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Clarkson's Interdisciplinary Engineering & Management Program Turns 50 - First Of Its Kind In The Nation

In 1954, Clarkson University established the Industrial Distribution program, an innovative interdisciplinary major that built upon the school’s strengths in engineering and management. It was the first program of its kind at an accredited college.

Fifty years later, the name of the program has changed and successive directors have left their distinctive imprints on the curriculum, but the goal has remained the same: creating technological leaders and innovators who possess skills necessary to bring a broad business and technical perspective to complex business and industrial management.

“It has been a model of education that industry has clearly responded to,” said Michael Ensby, director of Interdisciplinary Engineering and Management (iE&M), as the program is called today.  “Today’s successful companies create working environments that are collaborative, project-based, and dynamic. They require employees who are ‘system thinkers.’ Graduates from the iE&M bachelor's degree program at Clarkson bring that broad perspective to every job. And they have for the last five decades.”

The idea of creating an innovative program that would combine engineering and management was the brainchild of Earnest Torrel, a member of the Clarkson board of trustees and the vice president of Syracuse Supply Company. Torrel recognized that industrial distributors’ products were becoming more and more complex, requiring salesmen to have technical competence as well as marketing skills to effectively sell their products. He urged the college to meet the challenges of a changing technical world and Clarkson faculty and administrators responded.

As originally conceived, the program would give students a firm technical and business foundation with coursework in the major disciplines of engineering, math and sciences, management, marketing, humanities, and social sciences. The engineering courses taken would not be survey courses but problem-solving courses in mechanical and electrical engineering, coupled with the foundation of the business curriculum.

From the beginning, the value of the degree was reflected in the high placement rates of its graduates.  IE&M graduates are highly competitive in the job market and maintain a track record of professional success. Today, for example, one graduate out of every eight has become CEO, president, vice president, or owner of a company. 

“It is rare for a recent college graduate to have basic skills in both technical problem solving and business decision making,” says Ensby. “Engineers know how to design the widget, and marketing majors know the questions to ask about placing the widget in front of potential customers.  But iE&M graduates are uniquely prepared to leverage technology in the marketplace. They can explain the design to the marketplace while figuring out which customers are best suited to that particular widget!”

For 50 years the program has maintained its close ties with industry. By working in partnership with business, program administrators are able to develop and update the curriculum to reflect changing industry needs.

According to Ensby, who became iE&M director in 2000, keeping up with the evolving needs of industry is especially important in today’s rapidly changing corporate climate. 

“More frequent technological shifts have increased the need for ‘technologists’ who can facilitate the introduction of new products and services into a global marketplace.  Additionally, many of today's products intermingle several areas – electrical, chemical and mechanical. Since our students receive instruction in all those areas, they can assist customers and suppliers in translating needs/wants into design requirements.  Industry is looking for technical problem-solvers who also are firmly grounded in the realities of business decision making, which are the two hallmark competencies of the iE&M program.”

IE&M administrators also keep up with the latest trends in industry by keeping up with alumni. At a recent 50th anniversary celebration, former director Mark Cornett ’79, president and general manager of Fused Solutions and Slic Network Solutions, hosted a panel discussion with five iE&M graduates: Daniel Webster Jr. ’69; president, CEO, and chairman of the board of Quest Technologies Inc.; Mark Axford ’74, founder and owner of Axford Turbine Consulting LLC; Jody Allione ’74, independent energy consultant; Nancy Mailhot ’86, vice president, Global Supply Chain, Phelps Dodge Corporation; and Boyd C. Wible ’94, certified financial planner and wealth management advisor for Merrill Lynch.

A two-semester iE&M course, EM 120/121, launched during the 1998-99 academic year, also evolved from conversations with graduates and industry leaders.

EM120/121 is an innovative program designed to give first-year iE&M majors an understanding of the benefits in the workplace of the interdisciplinary major and a solid foundation for the business, engineering, math and science classes that will follow over the next three years. During the year-long course, students are challenged to research, develop, build, test and market an actual product for potential commercial sales. The students must also make professional presentations before a board of investors that include local business people and bank representatives. The goal of the presentations is to secure funding for additional research and testing of the product.

IE&M administrators have also recently created “tracks,” four-course sequences in specific areas (e.g. chemical process management, structural engineering, manufacturing management, supply chain management, etc.) that offer students an opportunity to specialize within this generally broad degree.  Currently, two-thirds of iE&M students have opted for a track.

The program, according to Ensby, continues to evolve. “The next stage is to develop an entrepreneurial ‘track,’ which would be a natural follow-up to EM120/121. Many of our majors are ideally suited to become technological entrepreneurs, and we can assist them if we can find the right package of courses and experiences for those who choose this path.”

And if imitation is the highest form of flattery, the iE&M program is widely admired. Today, some two dozen other universities – such as Texas A&M, Purdue, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and the University of Alabama – have developed similar interdisciplinary programs since Clarkson first launched its program. Currently, Penn State-Erie is looking at developing a major based on Clarkson's iE&M model.

The program is also the model for other interdisciplinary programs that are now being developed throughout Clarkson’s Schools of Engineering, Business, and Arts and Sciences.

When Clarkson University President Tony Collins addressed iE&M alumni and their families at the 50th anniversary celebration, he praised the assembled group “as one that is special and particularly important to our University.”

“Not only because, as is so often said, iE&M majors are among our most ‘successful’ alumni,” Collins said. “But because it has laid the foundation upon which Clarkson’s excellence in areas of academic study and research is built.”

Clarkson University, located in Potsdam, New York, is an independent university with a reputation for developing innovative leaders. Its academically rigorous, collaborative culture involves 2,700 undergraduates and 350 graduate students in hands-on team projects, multidisciplinary research, and real-world challenges. Many faculty members achieve international recognition for their scholarship and research, and teaching is a priority at every level. For more information, visit
[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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