John W. Prados: Innovation and change in spite of the academic culture

Photo of John Prados John Prados has worked at the University of Tennessee for almost 60 years, beginning as a graduate assistant in 1956. He has held various positions throughout his career, including full-time chemical engineering faculty member and department head, Associate Dean of Engineering, and Vice President for Academic Affairs of the statewide University of Tennessee system from 1973 through 1988. From 1994 through 1997, he served as Senior Education Associate in the Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation. He has also served as Chair of the Engineering Accreditation Commission, Secretary, and President of ABET and editor of the Journal of Engineering Education.

This profile was authored by Scott C. Streiner, University of Pittsburgh, based on his interview with Dr. Prados in 2014.

Dr. John W. Prados

Vice President and University Professor Emeritus
University of Tennessee

B.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Mississippi, 1951
M.S., Chemical Engineering, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, 1954
Ph.D., Chemical Engineering, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, 1957

The Transformation of Engineering Education and ABET

I’ve been involved in engineering education for almost 60 years, beginning with my appointment to the chemical engineering faculty at the University of Tennessee in 1956. As a new faculty member, I was concerned with doing a good job of teaching and trying to figure out ways to improve. Most of us develop our teaching skills by observing and imitating the good teachers we had as students. To help in this effort, I became active in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). We had a local ASEE branch at the university, and I served as its president around 1960.

At the time, there was a lot of emphasis on education in most engineering schools. Research was important, but it hadn’t become the overriding influence on faculty members’ careers that it is today. In the 1960s, this changed. Support for ASEE from the dean’s office declined, and the local ASEE branch ceased to function, while the emphasis on disciplinary research increased.

In 1971, I became involved in university-level administration, and I became active in engineering accreditation. I began serving as a chemical engineering program evaluator in 1971, and in 1978 I was appointed to the Engineering Education and Accreditation Committee of the Engineers Council for Professional Development (ECPD), which became the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET in 1980. In 1984–85, I served as chair of the Engineering Accreditation Commission, and from 1986 through 1989, I also served as chair of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Education and Accreditation Committee.

Around that time, things were happening in engineering accreditation that began to disturb me. The criteria for accreditation had become very quantitative and explicit. I was partly responsible for that, because we were trying to make the criteria explicit enough to protect engineering programs from occasional visitors who wanted to base their accreditation recommendations on their personal biases. We wanted to assure that a negative accreditation action was based on failure to comply with something specific in the criteria, and not just because of something the visitor didn’t like. In that process, the criteria grew from about three pages to 20 pages of much smaller print! I became concerned because I saw very good, innovative programs get criticized and forced to change their programs in order to conform with the rigid ABET criteria and maintain their accreditation. As a consequence, in the late 1980s, a number of deans of engineering became very concerned about this “rigidity” of ABET and their inability to innovate. In fact, there was a movement afoot that might have led particular schools to secede from ABET! We realized that the problem wasn’t with the schools but with ABET itself.

In 1991–92, I served as president of ABET and took it as my personal crusade to try to change the ABET criteria to focus less on how many credit hours one has in certain subject areas, and more on what students have learned and can do. In my farewell speech as ABET president, I said that I was hoping to atone for some of my past sins by writing new criteria that were no more than three pages long, as they were back in the 1970s. Fortunately, we managed to convince enough people on the ABET board of directors to approve major criteria changes. Starting in the mid-1990s, we created outcomes-based accreditation criteria, which became known as Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000).

The Power of Mentors

A number of people were significant in influencing my work in engineering education, beginning in my undergraduate days. I went to a very small engineering school at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The person there who really influenced me was a man named Dr. Frank Anderson, the head of the chemical engineering department at the time. One industry recruiter said that he “builds chemical engineers with his bare hands.” He had very limited resources and a very small program. (I think there were only five students in our graduating class.) But he really instilled in us a strong work ethic, a strong sense of professional responsibility, and a strong commitment to making things better where you are. His influence on me extended well beyond the technical content of his chemical engineering courses.

Another major influence was Dr. Fred Peebles, my major professor in graduate school at the University of Tennessee. He was another great professional role model—a person who really instilled in you the desire to do the best you can, to be the best you can, and to try to help other people. Coming into ECPD/ABET, I encountered some great mentors who introduced me to the culture of accreditation. (Dr. George Burnet of Iowa State University and Dr. Bill Corcoran of Cal Tech come to mind.) These mentors stressed that a major emphasis of accreditation should be on helping institutions improve the quality of their engineering programs.

Finally, Dr. Ed Ernst, a professor for many years in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois who later worked at the National Science Foundation (NSF), had a tremendous influence on me when I got involved in the administration of ABET. Ed was one of those people who joined with me in trying to change ABET. I guess in some ways, we influenced each other. He was a major player in trying to get the accreditation process and criteria changed so as to encourage schools to innovate instead of penalizing them.

Challenging the Academic Culture

The biggest challenge in bringing academic change is the academic culture. By far, the greatest numbers of engineering graduates come out of large universities. These institutions have an academic culture that sees disciplinary research as its most important mission and require faculty members to place their primary emphasis on research ahead of teaching to gain tenure and advance their careers. The culture has changed dramatically in the past 60 years, because when I was an undergraduate and even in my years in graduate school, by far the largest percentage of engineering faculty had practical, industrial experience. That began to change in the 1950s, when the federal government made the decision to conduct a large part of its research at universities through grants and contracts. That meant in order to compete for those grants and contracts, it was vital to have faculty members who had training in research. This drastically changed the hiring pattern from employing faculty members who had industrial experience to those whose training was in academic research. If a faculty member at a research university wants to innovate in engineering education today, they must take on the task themselves without a lot of encouragement or support from their administrators and peers.

Now, the other challenge in pursuing educational change, including a change in ABET, is simply that people don’t like to change! During my speech to the ABET board of directors in 1991, I got a lot of blank stares when I said that ABET had to change. After the new criteria were developed, I even had good friends who were saying how horrible the changes in ABET were because “we aren’t enforcing standards anymore.” It’s that mindset you have to overcome.

The final challenge in bringing about change is that there is always a tendency to regress back to the old formulas and to rigidity. This even applies to the outcomes-based accreditation criteria. Sometimes you see too much emphasis placed on trying to make sure that the outcome assessment process fits the mold that ABET says it should fit.

On the encouraging side, there are several small engineering schools that are focused on innovation. We can think of places like Harvey Mudd College, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic, and, in particular, the Olin College of Engineering, with which I’ve had considerable experience and which was founded to build from scratch an engineering program with a culture of innovation.

In recent years, I haven’t seen a lot of change in engineering school culture, and I’m not sure what the drivers would be. Industry has a part to play in this. Industry leaders will talk about the need for innovation, the need to focus on students’ understanding of the non-technical context of engineering decisions in the education of an engineer, but when it gets down to the person who comes and interviews the graduates for jobs, most interviewers are looking for someone who can solve their problems next week! Industry does not focus sufficiently on hiring graduates who understand the non-technical context of engineering decisions and who are trained to innovate. Thus, most industry hiring practices fail to encourage educational innovation.

Making Change: The Need for Critical Mass

Lasting impact requires a critical mass of people on the ground that supports educational change. The National Science Foundation has been funding engineering education innovation for a long time, and a lot of the ideas they have supported have worked well for a period of time, but when the person who developed them retired or moved, the idea went away. If you are going to innovate in a significant and sustainable way, you must be able to identify and bring together enough people who will support each other and help ensure continuity.

You also have to have support from the people above. There must be a significant level of administrative support, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a sustainable innovative program. For educational change to be sustainable, you’ve got to have the critical mass of people actually working with the program and the administrative support to assure that the program receives continued funding.

There are many different programs and initiatives (the Presidential Young Investigator Award for example) that attempt to bring innovative change in education. But they just don’t affect enough people or provide that critical mass at a particular institution that is going to bring about and sustain significant change. If all of the funding agencies got together and took as a major goal the creation of an innovative engineering educational culture, they might be able to achieve significant results. But you’re talking about vastly different agencies, most of which don’t talk to each other very much. So you’re not going to change the world by yourself; some significant players must be involved.

As I’ve said before, I don’t see signs that the academic culture will change anytime soon. Educational change must take place within and in spite of that culture.

Advice to Graduate Students

It is important for graduate students to aspire to make a lasting impact, especially in engineering education. Graduate students are under a lot of pressure, and there are many demands on their time. But I would try to find opportunities to learn about innovations in education. Most universities have those opportunities, but you have to go looking for them. Many universities have teaching/learning centers that can help you develop techniques for effective teamwork instruction, and for assessing the outcomes of education. If you can invest some time in trying to improve your knowledge of what constitutes effective education and what can be done to try to encourage and support innovation in students, then it would be well worth that investment of your time.

On a more personal level, it is important that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Try to keep your mind open to new possibilities. It’s very hard not to stay so tightly focused on certain specific aspects of your program that you don’t look beyond to see what other possibilities are out there. Don’t be so focused that you don’t see other opportunities to broaden your education.

In the future, I think there will be more interest in trying to develop innovative skills in students. The traditional emphasis (stemming from the 1950s and 1960s) on mathematical analysis and trying to break things down into finer and finer pieces so that you can eventually understand everything about nothing will change. I think people will realize that, if the U.S. is going to stay competitive in technology in a global environment, we have to keep pushing and emphasizing innovation—to keep trying to get graduates to think more broadly, and to realize that professional success is going to require more than just giving the right answer to a quantitative question at the end of the chapter. This is not easy to do, especially at the large research universities. Innovation is going to be prized by people within engineering education who want to improve their programs, people outside of engineering education, and people in the engineering community who are looking for graduates who can help innovate.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Prados highlights the challenges of making changes in the current academic culture. What do you believe are the key drivers for changing the academic culture? How can we work within the existing culture to encourage innovation?
  • The ABET accreditation criteria continue to evolve. What can we do at a national level, e.g., through ABET, to encourage development of students’ ability to innovate and to understand the non-technical context of engineering decisions?
  • What is being done in your setting to support students’ innovation? How effective are these efforts? How might you get involved?


Photo provided by Dr. Prados.