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As SEAS Dean, Doyle Will Face Opportunities and Challenges

Analysis: Buoyed by a major donation, Francis Doyle must lead the engineering school through transition

By Monica C Nesselbush
By Zara Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

When Francis J. Doyle III starts his stint as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the start of next month, he will take the helm of a school that just received the largest donation in Harvard’s history and that is slated to relocate to Allston in just four years.

SEAS faculty members, while praising Doyle’s appointment, suggest that their new dean will face challenges in ushering the growing school through an era of major transition and a major capital campaign.

Doyle, chair of the chemical engineering department at the University of California Santa Barbara, received his undergraduate degree at Princeton and graduate degrees at the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology. Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, who led SEAS from 1998 to 2008, said Doyle has a strong background in two growth areas at SEAS: bioengineering and computation.

“In terms of his background, he’s very suited for what needs to be done,” he said.

Doyle said his experience of teaching at three engineering schools and being educated at another three provides him with a rich perspective on how to bring best practices to Harvard. But given that he was not previously employed there, adapting to Harvard will take some time, according to his predecessors.

Narayanamurti, who was also a faculty member at UCSB before coming to SEAS, said Doyle’s biggest challenge will be to understand the culture at Harvard. Cherry A. Murray, who stepped down as the school’s most recent permanent dean last year, agreed.

“Harvard is very complicated,” she said. “I spent some time in the University of California system, which is very complicated because they have 10 campuses. But it’s not as complex as Harvard.”

The dean of SEAS not only heads a school, but also reports to the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. That translates into more time spent on day-to-day tasks: “That means there are twice as many meetings to go to,” Murray said. “Just getting used to go to these gazillion meetings is going to be a challenge.”

For his part, Doyle said he comes to Harvard with “a mental clean slate,” and adds that his first task after assuming the deanship in August will be “to listen.”

“I can’t presuppose as an outsider coming all the way from the West Coast,” he said. “I’m not coming in with a heavy-handed agenda.”

Computer Science professor Margo I. Seltzer said one of the challenges Doyle will face is creating a unified school when it includes two groups of people separated by physical distance–while two-thirds of SEAS faculty are expected to move to Allston in 2019, some teaching areas will remain in Cambridge on Harvard’s main campus.

Doyle said he will try to overcome the geographical hurdle by making the new Allston campus as attractive as possible. “My goal would be to continue to pull people across the bridge to the extended campus, and [enable them to] continue the interactions they enjoy today,” he said.

Applied Physics professor Jene A. Golovchenko said he is looking to the new dean to bring positive changes to the growing school.

“There is a perception amongst many SEAS faculty that the school’s administration has grown remote, top-down, inefficient and focused on internal agendas and power, subject to making perfunctory decisions, perhaps distracted by the exigencies of managing and raising money for the move to Allston,” Golovchenko said. “I am truly looking forward to a new beginning, with a new dean, a clarity of mission and vision, all inspired and energized by Paulson’s generous gift to Harvard and SEAS.”

—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @zarazhangrui.

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