Q & A with Harry R. Lewis

The interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences talks Allston and fundraising for a growing school


Interim Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Harry R. Lewis ’68, who has been in the position since January, has briefly led Harvard’s tech and science hub during a $450 million capital campaign and the planning phase for the its relocation across the Charles River to Allston in 2019. He sat down with The Crimson to discuss fundraising, computer science, and SEAS’s move to Allston before new dean Francis Doyle, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, takes the helm in August.

The Harvard Crimson: Reflecting on your time in the position this semester, as interim Dean of SEAS, what were your strategies for fundraising and priorities this semester for the school?

Harry R. Lewis: I’ve been trying to reconnect to alumni that I’ve known. This is my 41st year on the faculty. I’ve actually also been talking to people that I was in college and grad school with, so I’ve been seeing people over really a 50-year span of Harvard classes. A bunch of people I knew, a bunch of people I’m meeting for the first time. …

I tell them it’s very simple. I tell them that all of the areas of applied science are exploding at Harvard. … We’re drawing on all the richness of the undergraduate population, and we are doing world-changing scientific research. Some things are going to have enormous consequences on energy and biomedicine and robotics, and some things are going to improve the quality of human life.

Then I talk about the promised land, as I call it, on the other side of the river and the excitement of SEAS getting to go to and be kind of the anchor store of developing the vast tract of underdeveloped land within the city of Boston… I try to get people to understand the importance of what is happening as SEAS grows and expands…. We’re at the beginning of something huge here.

"I talk about the promised land, as I call it, on the other side of the river," said Harry R. Lewis '68, interim dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

THC: So what do you think will be the most challenging part of SEAS move to Allston?

HRL: It’s a very large building project, and it’s a combination of wet labs and dry labs and office space, so its a costly project. It’s a complicated project, so getting it as right as we can get it from the planning standpoint, given that we’re talking about how science is going to be done, how teaching is going to be done four years from now. You know a lot of us are changing our teaching styles. Now there’s a lot more with the classroom and interactive and less lecturing. So you’ve got to say to the faculty, how do you want to teach your courses four years from now? So those are hard decisions but they really impact the design, as to how many, you know, lecture halls. So in the short run that’s going to be very challenging.

I’m not at all worried about the connectedness questions which have troubled some people. … I’m not worried about attracting students to go down there as long as the building is lively and fun and comfortable.

THC: A couple years ago, you were one of the coauthors of a white paper that outlined visions and hopes for the design and the use of space, and I’m wondering how this white paper and the components that you and your colleagues outlined in it have shaped your work this semester in SEAS?

HRL: It’s been in the background. There have been lots of discussions going on between the architects and the faculty and other parties, you know, food services, librarians, and all the rest throughout the semester. I actually have not been an integral member of those discussions because I’m only interim, and so other faculty who have been assigned that on a longer term basis have been more central to the discussions. … I haven’t heard any challenge to the concept.… The fundamental idea is that we, the faculty, will go to our new campus, and that’s where we’ll do all our work, and that’s where the students will see us.

THC: There’s half of SEAS that’s not moving, which consists of departments like applied math, environmental science, engineering. Do you see there will potentially be a disconnect between these areas and the Allston?

HRL: No, we’ll make that work. ... You know, through some combination of technology and scheduling. It’s all still somewhat up in the air. ... This is probably not the last building to be built on that side of the river.

"We're spread across 17 buildings. Every coat closet is now pretty much in use, and we're continuing to hire," Lewis said.

THC: Related to that last point, how do you think the roles as dean of the College and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are similar? And in what ways, at least with you, have they been different?

HRL: I’ve thought about that a lot. You know, in one way they’re very similar because the first principle is that people matter more than structure. People think that you solve problems by having [to] report to someone else, and all of a sudden your problems are going to be solved... It depends on the quality of the people. … Getting people to buy into the idea that they’re here doing something important and that we’re in the future’s business; we’re in the business of changing the future of the world and creating the future for our students.

There’s many ways in which these two jobs have nothing to do with each other. I’d never hired a faculty member before, even when I was kind of leading the CS part of the school... These are all kinds of new conversations, all the business side of hiring faculty. There’ve been huge challenges here because we have been growing so quickly that we’re out of space. We’re spread across 17 buildings. Every coat closet is now pretty much in use, and we’re continuing to hire.

THC: What do you think SEAS needs the most currently, besides space?

HRL: Money. We’re expanding much more rapidly than our resources can support, frankly. That’s a critical resource. That’s why they keep flying me to California and Seattle and New York, and why I think it’s important for alumni and Harvard in general. … So we need the resources and we need the resources to support what we’re doing now and to keep, continue to do what we’re doing to meet the demands that are upon us. This is the best possible problem to have. I’m very proud that we’ve created this problem for ourselves, that our enrollments are growing.

"We're expanding much more rapidly than our resources can support, frankly," said Lewis.

THC: Now, looking at the recently appointed dean [Francis Doyle]… one point we’re interested in is that the new SEAS dean comes from outside the University. What do you think his adjustment period will look like, especially since we’re in the midst of a such a large capital campaign, and how do you think he can best try to connect with donors he may not have known before?

HRL: I don’t know him personally; I was not a part of the search process. Everyone says wonderful things about him. I’m really looking forward to getting to know him and helping him make the transition. The previous two deans before me were also new to Harvard. … Look what’s happened. … I don’t think there’s any intrinsic reason why he should have any problem keeping the school moving forward and connecting to alumni who are eager to hear the story we tell. The anecdotes are personal but the visions are exactly the same that SEAS has had for a decade now or more.

THC: What are your plans for after you step down?

HRL: I’m just going to go back to being a professor then. I never stopped being a professor—I kept teaching my course CS20, same as when I was Dean of the College. I never stopped teaching. It’s so important to me. … I’m going to go back in the fall, CS121, undergrad theory course. I wanted to again offer my freshman seminar, "Amateur Athletics." I will again become director of undergraduate studies in CS, which I gave up for the term—that’s the one thing I gave up that I stopped doing. I’ll just pick up what I was doing last fall.

THC: What is your proudest achievement?

HRL: I don’t know. I haven’t had time to think of that. That I managed to get to most of my classes. … I relied on my head TF a lot this term so he really gets more credit than I do for teaching this class... but I was at most classes.

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