Will Harvard Lead In Allston?

Pellegrino University Professor Peter Galison wrote on this page at the end of the last academic year that “Allston is the hope and promise of Harvard’s long-term future. Getting it right will shape the character of the University for generations. But we could easily get it wrong.”

Also at that time, Harvard was welcoming Microsoft founder Bill Gates as the University’s commencement speaker. In his speech, he observed that “there is no question that the faculty, the alumni, the students, and the benefactors of Harvard have used their power to improve the lives of people here and around the world.” “Can we do more?” he asked.

Bill Gates is not alone in challenging Harvard to increase its role beyond the ivory tower. Last November, The Boston Globe’s editorial board stated that “Harvard should take the lead” in assuming the mantle of civic leadership vacated after several Boston corporations were purchased by out-of-state competitors. Similarly, the Boston Foundation has concluded that “the relationships between local colleges and universities and their host communities must be seriously reconsidered.”

In contrast to these calls for Harvard to embrace a more active role in solving the challenges of modern society, the university is avoiding the opportunity to be a civic leader in Allston as it prepares to break ground on the largest physical expansion in its history.

Why is an otherwise generous and enlightened institution so hard-hearted and heavy-handed when it seeks to expand?

Does anyone at Harvard care?

Legally, Harvard doesn’t owe anything to the residents of Allston, whose wide diversity spans the categories of race, nationality, wealth, and education level. But the concept of debt makes no sense in the context of a major research institution. Harvard does not do pioneering research because of a need to square the books with others. Harvard is great because it helps people when Harvard owes them nothing, and it is appropriate for Harvard to bring this ethos with it to Allston.

Across the country, universities with vastly smaller endowments are actively extending themselves beyond traditional boundaries to solve old problems in new ways. Examples include Clark’s University Park Campus School, the Academy of Math & Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, and Stanford’s Online High School for gifted students.

Compared to these leading programs across the country, it is unfortunate that Harvard has chosen the role of laggard instead of leader. Harvard’s plan in Allston is to get all required City and State permits and begin construction of its new eight-acre Science Complex as soon as possible. Then Harvard tells us it will consider starting an after-school program staffed by volunteers, without budget or professional guidance, in an underused warehouse slated for demolition in a few years.

We know that Allston residents will have to endure decades of construction in our densely settled urban neighborhood. We have watched local businesses, useful services, and hundreds of jobs leave our neighborhood and not be replaced because Harvard is purchasing and mothballing dozens of acres of land. We are told that Allston kids are not welcome in the same daycare as Harvard kids and Harvard doesn’t want Allston residents using the same fitness center or mass transit as Harvard people.

We hear a lot about Harvard’s sustainability principles and “green” building practices, but we don’t see much green in the soot and dust released into the air we breathe during Harvard’s building boom. When Harvard’s construction makes it more difficult to walk or bicycle in our neighborhood and road closures clog our streets, our environment suffers in yet another way.

In addition to building environmentally low-impact buildings, could Harvard also be a groundbreaker in low-impact construction techniques? Maybe the concept of being “carbon-neutral” could be extended so the decades of construction alongside our homes would have no net negative environmental effect on our community.

If Harvard were willing to become more creative and liberal in its approach, a wonderful relationship can still develop. To start, Harvard could put back into use the many vacant commercial properties it owns in Allston and Brighton. We look at the Harvard Ceramics Studio, a jewel of a program already in Allston but cramped in the basement of a nondescript building, and see great potential for classes, artists’ studios, and retail space that could benefit everyone. Beyond that, planning for Harvard’s campus could take a new and fundamentally different approach that brings people together instead of pushing them away.

It is unfortunate that Allston’s requests for a deep and meaningful partnership between Harvard and our community fall on deaf ears. But Bill Gates must have had something different in mind when he told the Harvard family, “When you consider what those of us here in this Yard have been given—in talent, privilege, and opportunity—there is almost no limit to what the world has a right to expect from us.”

Is there within Harvard University a moral consciousness that will demand that Harvard expect much more of itself as it expands into Allston? For the benefit of both Harvard and Allston, perhaps internal voices will insist that Harvard build a relationship with the Allston community that will be regarded worldwide as the shining example of how to simultaneously enrich a prestigious university and its newfound neighbors.

Harry Mattison is an Allston resident and member of Mayor Menino’s Harvard Allston Task Force. To learn more, visit