How (Not) to Build a Science Center

It's a testament to the past, a monument to the future. As for the present, well, it's a mess.

The Undergraduate Science Center, that rising mass of prefab concrete just north of the Yard, is due to be completed in September, 1972. But it is presently uncertain what, if anything, will be inside it once it opens. For the original plans to use the Center for multidisciplinary general science undergraduate education have been sacrificed in a haze of financial and political confusion. The director of the Center has resigned, effective the end of this month, while a special task force set up to advise Dean Dunlop is weighing pressures from various departmental interests and preparing to recommend ways to improve use of the Center.

The idea of an undergraduate science center has been around Harvard for several decades. In the late 1950s, the Ramsey Committee, set up by Dean Bundy, recommended that the building be constructed. The Faculty looked at the idea in the early 1960s, until 1968 when an anonymous donor gave $13.5 million to build an undergraduate science center. The Corporation then commissioned as architects Sert, Jackson and Assoc. -the same firm that designed Peabody Terrace and Holyoke Center-to draw up plans. Meanwhile, another $4 million was raised. The plans came up for final approval in April and May of 1970, in the midst of a financial squeeze in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At this time, also, schematic architectural designs for a separate $13.0 million biology-chemistry building were completed, but fund-raising for the Program for Science in Harvard College was some $7.0 million short. As a result, the biochemistry building was dropped, while construction for the Science Center began in June.

The Science Center will be a building of gigantic proportions. It includes 297,000 gross square feet of space; when finished in September, 1972, production costs total $17.6 million. That figure includes construction costs, site work, architects fees and lab furnishings. Not included are the expenses which are required to open the building for use, such as most lab equipment and maintenance costs. According to Rustam Z. Kothavala, lecturer in Geology and director of the Center until the end of this month, these costs are expected to be an additional $15 million the first year and nearly $1.0 million each year after that. This money will have to come from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences budget; presently whether or not the money will be found is doubtful.

Part of the overall plan for the Science Center complex is the construction of a Chilled Water Plant, which will cost an additional $6.5 million. This plant is part of a greater University plan, and is not directly related to the Science Center construction. Funds for the Chilled Water Plant come from University funds separate from the Arts and Sciences money being used for the Science Center. The Chilled Water Plant will provide air conditioning for several University buildings, including the Science Center, Paine Hall, and Gund Hall.


All this, due to be constructed by September '72, comprises "Phase I" of the Science Center. Phase II is the name given to a section of the building which will be left as a shell, unfinished, because funds for completion are not available. Plans for phase II space have already been made; it will be used for audiovisual program development and more labs-but another 3 million dollars are needed before phase II will be initiated.

With all the demands on science money-phase II, the opening and upkeep of the Center, and the renovation of old teaching labs into research labs, Kothavala notes a definite need to set priorities, and phase II is likely to be near the bottom of the list. Particularly expensive will be the reconversion of present teaching labs in the old science buildings into usable research space, once that lab space becomes available as students move to the new Center.

THE SCIENCE CENTER is shaped in a large "T". The top of the T will house primarily large teaching labs; the central extended wing, the "math wing," will hold seminar rooms and offices. Other parts of the building will house a separate administrative wing (closing off a courtyard), a large fan-shaped lecture building with four separate lecture halls, a library and a cafeteria.

This construction design fits well with the original plans for the building. As first conceived, the large introductory science courses for undergraduates' would be concentrated in the new Undergraduate Science Center-both lectures and labs-providing a multidisciplinary center for science students, both concentrators and non-concentrators. The entire departments of Math and Statistics were designated to move in, and a large space for rehives was reserved in the library.

In the past year, however, an eleventh-hour insurgency has arisen with objections to this plan. Opposition is based on the feeling that while the Science Center will serve to emphasize undergraduate education, it will also isolate it from graduate and research programs. Particularly in the cases of biology and biochemistry, where the distances are greatest, some members of those departments feel that by concentrating their undergraduates in the science center they will effectively be cut off from casual association with professors and sectionmen; they argue that part of the undergraduate education is the opportunity for the student to walk down the hall after lecture to talk to his professors and sectionmen in their own labs and to observe ongoing research. Removal of undergraduates to the Science Center would make this nearly impossible.

George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology, has opposed the idea of a separate undergraduate science center ever since 1962. He believes that close physical contact between the professor, graduate students and undergraduates is essential to the present methods of instruction, and that this would be lost if his classes were moved to the science center. "We wouldn't know how to give that course three blocks away," Wald says about Nat Sci 5, "the undergraduates would be getting a hell of a lot poorer instruction than now." Wald fears that labs in the science center might become "easy, mechanical, prepared labs; the teaching fellows will go to teach as if to a dental appointment."

Wald's basic objection is to cutting undergraduates off from research labs and their professors. This problem is particularly acute for biology and biochemistry; as Wald comments, objections to the science center seem to drop off "as the square of the distance." The Physics Department is happy with the original proposals, and most Chemistry professors like the idea and hope to free space in their own buildings for more research work.

Supporters of the Science Center do not see the problem of distance as insurmountable.

Kothavala believes that it will be each department's responsibility to see that undergraduate concentrators are not separated from their professors; this can be done by holding only mostly freshman and sophomore courses in the now Center, courses which cater to nonconcentrators as well as serious science types.

This sort of arrangement would provide nicely for Kothavala's conceptions of what undergraduate science education should be. Rather than assigning to the University the task of creating more scientists, Kothavala thinks a broader goal is in order, one which provides a usable scientific background to students who don't want to be scientists.