Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti will step down as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in September after a decade at the helm, the University announced on Friday.
Venky, as the scientist is universally known, was one of the longest-serving deans at Harvard, overseeing the transition of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (DEAS) into its own school last fall, a move he and other University officials billed as a sign of Harvard’s heightened commitment to the applied sciences.
“You cannot do great science unless you have a great school of engineering,” Venky said. “Computing, applied science, and engineering have become central—technology is so important these days—[its] the next English language.”
Venky was selected by then University President Neil L. Rudenstine and then Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles in 1998 to build up Harvard’s presence in the applied sciences.
“It was a delight, and I mean that, to have the opportunity to persuade Venky to come from Santa Barbara,” Knowles said in an interview yesterday. “When he arrived, the temperature changed.”
“The force of good and of cheer that Venky brought, I assure you, was really palpable,” Knowles added.
Venky spent his deanship deepening and broadening the SEAS faculty, which is now 50 percent larger than it was in 1998, according to a University statement. Research founded by outside organizations has grown 60 percent during his tenure, the statement said.
“He’s a wonderfully, gregariously enthusiastic and optimistic person—he really inspires and gets the best out of all of the people around him,” computer science professor Harry R. Lewis said. “That has been very important during the last several years, when we have been expanding and turning ourselves into a school of engineering.”
The number of graduate student applications to the program and the hiring rate of new faculty increased sharply within two years of Venky’s stewardship, according to Knowles.
Within months, Knowles said, he was “receiving messages from colleagues in the Division saying that ‘Venky has transformed how we work together.’”
Striving to create close linkages with Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, Venky has been firmly committed to allowing interested undergraduates to bridge the gap between basic science and applied science and helping students to further interest in entrepreneurship, Knowles said.
According to Lewis, the leader of SEAS must fulfill a unique role—with many of the same priorities as the president or provost of a small engineering college in the midst of a “fundamentally liberal arts institution.”
Knowles emphasized Venky’s ability to maintain fluid lines of communication between departments at SEAS, allowing those with a “more eclectic view of life” to enjoy intellectual diversity within SEAS and the University as a whole.
“We will not be big like MIT,” Venky said. “That’s actually going to be a defining strength—a broader education. But it’s not easy, those barriers continuously have to be broken.”
A native of India who earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell, Venky, now a nanoscience researcher, will focus full-time on teaching and research within the SEAS once he steps down. He said he also hoped to guide the creation of broader courses that focus on the intersection of technology and society.
Venky announced his intention to return to the faculty in June 2005 but later decided to keep his post in order to help lead the changeover.
“I feel that I’ve taken this engineering and applied sciences to a high level in the last 10 years, and it has to be taken to the next level,” Venky said. “That’s a minimum five- to 10-year project. I thought it would be better if a new person comes in.”
A committee led by Provost Steven E. Hyman and Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith will be appointed to search for a new leader for the School.
“Venky is irreplaceable,” Knowles said, adding that a new head of SEAS will need the “uplifting” leadership style and intellectual breadth that characterizes Venky.
“In any new dean, I should look for the highest scientific standards, collaborativeness, and good humor,” Knowles said. “And the ability to encourage our alumni and alumnae to look ahead with Harvard as the footprint of engineering and the applied sciences grows.”
—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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