Monday, July 26, 2010

Is an Alabama University Trying to Cash in on Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?

In the wake of the BP oil spill, an Alabama university has announced it is starting a new master's degree program in engineering that is designed to help prevent such disasters.

Are the motives of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) as pure as they sound in a press release? When UAB's actions are considered in context, the answer appears to be no. In fact, considerable evidence indicates UAB simply is trying to cash in on the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The new program also raises questions about the quality of the engineering programs UAB already was offering.

UAB touts its new Master of Engineering degree track in Advanced Safety Engineering and Management (ASEM) as the first program of its kind in the country. The program, which will be offered totally online, will begin with the fall 2010 semester.

According to an article in The Birmingham News, the degree "has been in the works for about a year and isn't a direct response to the BP spill." Uh, right. And UAB's current administration has a history of dealing "truthfully" with the public, not to mention its own faculty, staff, and students. If this statement is truthful, why does UAB's own press release about the program mention the oil spill in the first paragraph?

The article also says the new program is "part of a national trend toward using engineering to prevent workplace injuries, environmental disasters and other problems." Based on what's currently taking place in the Gulf of Mexico, I'd say this "trend" is a little slow in developing.

UAB announced the program's formation on June 21, almost two months to the day after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that led to the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Almost sounds like UAB was trying to beat other university's to the punch. And that's probably because the university expects substantial federal dollars to flow into disaster-related programs because of the BP spill.

Before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, had UAB's current administration shown an interest in disaster prevention and recovery? Not exactly. In fact, UAB administrators went to great lengths to get rid of such a program they already had.

That was the Workplace Safety Training (WST) program that had been a part of UAB's Center for Labor Education and Research (CLEAR) for almost 20 years. WST personnel had extensive experience in dealing with all kinds of disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the handling of hazardous materials.

In other words, it offered exactly the kind of training that now is needed in the Gulf of Mexico. But what did UAB officials do? They closed down WST in fall 2009, kicking away a five-year, $3-million grant from the National Institute of Environmental and Health Services.

Why was this action taken? According to a lawsuit filed by Glenn Feldman, a professor in the UAB School of Business, it's because WST was affiliated with a labor center. And UAB wanted to get rid of CLEAR in an effort to help appeal to white, suburban, conservative students and build support from the "pro business" community.

What happened to WST and CLEAR? Both have been relocated to Jefferson State Community College in Birmingham. Consider this portion of WST's mission statement from its new Jefferson State Web site:

CLEAR's Workplace Safety Training program is committed to training first responders to respond safely and effectively to emergencies involving hazardous materials.

Hmmm . . . this program is designed to train first responders to respond "safely and effectively to emergencies involving hazardous materials."

Would those hazardous materials include oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico? The answer almost certainly is yes. Could UAB have touted its WST program and used it to actually help clean up BP's mess in the Gulf? Again, the answer is yes . . . except for one small detail--UAB got rid of its WST program about six months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

How's that for visionary leadership? UAB had a program that enjoyed a national reputation for helping respond to environmental disasters. But it got rid of the program roughly six months before the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history.

So what do UAB's leaders do then? Having missed an opportunity to garner loads of positive publicity through the WST program, they decide to concoct a new program out of thin air, one that supposedly will help prevent such disasters in the future.

What will the new program actually achieve? Other than bringing federal dollars into UAB's coffers, it remains unclear. The new program, however, has accomplished this much--it's raised questions about the quality of engineering education UAB already was offering.

According to UAB's press release, the new program will "educate engineers and safety, health and environmental professionals across industries in the best practices to prevent expansive disasters like the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia."

Does that mean UAB was not already educating engineers about safety issues and disaster prevention? Sure sounds like it.

One wonders if BP has been hiring UAB graduates to help design its oil rigs. Maybe that's what started this disaster in the first place.

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