Details Still Uncertain, SEAS Delays Move to Allston

Parts of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are expected to relocate to Allston in 2020, but details are in flux

Parts of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are expected to relocate to Allston in 2020, instead of 2019 as previously planned, and details about whose offices will cross the Charles River remain in flux, according to administrators and professors.

“When coordinating the ongoing internal planning, external regulatory approval process, community review and construction timelines, 2020 emerged as the realistic date of building availability,” SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff wrote in an email.

Allston Campus Rendering
Plans for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences complex in Allston include classrooms, labs, lounge spaces, an exhibition space, a cafeteria, and 250 parking spots.

In 2013, University President Drew G. Faust said the SEAS faculty in “almost its entirety” would move to Allston. Current plans, though, state that two-thirds of SEAS faculty will move to the new complex, and just which professors will comprise that group is still being determined.

There is still “a lot of uncertainty and brainstorming going on” regarding who will leave Cambridge and who will stay there, according to SEAS Dean Francis Doyle III, who began his tenure in August.

“It’s disruptive when you move groups. Groups have connections, networks, and ties,” he said. “We will have a planning list by December, and even if there are people who aren’t certain about this, we will go forward with the planning list.”

Doyle added, though, that this “planning list” will be merely a “prediction,” rather than a definite decision of which professors will relocate. Between now and 2020, SEAS will hire new faculty members and some current professors will retire, so names will inevitably be added or subtracted from the list, he said.

According to the latest plan, several areas—Applied Mathematics, Applied Physics, Electrical Engineering, and Environmental Science and Engineering—will remain in Cambridge during the first phase of development, according to Karoff. Meanwhile, Bioengineering, Computer Science, Materials Science, and Mechanical Engineering will tentatively relocate to the new Allston campus.

And while SEAS administrators try to determine the details surrounding the growing school’s upcoming relocation, faculty opinions on the move are divided, with some professors anticipating an internal division of their teaching areas across two campuses.

SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE

Almost three years after administrators announced plans for SEAS to relocate, the school’s professors still hold mixed views on an impending Allston move. Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering professors Joost J. Vlassak and Xin Li said they expect their teaching area to be split across Cambridge and Allston when the relocation takes place.

Vlassak suggested that entire departments may not make the move. Within Material Sciences and Mechanical Engineering, he said, “I think some people will move, some will stay here.”

Vlassak, who does not yet know whether he wishes to relocate to Allston, said he is in “a difficult position” because he studies both hard material, which requires extensive use of the Cambridge-based Center for Nanoscale Systems, and soft material, which does not. Even though he is excited about the new facilities in Allston, whether he wants to relocate will depend on his research focus a few years from now, he said.

Faculty members in the Electrical Engineering teaching area have also expressed divergent opinions on whether or not their cohort should relocate, according to Woodward Yang, a professor in that area.

“We’re debating back and forth whether we are going to split the [Electrical Engineering faculty] or not, because splitting is not a good idea,” Yang said. “But what do you do when there are eight of you, and two want to stay? It’s hard to force people to do things, especially tenured Harvard faculty.”

Though Karoff called it “unlikely” that some teaching areas will be split across two campuses, he wrote in an email that “It will be individual faculty members’ decision to move their [offices or labs] to Allston.”

Part of the resistance to the move has come from faculty members who conduct research at the Cambridge-based Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering, which hosts expensive fabricating devices, and is unlikely to be rebuilt in Allston. At least one professor affiliated with that lab, Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering professor David Clarke, is a member of a SEAS teaching area scheduled to move. Clarke could not be reached for comment.

Some professors said they expect to have a foot in both campuses and are counting on administrators to make commuting more convenient. Li, who expects to spend half his time at each campus, said he would not want to pay an additional parking fee in Allston.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Other SEAS professors said they fear that the physical distance created by moving could impede their collaboration across Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments outside of SEAS.

For his part, Applied Physics professor David A. Weitz said moving some SEAS faculty will diminish the kind of spontaneous interactions that help spark new ideas, such as two researchers running into each other in a hallway and starting a conversation. And the separation of some parts of SEAS from the others could also make the school less attractive to potential new faculty members, he said, because they may not be able to work alongside their desired collaborators.

Weitz also expressed his concerns that what administrators tout as a competitive edge for SEAS—an engineering education embedded in a liberal arts education—will be jeopardized by moving parts of the school across the river.

“If we look two miles down the road, there’s a great engineering school, and we can’t compete with them unless we have strong interactions with other parts of University,” he said. “You can’t tear SEAS out of the rest of the school and expect it to thrive. It’s going to be a disaster.”

Others disagree. Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, the former interim dean of SEAS who has called Allston “the promised land,” said the school’s interactions with the rest of Harvard will increase, not diminish. “The amenities will be so attractive, and everybody will want to go to Allston,” he said. “Our space will be where people want to come to work on their English papers.”

And Karoff said the school’s current Cambridge campus is not cohesive in the first place, spanning more than a dozen buildings. The Allston expansion will allow the school to become more consolidated than in the past, he said. Administrators are also planning to establish video connectivity between the two campuses and improve transportation.

STAYING AND GOING

The original plan detailed in 2014, which stipulates that two-thirds of SEAS will move to Allston, now appears unrealistic in view of faculty sentiment, Weitz said.

James R. Rice, a professor of Engineering Sciences and Geophysics whose teaching area is not slated to move, called life after relocation a “nuisance.”

Weitz and Yang both said Computer Science faculty members seem more receptive to the move, compared to other teaching areas within SEAS, because they do not have heavy laboratory equipment that would need to be moved or rebuilt.

And the move raises questions outside of faculty members’ academic lives, Yang said.

“Some want to move because they live in Allston,” he said. “Others complain they bought a house in Cambridge.”

Weitz argued that the relocation would be much more attractive if other parts of the University moved as well to create a interdisciplinary center in Allston. Yang agreed that professors can be heavily influenced by their colleagues in deciding whether moving to Allston is a good idea.

“It’s kind of like a party,” he said. “Nobody wants to go to a party if no one is going.”

—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at zara.zhang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @zarazhangrui.

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