Across the Charles River, a mile from the Cambridge paths well-trodden by centuries of Harvard undergraduates, sits an impressive hole in the ground. It may not look like much, but soon it will become the foundation of the long-awaited expansion of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
While the hole has sat unfilled for months, SEAS Assistant Dean for Education David Hwang said that he and his colleagues eagerly check a live stream of the construction site “every 15 minutes” in anticipation of their new academic home.
The roughly two-thirds of SEAS professors relocating to Allston have plenty of reasons to be excited—bigger laboratories, better classrooms, and a solution to an overcrowded Pierce Hall. With a recent decision to change class schedules in fall 2018 to accommodate moving between campuses and above-ground construction planned to begin this summer, the opening of the campus in fall 2020 feels closer than ever.
Three years is a deceptively short amount of time to prepare for Harvard’s most significant campus expansion in recent memory. Faculty must prepare for new teaching environments, while administrators must grapple with the logistics of moving hundreds of students between two cities each day.
Even though move-in day for SEAS affiliates is set for the summer of 2020, Dean of SEAS Francis J. Doyle already speaks reverently about his school's future home across the river.
“It’s not particularly breathtaking to look at the pit right now, but by [mid-June], steel will start going up so you’ll start to see the superstructure going up,” Doyle said. “It really is a massive building—staggering dimensions for one massive complex—and to me that’s the most exciting part.”
It’s been a long time coming. Since the 1990s, University officials made plans to expand Harvard’s campus into Allston—long before SEAS in its current form was officially established. Former University President Lawrence H. Summers pushed forward on Allston plans in 2004, and by 2008 it seemed possible that parts of the new campus would be open as early as 2011.
Then the 2008 financial crisis hit. While other projects like House renewal continued apace, plans for Allston screeched to a halt. Plans for the SEAS complex were revived in 2013, only to be delayed again in 2015. It was at this time that Doyle rose to the helm of the Faculty of Arts and Science’s fastest growing academic division.
“I am delighted to say that since the time I’ve arrived we’ve stayed on budget and we’ve stayed on schedule, which is very hard to do with a major capital project like that,” Doyle said.
Financing a project on the scale of the SEAS complex, alongside other major Allston endeavors like Harvard’s Ed Portal and Business School expansion, put pressure on the University’s already strained finances.
“The financing plan had been developed pretty robustly in ways that were not heavily endowment dependent. But on all major capital projects we use a variety of financing sources,” University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said.
Opting to wait for a rebound in endowment returns—the value of Harvard’s endowment fell by almost $2 billion last fiscal year—would be a race against the clock, according to Doyle. Boston-area construction costs continue to rise by 5 to 7 percent a year.
“Time slippage becomes very expensive,” Doyle said. “So that’s why it’s been so important to me to keep this on schedule.”
Harvard actively campaigned for alumni donations to the SEAS complex throughout the capital campaign. While SEAS has seen the money pour in—most significantly, business magnate John A. Paulson’s historic $400 million donation in 2015—SEAS has not yet found a donor to name the new building itself.
However, SEAS has received multiple donations for smaller laboratories and classrooms over the past year. According to Doyle, the building’s atrium could also be renamed.
As administrators like Garber tout the “visible progress” on the SEAS complex construction, many professors are already preparing for their own massive undertaking: moving dozens of laboratories across the river.
Pierce Hall, the current center of SEAS life, was built in 1901, over half a century before the largest concentration within SEAS—Computer Science—was established as a discipline. Many professors are eager to leave the cramped classrooms and basement labs of Pierce for the 21st century facilities planned in Allston.
“The way that SEAS teaches keeps changing so we need to be very flexible,” Former SEAS Dean Cherry A. Murray said.
Additionally, Murray said the physical expansion will allow for a much needed expansion in faculty. In an interview last month, Doyle said the school is planning to grow its faculty, despite the financial troubles. The new space will allow for more hires, affecting the student-faculty ratio.
“I am deeply concerned about things like student-faculty ratio, and I endeavour to at least hold the line on that—that has been growing over the last decade, and that’s not what you want growing, you want that flat,” Doyle said.
Since 2008, the number of SEAS concentrators has exploded from 291 to 943. The number of non-concentrators enrolling in SEAS classes has also grown.
Although Applied Physics Professor Vinothan N. Manoharan will not be moving to Allston, he said the expansion is nevertheless an exciting opportunity.
“I think the goal is to make sure that faculty can feel at home in both places and students can feel at home in both places,” he said.
However, reception to the Allston move has not always been so warm. When the move was unexpectedly announced in 2013, some professors had concerns over the weakening of ties with FAS and Cambridge.
Murray said she hopes the “strong connection” between the College and SEAS—which differentiates SEAS from other engineering schools like MIT—will be maintained after the move.
In the fall, SEAS spokesperson Paul Karoff announced that Bioengineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, and Electrical Engineering will be moving, while Applied Physics, Applied Mathematics, and Environmental Science and Engineering will stay in Cambridge.
It is still unclear which classes will be taught in Allston, according to Hwang, and there are a number of other logistical details to finalize.
In April, Faculty took one large step towards solving the two campus puzzle and voted to approve a new schedule that will give students more time to move back and forth. Starting in the fall of 2018, classes on the Cambridge campus will be 75 minutes long with 15 minutes of passing time, and starting in 2020, classes on the Allston and Cambridge campuses will be staggered 45 minutes apart. This new schedule would do away with the seven-minute passing time between classes known as “Harvard time.”
With the new schedule in place, undergraduates will not only cross the river to get to class, but also city lines.
“Harvard Transportation is working on updating its existing shuttle service to Allston to include more frequent trips back and forth across the river,” Harvard spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke wrote in an emailed statement. “The project will also include 500 bike parking spaces and improvements to the City’s bike lanes.”
In an effort to mitigate traffic issues while also providing students with adequate transportation, Harvard has been working with the City of Boston to restructure streets and sidewalks in the area.
“Harvard has had a fairly aggressive mode-share goal for this project and for its entire build out in Allston,” Gerald Autler, a Senior Project Manager at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, said. “We’re confident that the shuttles, with the opportunities for biking and opportunities for bike sharing, and all the other mobility strategies that the transportation system will be able to accommodate the cross-river connection.”
While the Allston campus may seem far away, Autler believes the move is manageable.
“The distance is not large,” Autler said. “But maybe the psychological distance is greater than the physical difference.”
—Staff writer Joshua J. Florence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.
–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.