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Ten years ago, when Seema T. Meloni was studying biological sciences in public health at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a Chinese restaurant occupied space in one of the units of a complex on Tremont Street.
Today, the Chinese restaurant Meloni recalls is one of the satellite facilities of the Harvard School of Public Health, where Meloni now works in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases.
The converted Chinese restaurant is one of twenty-nine separate buildings, dispersed throughout Longwood and Boston, that house the growing School of Public Health. The University owns only four of these facilities, forced to rent out the others for additional space.
“It’s clear that one of the biggest constraints [for us] is space,” says Julio Frenk, dean of the School of Public Health, who described his School’s facilities as “landlocked.”
“As we look into the future, we need to grow,” he says.
For almost ten years, administrators have said that these buildings are too cramped and dispersed to meet the School of Public Health’s growing needs. But despite their efforts, the School has not been granted a unified space.
With the recent approval of the Harvard Allston Work Team’s recommendations for Allston, the School of Public Health may now have a renewed hope for moving to the site of the formerly-planned Allston Science Complex.
In September, the University approved the Work Team’s five recommendations for Harvard’s advancements into Allston. The Work Team—a 14-person group of deans, faculty, and alumni commissioned by University President Drew G. Faust—called for Harvard to reconsider space constraints facing the School of Public Health.
In the past, Allston was considered a possible solution for the School. For that reason, one of the recommendations calls for Harvard to resume planning and developing the Science Complex while accommodating the “programmatic needs” of the School of Public Health.
It also states that the new facility should be redesigned to maximize space for science programming while taking into consideration the University’s global health initiatives.
University Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp says that Harvard’s new provost, Alan M. Garber ’76, is in the process of reviewing the University’s academic needs, with an eye towards development in Allston.
“This review builds upon the Work Team discussions resulting in the recommendations released in June that involved participation by several deans, including the Dean of the School of Public Health, and leaders across the University,” Lapp wrote in a statement. “This academic planning, along with a sound financial strategy, provides the kind of discipline we need to make sure that if we start a project we will finish it.”
Currently, Garber is in the midst of prioritizing the University’s academic needs in Allston. Since the halt in construction on the Allston Science Complex in Dec. 2009, Harvard has directed its attention toward building an Enterprise Research Campus for science on Allston Landing North, similar to MIT’s Kendall Square.
The School of Public Health has seen significant growth in the past decade. Since 2001, the School has added 274 faculty and staff and increased enrollment by 236 students.
In 2003 the School developed a master plan that outlined two possibilities that would meet its growing needs.
One was for the School of Public Health to build an entirely new campus in Allston while maintaining its relatively new 105,000 square foot Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building on Huntington Ave. as a connection between Longwood and Allston. State-of-the-art facilities costing $560 million would replace worn down buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s and provide a permanent solution to the campus’ space limitations.
During this time, “we worked very hard to do planning for what it would mean for the school were it to have been moved,” says former Dean of the School of Public Health Barry R. Bloom, whose tenure ran from 1999 until 2009.
With a move at that time seemingly imminent, Bloom says that some of the faculty members were “delighted” and some were “disappointed.”
But due to financial constraints, in Dec. 2009 the University indefinitely halted construction on the Allston Science Complex, and along with it any plans for unifying and updating the School of Public Health.
Two years later, with talk of the University’s next steps into Allston back on the table, some officials say they hope the School will finally be given a unified space.
“I would hope that if current deans are engaged in planning, there would be a much more serious intent to create fruitful results,” says Bloom.
TO MOVE OR NOT TO MOVE?
Just as when Bloom was dean, those who work at the School of Public Health are divided on the possibility of moving to Allston.
Professor of Environmental Epidemiology Douglas W. Dockery says that relocating would create “stronger ties to the College and the rest of the University.”
“We haven’t been able to partner with the other school here as effectively as we should because of the distance,” he says.
Bloom—who will be co-teaching a College course, Life Sciences 120: “Global Health Threats,” this spring—says that moving the School near the College would be beneficial because he sees a “tremendous” interest in global health there.
“I think it would be a lot easier for [undergraduates] to have an outlet they can walk to in Allston instead of having to take the M2 shuttle,” he says, adding that a move would also enhance the College’s existing facilities.
“We have an extraordinary sense of community all over the place, even with faculty as far away as the Sears Center, but that could only be enhanced if we worked together on a daily basis,” Bloom says.
But moving into Allston is not without its complications. The School of Public Health has had a presence in Longwood since 1913 and its own building in the area since 1923, a history that faculty members say complicates the possibility of moving.
Dockery says that, over the years, the School of Public Health has also developed “very strong connections” with the neighboring Medical School.
“I think we’re torn,” he says.
Professor Alberto Ascherio expressed a similar opinion in an email.
“Because of our close connections with the Harvard Medical School, I would prefer to remain in the medical area,” Ascherio wrote.
Professor of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics John Quackenbush says that moving the campus to Allston might be a disadvantage to those who have appointments in the Medical School and could reduce the amount of time faculty members spend in the department.
“I understand all the constraints and the reasons why you might want to move out there,” Quackenbush says. “I know that our department is really tight and constrained to space, but I don’t think that’s unique to our department or to the School of Public Health.”
Bloom says that academic concerns outweigh spacial considerations and that if the move were to happen it would have to fit the School’s overall development and academic missions.
“You can build a building anywhere but it doesn’t make an intellectual community,” says Bloom.
He says that when he was considering the move before the onset of the financial crisis, he was hesitant. He worried that relocating to Allston would have meant losing access to “a third or half of my faculty,” who he says would have been resistant to the move and remained in Boston.
Regardless of whether the School moves to Allston, Frenk says that the School plans to always keep “a strong, major presence in Longwood.”
“It’s a complicated move,” Bloom said. “It isn’t just packing up.”
—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.
CORRECTION: NOV. 7, 2011
The Nov. 7 article "School of Public Health Looks to Expand in Allston" incorrectly stated that a potential relocation by the School of Public Health to Allston would involve a move across the Charles River. In fact, Allston and the School of Public Health are located on the same side of the Charles.
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