions to the faculty this year include Samiul Amin, Ph.D., who previously served as the assistant vice president for research and development at cosmetics giant L’Oreal.

“He’s going to spearhead our cosmetic engineering specialization in [the] chemical engineering program,” Varanasi said.

Richard F. Carbonaro, Ph.D., formerly of the civil engineering department, has also joined the faculty. Carbonaro, an environmental engineer by education and trade, became an associate professor of chemical engineering last fall.

“He is an outstanding, gifted teacher, no doubt,” Varanasi said of Carbonaro.

“Working with Dr. Carbonaro has been a blessing. He goes in, he tells you what you have to do, it’s working,” Paul said. “[With] Dr. Varanasi, [ …] you feel like an engineer coming out of his class. Dr. Flynn, similarly.”

“We are getting a good education,” Paul said. According to Paul, morale in Chem-E is also on the upswing, as it heals “from the thought that there’s something wrong with the department.”

“As a junior class… we’re fairly large… we’re one. And that isn’t necessarily what we were the past year,” Paul said.

The college has plans to expand computer laboratory space for chemical engineering this summer, including a new computer lab to be housed in the present location of the Reynolds Retreat adjacent to the department offices.

In addition, the chemical engineering lab on the fourth floor of Leo will be subdivided into five separate labs: four to be used for research and one undergraduate lab. Lab space specifically for the department’s cosmetic engineering program is also scheduled to be added on the third floor.

According to previous reporting from The Quadrangle, chemical engineering has recently worked on outreach in Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria last September. Maffia and a team of new students came up with a way to supply clean water to Colegio De La Salle, a K-12 school located in Anasco.

Varanasi is optimistic about Chem-E’s future, and the people who the college has brought in to define it.

“I believe in this department,” Varanasi said.

 

 

CORRECTION (Apr. 24, 2018, 11:05 p.m.): A previous version of this article described Moujalli C. Hourani as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Hourani is an associate professor.

About The Quadrangle (888 Articles)
The Quadrangle, founded in 1924, is the student-run newspaper of Manhattan College.
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