Harvard Polytechnic?

University scientists engineer a new school

Although it could not seem more unlikely today, Harvard and MIT were once very nearly a single school. Claiming that it was unreasonable for two highly similar institutions, MIT and Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, to exist in such a small area, then-University President Charles W. Eliot and MIT President Henry S. Pritchett undertook a highly controversial campaign from 1904 to 1905 to integrate the two.

The bid ultimately failed, but only because of a technicality: the state’s Supreme Judicial Court refused to let MIT sell its Back Bay land to fund the merger.

The debate among faculty and students at both schools in the early 1900s gained new relevance last December, in the context of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ decision to create a new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. SEAS, while still a part of the Faculty, now is independent enough to form crucial relationships with other Harvard faculties, according to former FAS Dean William C. Kirby. The School celebrated its official launch on Sept. 20, hosting festivities in front of Pierce Hall with University President Drew G. Faust, members of the Board of Overseers, engineering students and alumni, and scholars from all over the world in attendance.

As with the proposed MIT merger, the plan has drawn its share of criticism, largely from those who argue that a technological school and a liberal arts education are mutually incompatible. But unlike Eliot and Pritchett, today’s faculty and administrators feel they have the opportunity—and the obligation—to prove those critics wrong.

A SCHOOL WITHIN A SCHOOL

The most recent push towards creating a special school for applied sciences began with Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard’s president from 1991 to 2001, SEAS Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti says. Venky notes that engineering’s status at Harvard has long been somewhat ambiguous.

“Engineering was never a department,” he explained in an interview last spring. “It was sometimes viewed as a department because FAS is very large, but it was always a very special division with always its own dean...There’s a long history of the school.”

This history begins in 1847, with the founding of the Lawrence Scientific School, which was independent from the College. Although it initially succeeded in attracting a large number scholars, the school began to founder under increasing competition from MIT. After the failed merger, the Lawrence School formally dissolved in 1906.

Although Harvard founded a new Engineering School in 1918, it eventually became dedicated to graduate study, and when its faculty were merged with undergraduate personnel between 1946 and 1949, the program became the Division of Engineering Sciences. And despite a series of name changes, it remained this way into the beginning of the 21st century.

According to Venky, however, engineering at Harvard was already beginning to change when he first arrived at the University in 1998, following a decade in which technical fields grew enormously.

“It was really President Rudenstine and Dean Jeremy Knowles of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who expressed this idea to build a more prominent program again because things like computer science and engineering and applied physics were really becoming so important and dominant,” Venky said. “I actually strongly believe that Harvard would not be a great university without a strong program in applied sciences.”

THE ‘RENAISSANCE ENGINEER’

In 2005, about six years after he arrived at Harvard, Venky decided that the best way for the division to grow was to change its status and become a separate school.

“I came to the conclusion about two years ago...that the division needs to take the next logical step and be designated a Harvard school for several reasons,” he said. “First, internally to be a sign that Harvard had once again recognized that these disciplines are important for its future.”

The other reason, according to Venky, was to allow Harvard to create a new tradition in engineering, one that focused on what he refers to as the “Renaissance engineer.”

“We’re going to build an engineering school for the 21st century,” Venky said. “It will still be a part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences because we are not going to train specialized engineers. What we want to have as our focus for the undergraduates is the broadly educated person, who’s comfortable in communications, who understands the societal issues.”

Yet SEAS has also been criticized for its focus on developing professional skills, a factor that some say may detract from the liberal arts focus of Harvard’s undergraduate education.

Engineering concentrator Daniel P. Malinowski ’07, a supporter of the new school, said that Harvard engineering is highly theoretical and no less rigorous than traditional liberal arts concentrations.

“I think people interchange applied and practical with vocational,” he said, describing common perceptions of engineering. “Engineering at Harvard is very focused on theory...engineering itself is not necessarily something that’s vocational or readily applied.”

Former FAS dean Kirby, himself a scholar of Chinese history, emphasizes that the disciplines SEAS teaches have long been a part of undergraduate education.

“Harvard has been teaching engineering and applied sciences for the past century and a half,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “We have one undergraduate College, dedicated to the arts and to the sciences, with one set of graduation requirements.”

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Venky takes his response a step further. For him, making sure that engineering at Harvard maintains a liberal arts focus means more than simply ensuring that engineering undergraduates have a background in humanities and social sciences. Rather, it should work the other way as well, with students who do not specialize in engineering learning the skills necessary to work with emerging technologies.

“Every Harvard student has to be able to read The New York Times,” Venky said, noting the prominence of engineering-related articles even outside the Tuesday science section. According to Venky, engineering is not a separate field that opposes the liberal arts; rather, he says, it will be an integral part of any balanced education in the new century.

“I think liberal arts is a very good concept, but the liberal arts concept has to change with the times,” he said. “Technology is everywhere. So the liberal arts education of the 21st century has to be different. You will not be a broadly educated person if you’re not comfortable with the world of technology, and that’s the message. Engineering will be the liberal art.”

According to Venky, the launch event, whose attendees included engineering scholars from all over the world as well as alumni and administrators, represents Harvard’s acknowledgement of the importance of applied sciences.

“It is obviously heavily symbolic,” he said of the event in a recent interview. “Nevertheless...I think Harvard recognizing these disciplines is a very important statement.”

THE NEW BLOCKBUSTER

Venky’s grand plan has not been immune to the turbulence of the past few years at Harvard. He had planned to resign at the end of 2006, but decided to stay on to help build SEAS after the resignations of Kirby and University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Venky does not say how much longer he will stay on before starting the search for a successor. But even if the events of the next few years are uncertain, Venky betrays no doubt about the long-term success of his school.

“I actually think that long after I’m gone, this is going to be such a blockbuster that nobody will ever ask the question, ‘Does Harvard do engineering?’ It is just like doing English.”

—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at kaletzky@fas.harvard.edu.

—An earlier version of this story ran in The Crimson’s June Commencement issue.

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