Cramped Spaces Burden HSPH

As economy casts doubt on Allston timeline, HSPH struggles with limited social space on a disjoint campus

Finding students at the School of Public Health is an easy task—just try the cafeteria, the only significant social space on a campus already lacking cohesion.

“This is it,” said Diya Basu-Sen, a second year master’s student, gesturing at the cluster of round tables populating the carpeted cafeteria. “When they close the cafeteria for dean addresses and career fairs, there is really nowhere else for us to go.”

With 27 buildings sprinkled across the Longwood Medical Area and the greater Boston area, the School of Public Health has long outgrown its rented buildings, including a recently acquired former Chinese restaurant, leaving students with a dearth of social space and a disjointed community, according to the school’s former dean, Barry R. Bloom.

Recognizing the limitations of their scattered setting, the school began planning in 2001 for a much-heralded move to Allston—since presented as a solution to the school’s disjoint nature and lack of student space.

But a tanking economy has thrown that plan into limbo, as the University considers slowing construction in Allston to right itself following a projected 30 percent loss in endowment value for the fiscal year ending June 30.

And without the guarantee of Allston’s 20 percent increase in student space, the school has been struggling to find alternatives in the confines of their current campus, Bloom said.

Former Mexican health minister Julio Frenk, who stepped into his role as the new dean of the Harvard School of Public Health last month, wrote in a letter to faculty and staff last week that the school would respond to the new uncertainty by leasing properties nearby, most notably an empty elementary school on Smith Street—39,000 square feet of space located a few blocks from the school’s central site in Longwood.

“With the economic environment making the pace of Allston less certain, we did not feel as though we could pass up the opportunity to lease a significant amount of space so close to our main campus,” Frenk wrote.

27 BUILDINGS

Hans-Olav Adami, who heads the epidemiology department, says he has been racking his brains to accommodate the needs of roughly 160 students—often at the expense of his full-time faculty—and bring together the department members scattered across three buildings.

“There’s absolutely nothing I can do,” Adami says, distraught.

Most student work requires close contact with the faculty, Adami says, but there is simply no available space to facilitate these interactions.

“We cannot put people in a space that doesn’t exist,” Adami says.

Since Adami came from Sweden to chair the department two years ago, a newly created office suite for part-time faculty to meet with students has freed up some space now devoted to research and other activities.

But Adami says that he has “reached the limit” in his capacity to accommodate students and faculty in his department.

The school’s recent plans to move its administrative units into the vacant elementary school on Smith Street would free up offices in the school’s main buildings for departments struggling with the same problems.

But Adami says even an expansion in the current buildings would fail to address the feeling of disconnectedness in his department, which would still be scattered over several buildings.

“The geographic divide is severe enough to hamper the type of daily interactions and unexpected meetings and discussions,” he says.

The school’s promised central location in the massive new Allston campus was supposed to address such issues, facilitating interaction in a vibrant scientific community with close connections to the University’s other schools.

But with the state of the Harvard’s finances up in the air, University President Drew G. Faust said this week that Allston construction would likely be slowed.

Even timely completion of the first science complex—which won special approval from the City of Boston to allow completion by July 2011—now appears uncertain, causing once certain tenants to consider alternative homes in Cambridge.

And with a sometimes protracted approval process compounding the effect of any delay on the University’s part, the School of Public Health will have to wait years before any move materializes.

With Allston now a speck on the horizon, the School of Public Health is looking for temporary solutions to its space constraints.

Though recent plans to relocate all administrative units into a property on Smith Street have not yet been finalized, Dean for Administration and Operations Paul Riccardi said he expects his office to move there in approximately six to nine months.

But though Bloom praised the school’s faculty for finding stop-gap solutions, he said they could never achieve a centralized community to foster cross-departmental and interdisciplinary work in their current settings.

“What Allston has the opportunity to do for us is to bring all of our faculty and student body together to create a real campus,” Bloom said.

NO SPACE, NO PLACE

While new acquisitions may alleviate some stress on departments’ cramped quarters, student social space will remain sparse.

Second-year master’s student Basu-Sen and her peers often lounge in the cafeteria during the day between classes, whether to grab a bite to eat or to while away some time with friends. The cafeteria workers pack up the selection of food after 3:30 p.m., and students are often found studying in groups thereafter.

The cafeteria—essentially the only student space on campus—serves as a venue for almost all events, though Bloom said the school traditionally rents out space “with a real stage” at the Mass. College of Art, a two minute walk from the main campus, for the annual International Night festivities.

Demand for cafeteria use is high, said fourth year MD/MPH student Melody A. Russell, and those who try to plan large functions are often frustrated by the lack of an alternative venue.

Over the past few years, then-dean Bloom chose to renovate student facilities, including the cafeteria and computer labs, with the expectation that Allston would eventually provide a permanent solution to the campus’ limitations.

“We were absolutely happy to make [those investments],” Bloom said, “once we knew that we wouldn’t be in Allston for a while.”

The recent renovations of the cafeteria and basement computer labs were completed last summer.

The school knocked down walls to accommodate seating for more students and made the cafeteria computer-friendly with more power outlets along the walls and columns. In the basement of the same building, the computer room, which the school’s dean for administration and operations said hadn’t been renovated for several decades, now boasts brand-new equipment, including a plasma TV and computer workstations.

Though Basu-Sen said that the renovations were “nice,” she added that it is difficult to work on group assignments—the cafeteria is frequently “too loud” and the computer labs uncomfortably silent.

Bloom readily acknowledges the persisting problems.

“Student facilities are absolutely inadequate,” Bloom said, “but we’ve done the best we can.”

A 21ST CENTURY VISION

As the school’s incoming dean, Frenk recognized the challenges he faces in both finding a temporary solution to the school’s space problems and preparing for an eventual move to Allston.

In the meantime, Basu-Sen shrugged off the school’s space limitations as she returned to her Tupperware of home-made Middle Eastern food.

“You’re only here for one or two years,” Basu-Sen said, “so there isn’t too much investment in the campus.”

But Frenk said the school must continue to address the disjoint nature of the campus and the lack of student space.

“Solving the question of space is strategic not just because we need more room, but we also need a different kind of space that will encourage interaction—that will make the vision of a twenty-first century public health school possible,” Frenk said.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Helen X. Yang can be reached at hxyang@fas.harvard.edu.