Summers Leaves Stamp on Allston

‘A moral duty’ continues to spur development

Kelly Chan

During his five-year tenure, University President Lawrence H. Summers painted Allston’s future in broad brush strokes: a vision of green pastures and bustling city streets surrounding a hub devoted to interdisciplinary science research.

Within the next 10 years—long after Summers is gone—a glass science complex will stand in what is now a parking lot and a new museum for contemporary and modern art will move into the offices of Bank of America.

The School of Public Health and the School of Education—both of which have complained for years about a lack of space—will also have begun their move into Allston, along with as many as eight new undergraduate houses to replace those in the Radcliffe Quadrangle.

After nearly a year without significant activity on the ground in Allston, the University announced the architects and locations of the first new buildings in February—only four days before Summers’ resignation. The University is now set to submit a draft of its new Institutional Master Plan to the City of Boston within the calendar year, outlining its intentions for the next half century.

“President Summers’ departure should not disrupt the process in any significant way,” writes Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy Dennis Thompson, who chaired the 1997 University Physical Planning Committee and later the Allston Life Task Force, in an e-mail. “The basic goals are set, and the planning has a momentum of its own now.”

But though the outgoing president may have pushed the first phase of Allston planning past the point of no return, professors say that further development will almost surely lapse without Summers’ guidance, if only to leave room for initiatives by the new president. And some professors say Allston construction may be delayed until donors can be assured of stability at the helm of the University.

“The project was very significantly driven by President Summers and unless that push is taken up by [Interim University] President Bok, I’m not sure it can move ahead,” says Professor of the History of Science and Faculty Council member Everett I. Mendelsohn. “It would not surprise me if during this period there were a slowdown.”

Slowdown or not, Allston is poised to become Harvard’s project for the next half-century.


Bok initiated the purchase of land in Allston during his first Harvard presidency in the 1980s, and most of Harvard’s property there was amassed under a front company during the presidency of Neil L. Rudenstine. But the future of the new campus clearly bears the Summers stamp.

From his very first speeches as president, Summers emphasized that cross-disciplinary collaboration in the sciences is essential to the maintenance of Harvard’s academic preeminence. This philosophy has both anchored Harvard’s presence in Allston and propelled development forward thus far.

Among the first buildings set for the University’s 241 acres is a massive 500,000 square foot science complex­ to be designed by Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner­—a Stuttgart-based architectural firm with environmentally-friendly credentials—which will house the Stem Cell Institute and the newly created Harvard Institute for Biological Engineering.

“[The current plan] definitely reflects [Summers’] priorities,” says Harvard’s chief Allston planner, Kathy A. Spiegelman, who began work as the vice president of Harvard Planning and Real Estate in 1995. “He definitely exercised an influence and made a commitment and as we move forward that influence will definitely persist and be felt.”

Deputy Provost for Administration Eric Buehrens, who now meets weekly with University Provost Steven E. Hyman, Bok, and Christopher M. Gordon, the chief operating officer of the Allston development group, says that Summers’ vision will be carried ahead, even as he vacates office.

“I think there is broad consensus among the governing members of the University, among the most engaged alums and donors, and among the faculty leadership and deans...about the need to use Allston as a platform for innovative science,” Buehrens says.

Harvard’s emphasis on science under Summers coincided with regional aspirations to establish Boston as an East coast counterweight to the technological powerhouses of Stanford and Caltech in California.

Throughout his tenure, Summers went to great lengths to fashion a friendly relationship with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, known affectionately as “Mumbles.”

The director of community relations for Boston, Kevin M. McClusky ’76, says that this partnership would jumpstart and facilitate outreach with the new president.

“It gives both Derek in the interim and the new president a terrific positive platform on which to build their own particular relationship,” McClusky says.

The University filed official notification of its intentions to build in April, after which its plans for the science and art buildings were reviewed at a public hearing.

“The process is ticking,” says Linda Kowalcky, deputy director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “Really, in terms of the master plan, the ball is in Harvard’s court. Any delay will come from them. But my understanding is that the internal process is moving along.”


Administrators are propelling the science buildings through the Boston zoning process with particular urgency, due to demands from scientists contending with federal restrictions on research and inadequate lab space.

Professor of Astronomy Alyssa A. Goodman says she has seen professors from universities like Caltech decline offers of tenure from Harvard, citing the lack of space.

Harvard’s plans for art in Allston, like those for science, also face internal pressures that are spurring on development. With the Fogg undergoing its first renovations in over 50 years, University museums are desperate for space to house their collections.

“There are real life pressures and intense motivations to keep Allston, University science planning, and cultural planning on track,” Provost Hyman says.

Hyman and other administrators discuss interdisciplinary science in Allston with zeal, preaching the promise it holds for curing diseases such as diabetes and characterizing the University’s project there as part of a “moral duty.”

“Many of the most pressing problems that face us as human beings, whether it is health or it is energy and environment, require cross disciplinary teams. And we are the kind of university that not only can invest in both, but in some sense morally should invest in both,” Hyman says. “And we have a moral duty because, frankly, the well-being of our species and all of us and our kids depends on it.”

Despite the eagerness of administrators of the Allston bureaucracy, not all members of the Faculty have been on board with Allston developments.


Since the Allston Task Force committees, formed in 2003, began meeting to flesh out a vision for Allston, there have been professors who have decried what they say is a closed planning process.

In 2003, Summers’ extension of the “Allston tax,” a flat tax of half of one percent on the incomes of the different schools, prompted outcry from members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the school most affected by the tax. Summers said at a Faculty meeting in November of that year that it was not the Faculty’s prerogative to vote on Allston plans.

Professor of Physics Daniel S. Fisher told The Crimson at the time that he was worried that administrators would disregard Faculty concern.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “And it’s shocking that not only is it being driven this way by the president and provost, but that the FAS is going along with it.”

Also in the summer of 2003, Incoming Interim Faculty Dean Jeremy R. Knowles—the chemist who served as FAS dean from 1991 to 2002—issued a lengthy memo outlining his objections to Summers’ plans for Allston and questioning the wisdom of moving so much science infrastructure across the river.

With a new committee led by Buehrens set to unveil a report about science in Allston in July, Mendelsohn says the Allston committees continue to be “closed” and comprised of faculty members who will receive space in the new buildings and thus have a stake in the process.

But, says Mendelsohn, “I think it’s fair to say that with Summers leaving, some of the major impetus will be diminished. I don’t think you’ll find the faculties nearly as committed as they might have seemed before.”

Administrators say that Summers’ departure will do little to change the University’s steady course, however.

“No one is thinking of undoing what [Summers] did,” says Goodman, who served on the Allston Task Force as well as on the search committee for the interim dean. “No one was acting as if [science in Allston] were open to discussion, as if that’s an open question, and that goes for Jeremy too.”

Kenneth G. Bartels ’73, a donor and fundraising chairman of his class, says that though he had been “deeply concerned” about the possibility that Summers’ vision for Allston wasn’t fully backed by faculty, “I’ve actually come to believe that it is a very widely-felt, widely-backed set of things to be working on.”


The state-of-the-art scientific facilities in Allston will be expensive, and some say they are wary that the University—already engaged in numerous construction projects in Cambridge—will stretch its resources too thin once it begins construction.

A major capital campaign originally set to launch in 2006 was delayed last spring and is unlikely to begin before a new president is chosen, an acknowledgment that major donors will be reluctant to commit resources without knowing who will be at the helm.

“It is traditional to have conducted a major fundraising campaign before starting out on a project as large as Allston,” Mendelsohn says. “It’s hard to think that we can undertake major fundraising while an acting president is in office. I think we have significant issues in front of us.”

And in January, the FAS Resources Committee warned the Faculty that FAS’s deficit could hit $100 million by 2010.

“In the long term I think people do need to worry about a structural deficit,” Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Nancy L. Maull told The Crimson in May. “Do we have one? I’m not certain yet.” Allston, she said, is “a big, big question mark.”

But Gordon, who Summers hired in September to oversee Allston development, says he is not concerned about the status of financing for the new construction.

“There’s a high confidence level within Harvard that we can pay for it,” he says. The former overseer of the Logan Airport renovation whose specialty is creative contracting says he has promised the Corporation that new buildings will not advance without a thorough financial plan.

To finance its development across the river, the University will draw from the endowment, major philanthropy, and private funds already devoted to the science labs themselves.

Hyman concedes that discussions for some of the largest gifts are “understandably delayed until the donors can meet a new permanent president,” but says he remains optimistic that loyalty to Harvard will trump hesitation prompted by presidential turnover.

Summers’ ambitions for the area will define his legacy and guide the next years of development, even as the details of his broad vision are filled in by his successors.

For Allston, this seems appropriate.

“This project has already seen three presidents and will probably see five more,” says Gordon.

—Staff writer Natalie I. Sherman can be reached at