Sciences in the SEAS Era

As SEAS prepares to expand into Allston, some faculty say they wish administrators had consulted them on the details of the move earlier.

The new SEAS Campus is under construction in Allston. Kathryn S. Kuhar

Francis J. Doyle III, the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is “fond of countdowns.”

In just over a year — a year and a week, to be precise — he and his administrative team at SEAS will leave their offices on the second floor of Pierce Hall to take up new residences in the soon-to-be-completed Science and Engineering complex in Allston.

This “first batch” of relocations comes ahead of a significant reorganization of SEAS, which will see faculty in a number of areas — including Computer Science, Bioengineering, and Electrical Engineering — move into the new facilities. SEAS faculty in areas like Applied Physics, Applied Math, and Environmental Science and Engineering, however, will remain on this side of the river.

Doyle described the impending expansion of SEAS as fraught with excitement in an interview with The Crimson Friday.

“It’s real, it’s palpable,” Doyle said. “We’ve got electricity in the building, we’re ordering furniture this week — all the nitty gritty things are falling into place.”

Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs echoed Doyle’s sentiments. He said he is excited for Sciences faculty to make innovative and productive use of the spaces that SEAS will vacate in Cambridge.

“When I first came into this office, it became really apparent that — with the relocation of SEAS — we have a singular opportunity to make big macroscopic reshufflings,” Stubbs said. “It’ll be an interesting transition for us as a university as we expand to a bigger spatial footprint.”

Nevertheless, as construction nears completion, faculty have raised concerns about an issue that has been obscured by the excitement: namely, how the SEAS move will affect its closely-affiliated Sciences division, many of whose faculty collaborate with and hold joint appointments within SEAS.

SEAS faculty also expressed fears that the distance will reduce the cohesion of various areas within the school itself, given that it will soon straddle two campuses.

“You’re kind of out of sight, out of mind,” Daniel J. Jacob, an atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering professor, said regarding SEAS faculty left behind in Cambridge.

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“Could we then become kind of second-class citizens of SEAS?” he asked.

‘Space Wars’

As a number of SEAS faculty prepare to move their offices, classrooms, and laboratory spaces to the new Science and Engineering complex in Allston, they will leave behind several largely-empty buildings, including Pierce Hall and Maxwell Dworkin.

Administrators must determine how to best allocate this newly vacated space to faculty. Doyle said he has worked closely with Stubbs to create a unified vision that aligns their goals for their respective programs, according to Doyle.

Stubbs said architectural features will determine the redistribution of space.

“There has been an extensive series of consultative meetings in partnership with the Engineering School — including an architectural assessment of the different buildings — to ask just nitty gritty engineering questions,” he said.

These meetings have revealed, for example, that certain buildings are “not well-suited to putting big biology, chemistry-type experiments in them” due to inadequate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning infrastructure, and are instead better suited to house offices.

Doyle said the insights gleaned from such assessments need to be married to the resources available for renovations. Following the release of an architectural report at the end of May, he and Stubbs will work with faculty to brainstorm possible relocation scenarios. They will also work with Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay to bring in additional resources through fundraising.

The atrium of a new building on the SEAS campus is still under construction.
The atrium of a new building on the SEAS campus is still under construction.

Consequently, engaging faculty in discussions about space reallocation at this stage of the process would be “a lose-lose proposition,” according to Stubbs.

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“If you bring a bunch of faculty around the table too early, and there’s nothing concrete to talk about, you can waste a lot of people’s time,” Stubbs said. “On the other hand, if you come to the table with a fully-formulated plan, the faculty get irritated because they weren’t consulted.”

Former Dean of FAS and Engineering and Applied Sciences Professor Michael D. Smith said competing interests between faculty in various overcrowded departments could create “space wars,” which he described as one of the “most crazily-fought battles” on university campuses.

“We always have people who always want space,” he said.

Both Doyle and Stubbs said seeking faculty input is important to the decision-making process.

Stubbs said discussions involving faculty will begin with “small groups of faculty” that represent key stakeholders potentially affected by the move and will expand to bidirectional, department-wide conversations.

“One of my big themes here in the [Sciences] division is to give the faculty a stronger voice in what we do and the decisions that we make,” he said. “I certainly intend to do that.”

‘A Bit Chaotic’

But some faculty said they wanted administrators to consult them more proactively and that relocation decisions have mostly been made by “high level” administrators, according to Applied Physics professor Federico Capasso. Capasso is among several SEAS faculty members staying in Cambridge due to his area’s affiliation with the Physics department.

“[The whole process] could be done better,” he said. “It’s a, I think, widespread opinion in SEAS, if you talk to faculty.”

Likewise, Jacob will be staying in Cambridge because of Environmental Science and Engineering’s close ties to the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.

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“The administration seems to be a little wary about bringing faculty in the conversation early, because then they create expectations of faculty and then they may lose flexibility in that way,” he said.

Other professors said they are not sure how much of the lack of communication is deliberate and how much is due to disorganization. Capasso said the system has been “a bit chaotic.”

“There are different centers of power,” Capasso said. “Professors are definitely a center of power, but they're very diffuse, so it's often incoherent.”

“I don't think there’s any active planning on exactly what's going to happen,” Physics department chair Subir Sachdev said regarding divvying up soon-to-be empty spaces. “I think, hopefully, when there is, it’ll be nice if there’s a formal process in which different departments are solicited for input.”

Astronomy Chair Avi Loeb said he was “not asked to participate in any discussion” about who would occupy vacated spaces.

Inside the New Building
Construction continues on a new building across the river in Allston which will be the new home of SEAS.

“I think it’s a little bit premature, although people need to start thinking about it,” he said.

Stubbs said administrators are not yet ready to engage faculty in these conversations.

“It’s a complicated process,” Stubbs said. “We’re candidly not quite as far along as I had initially hoped, but I think we have a good process underway.”

“By the time we have the opportunity to start to inhabit those spaces, I think we’ll have a clear plan in mind,” he added.

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‘A Great Loss’

Physics and Applied Physics Professor Eric Mazur said he thinks administrative attention has also neglected the question of faculty collaborations, which naturally crop up in the shared ground between SEAS and the Sciences division.

“Most people within SEAS have joint appointments, or many, especially in the applied sciences part of SEAS: applied mathematics, applied physics,” Mazur said.

The relocation of SEAS faculty with joint appointments is decided on a case-by-case basis. Several professors said that the productivity of joint appointments and informal collaborations alike might be hampered in light of SEAS’s partial move to Allston.

Molecular and Cellular Biology Chair Venkatesh Murthy said faculty in his department do work in Computer Science, Applied Physics, and Applied Mathematics, all of which fall under SEAS’s purview.

Murthy said the move comes at a “tricky time,” given that computational science techniques are trending in the life sciences. In particular, he highlighted the burgeoning intersection of computer science and neuroscience at the development of artificial intelligence.

“If those computer science people are sitting in Allston, it makes it harder to have an informal joint appointment,” he said.

Murthy said the move might also affect his department’s concentrators.

“There are classes taught by faculty in MCB that are more mathematically or quantitatively oriented, so many people in Applied Physics and Applied Math want to take them,” he said. “If those groups go to Allston, then it is a question to what happens to the students.”

“Is 15 minutes enough for people to run from here at Allston?” he asked. “Will you, as a student, take one class in Cambridge, run over to Allston, and then come back?”

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Some professors in the Math department, like their colleagues in MCB, said they enjoy fruitful collaborations with Computer Science.

Math Professor Horng-Tzer Yau said because he and his students regularly attend Computer Science seminars, the move to Allston might be “a great loss.”

“I’m afraid if there is no simple way to connect to campus, then I’m pretty sure nobody will go to the other segment,” he said.

Computer Science Area Co-Chair Salil P. Vadhan affirmed the discipline’s close connection with the Math department. He added that many students in Computer Science courses are Math concentrators or joint Math and Computer Science concentrators.

Outside
Construction work continues in Allston on the new SEAS campus.

Vadhan also said there exist “very strong” and “increasing” ties between CS and the Statistics Department, citing the Data Science Master’s Program on which the two collaborate.

“A lot of our faculty who are working in things related to data science, like visualization and machine learning, really value their ties to Statistics,” Vadhan said.

“That’s why one reason that transportation is really important — shuttles, new bike lanes. Good video conferencing is also going to play a role in maintaining the research collaborations that many of us have,” he added.

‘Orphaned From SEAS’

Several faculty members shared concerns that SEAS’s expansion to Allston would jeopardize the “social identity” of faculty members who would remain in Cambridge.

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Given the “extremely multidisciplinary” nature of SEAS and the high proportion of faculty members with joint appointments in the Sciences division, Mazur speculated that these professors might “gravitate towards their [Sciences] appointments” in light of the separation.

He added that faculty meetings might be difficult without a streamlined system to enable direct conversations between faculty members. Issues like these, according to Mazur, have “not received the attention of the administration [they] should have.”

But the biggest concern for faculty staying behind in Cambridge, according to Jacob, is the fear that they may be “orphaned from SEAS.”

“If all of SEAS administration is in Allston, then what kind of support are we getting here?” he asked.

Jacob said this problem is especially relevant with regards to sponsored research, a subject handled by the research grants administration at SEAS.

“If everybody there was going across the river, then we wouldn’t really have anybody to talk to,” Jacob said. “That would be a problem, because sometimes we need fast feedback.”

Doyle acknowledged faculty members’ worries but said that such a setup, whereby SEAS administration is based on one side of the river, is unavoidable.

“We can’t afford to duplicate things,” he said. “I can’t afford to just replicate my staff on both sides — that would be inefficient, ineffective, and they’d have about a 50 percent effort on each side.”

Still, Doyle said he hopes to address this issue by taking advantage of hoteling offices — “shared office[s] that I rotate in and out of with other faculty” — so that professors on both campuses can have equal access to administrative staff and resources.

Bridging the ‘Psychological Barrier’

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Those involved in planning the move are confident the distance across the river can be bridged.

“I get that there’s a psychological barrier of distance and the bridge and the river,” Doyle said. “[But] there are campuses, if you look around the country... who have bigger, more distributed campuses than we do, and their faculty manage to keep vibrant research collaborations going across great distances.”

Vadhan said he advocates for an “over-provisioning” of shuttles so that affiliates can “trust that getting from this part of campus to the Allston campus and back is reliable and convenient and fast.”

Yau said he is not confident shuttles will prove adequate, given that it takes him at least an hour round-trip to commute to MIT. Instead, he urged the University to install a ski lift system across the river, estimating that it would cost between $20 and 30 million — “almost nothing, if you think about how much money we spend on one building.”

Though he acknowledged it may seem like a “crazy idea,” Yau said it is still one he believes should be taken seriously, given its potential to radically reduce transportation times.

In a similar vein, Murthy said, “I keep joking it seems like we should just build a monorail from here to there.”

Murthy conceded, though, that many MCB faculty collaborate with affiliates at Harvard Medical School and manage to build the commute to the Longwood campus into their routines.

But the river can be crossed without making a physical venture, according to administrators.

Indeed, Stubbs said administrators are working to implement an immersive, real-time video conferencing system to “electronically shrink the distance” between the two campuses.

This system is feasible with current video technologies, according to Doyle, who said it would enable participants to feel as though they were talking to someone at the other end of the table.

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“A student who has a question about their degree requirements doesn’t want to walk 20 minutes to have a two-minute conversation and walk 20 minutes back,” Doyle said. “We have to have a way they can communicate with our staff seamlessly and efficiently.”

Vadhan discussed the imperative to reduce distance in a more abstract sense.

“It can’t be that what happens in Allston in just computer science is there,” he said. “It’s really important that there will be classes from throughout the college’s curriculum that are offered there, and that from the day that students arrive, they feel like it’s as much a part of their campus as Harvard Yard is.”

Vadhan said he sees opportunities for freshmen seminars, Expository Writing sections, and General Education courses to be offered on the Allston campus. He added that he hopes the growing art presence in Allston — bolstered by the move of the American Repertory Theater — will even attract departments in the arts and humanities.

Loeb agreed, remarking that disciplines beyond those at SEAS could also benefit from the move.

“It’s interesting to us which disciplines can benefit from proximity to each other, and the synergies between the research in those disciplines may blossom as a result of them being next to each other in Allston,” Loeb said.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at juliet.isselbacher@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at amy.jia@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.

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FAS Sciences Division FAS Administration SEAS Allston Science Faculty Commencement 2019