1946 to Present: Moving to the National Stage


The years following World War II saw the birth of the modern research university, as government funds began to flow to schools of engineering to create the technological breakthroughs demanded by the Cold War. But at U.Va., the principal challenge was to deal with the influx of engineering students supported by the G.I. Bill. Dean Edward W. Saunders noted in his report for the 1947–48 session that 560 students were enrolled in the program, twice the capacity of Thornton Hall, and that only three temporary structures had been added since it was built. He concluded that “building is the greatest single limitation on immediate instructional progress.”

In 1948, the shortage of space was partially alleviated through an unexpected appropriation of $250,000 from the state legislature. Before World War II, the electrical engineering faculty had been given the components of a high voltage surge generator, and Dean Walter S. Rodman had requested funds for a building to house this equipment. After Rodman’s death in 1946, no one was aware of the request until the appropriation came through. With an additional supplement from the legislature, the funds were also used to build the E-wing of Thornton Hall, which would house chemical engineering laboratories.

timeline of events

the foundation for change

By 1950, enrollment had declined to just 350, and over the next three decades the Engineering School remained primarily an undergraduate institution. Nonetheless, efforts were made to build a graduate program and support faculty research. The School began offering a master’s degree in 1948 and a doctorate in 1955. The School also began to branch out, offering degrees in new fields — in aeronautical engineering in 1956, nuclear engineering in 1957, materials science in 1963, biomedical engineering in 1964, applied math and computer science in 1965, and systems engineering in 1974 — and hiring faculty to staff these departments. Reflecting these changes, the Department of Engineering became the School of Engineering in 1952 and the School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1963.

Throughout the period, the School began to take the shape now familiar to us. Deans found funding to build Olsson Hall, a nuclear reactor on Observatory Hill and Thornton’s D-wing, as well as buildings to house mechanical and aeronautical engineering, and materials science and engineering. By 1986, when the Engineering School celebrated its 150th anniversary, there were 125 men and women faculty members and 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

a school that continues to make its mark

By the mid-1980s, the pace of change accelerated. This was most clearly visible in the student body. Following the enrollment of Robert Bland (EE ’59), the number of African-American and other minority students gradually increased, and a growing percentage of students were now women. At the same time, the School hired young faculty members from some of the best engineering schools in the nation, and they brought with them high aspirations for research as well as for teaching.

Dean Edgar Starke built on these trends. He energized research at the School by persuading the state legislature to establish the Higher Education Equipment Trust, providing funding for research laboratories, and he built a new chemical engineering building. He also established the Center for Diversity in Engineering, demonstrating the School’s commitment to students from underrepresented populations.

Under Deans Richard W. Miksad and James H. Aylor, the Engineering School continued to innovate. They strengthened research by stressing interdisciplinary collaboration and developing closer relationships with industry. They also established new educational programs, creating the Internship in Science and Technology Policy, the Engineering Business Minor and the International Programs Office, among other initiatives. During their tenure, the Engineering School continued to expand and modernize its facilities, opening MR5 (for biomedical engineering), Wilsdorf Hall and Rice Hall Information Technology Engineering Building. Commissioned by Dean Aylor, the School’s new strategic plan maps out an ambitious series of strategies that recast the goals of innovation and service to society for the 21st century.

timeline of events