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Stepping Down as Dean, Venky Looks Towards Future

By Alissa M D'gama, Crimson Staff Writer

When Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, outgoing dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), was dean of engineering at the University of California-Santa Barbara, he started getting frantic calls from a man named Jeremy Knowles.

Knowles, then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, then flew to California to meet Venky and get his advice about the new Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“When he went back to Harvard, I started getting more calls saying, ‘Come to Harvard and meet the president,’” Venky said in an interview last week. “I said, ‘I’m not looking for a job. I’m happy at Santa Barbara.”

When Venky finally visited the University, he said he fell in love with Harvard Yard and realized that “Harvard had missed the boat in engineering.”

Venky wanted to right the ship and accepted the position of dean of the engineering division in 1998. In doing so, he revolutionized the discipline at Harvard and became the force that would transform the engineering division into a school of its own.

"It was really his energy, his vision that helped convince the Corporation that this was good thing to do," Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith said in a recent interview.

After 10 years, Venky is stepping down as the leader of Harvard's applied science programs.

“He is going to be dearly missed,” said Harry R. Lewis ’68, a professor of computer science and former dean of the College. “There isn’t a single person that I’ve talked to from the Faculty who has anything but regret that he’s decided to step down.”

Venky, who received his undergraduate degree in India, and completed his Ph.D. in physics at Cornell, said he became an engineer by practice while working at Bell Labs.

“At Bell, I developed a love for connections between physics and engineering and gained a great deal of respect for engineering,” Venky said. “You cannot do great science without great engineering.”

In 2005, Venky first announced that he would step down from his position as dean the following year. But when both former University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby left their positions, Venky decided to stay on as dean an extra year to lead the transition from division to the school.

“After 10 years, no matter how well you’re doing, it’s time for some fresh people to come in,” Venky said. “The next phase of the school is probably another 10 year job.”

He said he would be happy to give advice to the new dean but wants to give him free reign with SEAS.

Venky will remain a professor at the College, and is working with several colleagues to develop a new concentration that will “show the broader interplay between science and technology”.

He will also spend time at either the Harvard Kennedy School or the Business School, writing papers about the issues related with management of engineering schools and research institutes, which he said “require a different kind of culture and mindset.”

Venky has big hopes for SEAS, envisioning it as highly interdisciplinary—a model engineering school aimed at the broadly educated. One University planner, Associate Provost for Science Kathleen M. Buckley said recently that the school may get its own building in Allston.

“We can do more in engineering by having an engineering school that connects, really bridges, literally and metaphorically to strengths across the University,” University President Drew G. Faust said in an interview last week.

Venky has begun building these bridges during his tenure as dean, and sees many more in the future.

“I would like it to be that everybody both inside Harvard and outside recognizes that applied sciences and engineering are very important for the future,” Venky said. “Things like computer science are completely changing how we live and work and Harvard should be perceived as being a leader in it.”

—Christian B. Flow, Maxwell L. Child, Nathan C. Strauss, and Clifford M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Alissa M. D’Gama can be reached at adgama@fas.harvard.edu.

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