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School of Public Health Considers Allston

Cramped Longwood school could build unified campus

SPH’s brand-new Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building would likely be retained as a link to Longwood even if the school moves to Allston.
SPH’s brand-new Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building would likely be retained as a link to Longwood even if the school moves to Allston.
By Stephen M. Marks, Crimson Staff Writer

When David Canning proposed offering a class in international health economics this spring at the School of Public Health (SPH), he discovered that there was not a single classroom that could hold his class—unless he offered it at 8:30 in the morning.

Canning, who is professor of economics and international health at SPH, was witnessing first-hand the constraints imposed by the outdated, overcrowded complex of Longwood buildings that currently house the school.

His struggle to find a classroom is just the tip of the iceberg for a school that is also exceedingly short on laboratory and office space. SPH is crunched by more than 100,000 square feet, a number that will skyrocket over the coming years, according to Associate Dean for Administration and Operations Paul S. Riccardi.

SPH must currently lease 130,000 of its 700,000 square feet elsewhere, resulting in a scattered campus that includes 14 facilities dispersed all over the Boston area.

Those problems have begun to take their toll. While faculty and administrators alike insist the school’s academic mission has not been compromised, they concede that the crunch is on the verge of becoming a crisis, and have made finding adequate facilities a top priority.

The University’s largely undeveloped campus in Allston holds the promise of desperately-needed space for the cramped school.

University President Lawrence H. Summers announced in October that SPH, the Graduate School of Education (GSE), a science hub and potentially undergraduate housing are the University’s main “planning assumptions” for its campus of the future.

For a school struggling to acquire space, the opportunity to develop a coherent campus in Allston that can expand to meet its substantial growth needs will be hard to turn down.

Indeed, the SPH move is considered the most certain of the “assumptions”—several of which have drawn heavy criticism—and the school would be among the first wave of institutional development in Allston.

But transplanting to Allston is not without downsides for the faculty and students of SPH, many of whom insist that the school is still making its own decisions about a new campus.

Faculty remain profoundly—yet quietly—ambivalent about Allston, citing concerns about estrangement from the school’s historic center in the Longwood Medical Area, the unappealing, undeveloped state of the Allston neighborhood as well as what they call the unilateral process by which the central administration has proceeded with Allston planning.

Despite a marked lack of organized opposition to a move, a faculty-wide survey conducted by consulting firm Payette Associates revealed that the faculty is split nearly 50-50 on whether an Allston move would improve or detract from their professional and personal lives.

The choices facing SPH are more concrete than those facing many of Harvard’s other schools, but still SPH’s situation sheds light on the challenge of making sense of a new campus.

The Space Crunch

SPH’s desperate need for space expands into all facets of the school’s work. Riccardi says the shortage in laboratory space is most severe, constricting the school’s research efforts.

But the lack of classroom space is almost equally drastic and perhaps more painfully apparent to professors like Canning. SPH has only one classroom—the 180-seat “classroom number one”—that can hold more than 75 students, and only three more at that size, according to Riccardi.

“That’s a real hardship and a real handicap,” he says.

And the dearth of office space puts a crimp in any plans to expand or recruit new faculty.

“Every time there’s a search for a new professor, part of that is, where are you going to put them,” says Senior Lecturer Stephanie A. Shore. “I don’t think we can grow any more than what we are.”

A “master plan” compiled by Payette found SPH will need nearly 200,000 square feet to grow over the next ten years, on top of the 100,000 square feet needed to alleviate current overcrowding. And the school would like to add another 150,000 square feet for student space that it currently lacks, like dining areas, athletic facilities and study lounges.

That sums to a total footprint of about 1.2 million square feet, a figure that jumps to 1.4 million after twenty years.

Compounding the school’s space crunch is the antiquated infrastructure of the school’s current facilities—three of the four main buildings date from the 1960s or 1970s and require upgrades to their mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. SPH thus finds itself in a position where to keep its current Longwood buildings, it must renovate anyway, so the time is ripe for consideration of a new campus, the report says.

The master plan considers variations on three main options to deal with the space and infrastructure issues confronting SPH: remaining at its current site with major renovations, moving to Allston, or purchasing entirely new land for an ample campus more proximate to Longwood than Allston. The report recommends two specific plans.

One is for SPH to remain in Longwood but to totally overhaul its current facilities, including replacing its second-largest structure, the 149,000 square foot Kresge building, with an entirely new facility. It also accounts for the planned construction of a joint Harvard Medical School (HMS)-SPH building adjacent to SPH’s current buildings, which would add approximately 80,000 square feet to SPH’s Longwood holdings.

This plan, at a cost of about $410 million over 20 years, would leave SPH with about 950,000 square feet in Longwood and a remaining 450,000 square feet in outlying space.

The other recommended alternative is for SPH to build a campus from scratch in Allston, while retaining its brand-new 105,000 square foot Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building on Huntington Ave. as a link between the school’s new Allston campus and its Longwood roots.

For about $560 million over 20 years, this plan would provide SPH with state-of-the-art facilities and space for its entire operation on one unified campus.

But while a brand-new campus boasting ample room may be alluring, not all professors are gung-ho about an Allston move.

“Just more space, to my way of thinking, is not an appropriate tradeoff,” says Professor of Biostatistics Nan M. Laird.

2003: An Allston Odyssey

A series of sleek, modern connected structures sweep around an elliptical courtyard, with a corridor of green aiming back across the river to Cambridge. The campus is airy, seeking to replicate Harvard Business School’s (HBS) success in converting fairly desolate landscape into viable academic space. This is the SPH of the future, at least as envisioned by Payette Associates.

The plan sites the campus just south of Western Ave. behind the riverfront Genzyme building as part of a “human life sciences” campus.

While the report cautions that “these early studies…do not propose specific programs to specific sites,” and Riccardi says the site is wholly speculative, the report identifies only the Western Ave. plot as the Allston location suited to host SPH.

“It is clear that for the School of Public Health to move to Allston, it must occupy a key location within a very large planned development,” the report concludes.

It is unclear, however, if the University’s central planners have come to this same conclusion.

Still early in the game, schools have been aggressive in staking out territory in Allston.

Before Summers determined that the Harvard Law School (HLS) would stay in Cambridge, a report by that school argued that if it was to move, HLS would be best suited by a riverfront plot on land currently occupied by the College’s athletic fields. Some College officials, in turn, have sought to assert their primacy over the fields.

Passions haven’t been as heated over the truckyard that currently sits where SPH would be situated. But what school wouldn’t want a “key” location?

Promise or Peril

The central promise of such a campus lies in its ability to accommodate the school’s extensive space needs.

Riccardi says that from a physical planning perspective, moving to Allston is a “no-brainer.”

“It makes all the sense in the world,” he says.

The Western Ave. location would also address the scattering of faculty that has plagued the school, an issue that many professors identify as a top priority.

“We need to be all together in one place…and there’s nowhere else in this area to do that,” Shore says.

Riccardi reports that even faculty in the rented Landmark Center Building, a mere mile away, “feel a sense of a loss of connection” from the central campus.

“It’s very keep those satellite areas feeling like they’re part of the school,” he says.

But many professors worry about moving their campus to a location that is currently little more than an industrial wasteland.

“There’s no amenities there—it’s not a pleasant place,” Laird says. “That’s one of the worst features about it, is that it’s really not a nice location they’re putting us in.”

University officials have long maintained that by the time facilities relocate to Allston, the neighborhood will have been redeveloped into a bustling cultural nexus, as exciting and appealing as Harvard Square.

But some professors aren’t hearing the central administration on this point. In fact, some professors say the central administration isn’t hearing them, either.

“The thing that was most disheartening is that Larry Summers sort of announced [an SPH move in his letter] as if it were a fait accompli, before people at the School of Public Health knew it,” Laird says.

Concerns about Allston go beyond location and process to get at important programmatic questions.

For a school whose mission has always been inextricably entwined with HMS, a move to Allston—three miles removed from HMS and the rest of Longwood—touches on fundamental questions about the future of the field of public health and SPH’s role in it.

While Summers and other Allston proponents trumpet the virtue of increased SPH collaboration with Cambridge schools like the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), many professors worry that geographic separation from the school’s heart in Longwood may set SPH adrift academically.

A substantial number of SPH faculty split time at HMS, affiliated hospitals and research centers. If the school does move, effective mass transportation between Allston and Longwood—which is now virtually nonexistent—must be created, as 62 percent of faculty said they would need to commute back to Longwood at least once a week, according to the report.

Solutions still remain elusive.

The report mentions a possible rail link from Allston to Boston University, where busses would then transport passengers to Longwood. This is the backbone of a possible, even if unlikely, option.

With the proliferation of e-mail and the widespread use of conference calls, however, some doubt that distance is really significant. Sixty-three percent of SPH professors agreed they “believed that enhanced conferencing and communication capabilities will reduce the need for face-to-face meetings,” according to the report.

“Distance is an artificial argument,” says Grace Wyshak, associate professor of biostatistics and population and international health.

“I don’t see [a move] as severing ties from the medical school, and, to be honest, I don’t see them more than a few times per year,” Shore says.

While a move to Allston might strain ties with the Longwood community, it would allow the school to forge stronger relationships with Cambridge-area schools like KSG, FAS, HBS and GSE.

Professor of Medicine Howard H. Hiatt, a former SPH dean, says moving from Longwood would be a “a very serious blow,” but probably not an irreparable one.

“Public health is a field that involves many, many disciplines, only one of which is medicine,” he says. “I don’t really consider it an open-and-shut case.”

As a result, faculty are largely divided by department in their Allston opinions. The departments more closely related to social sciences tend to favor an Allston move, while departments more aligned with hard science tend to favor remaining in Longwood, the Payette report says.

In light of the school’s many interdisciplinary needs, Hiatt says Allston presented the advantage of proximity to many of Harvard’s schools.

“Where should SPH be?” Hiatt says. “It ought to be right in the middle of a large university.”

In addition to the potential collaborations, Shore noted that the Allston location would enable SPH to woo undergraduates.

“It would be good to have undergraduates know more about public health…and see that as a potential career opportunity,” Shore says.

But Laird worries that given the number of Longwood students SPH classes typically draw, course enrollments will be jeopardized.

“It’s hard for me to believe that enrollments in our classes won’t decline,” Laird says.

Students, like faculty, are split on the issue. The report found that the two non-SPH facilities most utilized by the school’s students are HMS and KSG—one in Longwood, and one in Cambridge.

SPH Student Coordinating Committee Treasurer Caron M. Lee says she favors the move to Allston, although she notes that she studies in a social science department, while many students in clinical departments are more up in arms.

SPH Dean Barry R. Bloom has created two parallel faculty committees to study a potential move. The committees will aim to make a preliminary report to SPH faculty by early next year and to conclude their work before summer, according to SPH Dean for Academic Affairs James H. Ware.

“We are now intensely discussing if we should go forward with this and how we would deal with the negatives if we did,” Ware says. “It’s not a closed discussion—it’s not a settled matter at our faculty, but now there’s an urgency. Time is of the essence.”

As they weigh the possibility of uprooting from Longwood for the greener pastures of Allston, SPH faculty and administrators are careful to approach the issue with an open mind.

“People don’t want to preempt the decision, so everything is left slightly open,” Canning says.

But that may not matter, as many see Summers’ letter as confirmation that for SPH, Allston is a foregone conclusion.

“I think it’s inevitable,” Wyshak says.

—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at

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