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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Quantum Leap for Engineering

July-August 2006

Harvard’s Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS) may soon become a full-fledged school of engineering, under a plan presented in May to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) by the division dean, Venkatesh Narayanamurti. During his eight-year tenure, Dean Venky, as he is known, has invigorated the division, replacing a raft of retiring faculty members and expanding the ranks of its professoriate by about 50 percent. His plan to retire this year was forestalled by the resignations of William C. Kirby and Lawrence H. Summers. “It was fairly obvious that you couldn’t go recruiting for such an important position without either the dean of the faculty or the president,” he said in an interview.

The task of elevating engineering and applied sciences from a division to a school within FAS, a change recommended by the last two Board of Overseers’ visiting committees, in 2002 and 2005, was one Venky had anticipated leaving to a successor. But when University provost Steven E. Hyman and the Corporation asked him to stay, he agreed to help carry that vision forward. “It’s very exciting,” he said. “I wish I were younger. I’d take it for 20 years.” (He will, however, give up the FAS position of dean of physical sciences as of June 30.)

Venkatesh Narayanamurti
Photograph by Eliza Grinnell/Harvard University

For now, the proposed change is primarily one of nomenclature. Undergraduates would still be admitted to Harvard College, and could choose an engineering concentration. DEAS has always been fairly autonomous financially, covering all its expenses except student housing through its endowment and decanal fundraising. It maintains its own communications efforts and development personnel. But the new name is important for several reasons, Venky emphasized at a presentation to the FAS faculty in May. It will greatly enhance the visibility of engineering at Harvard, both within and beyond the University, aiding in the recruitment of students and faculty alike. And it presages a second wave of growth—on the order of an additional 50 percent—in the engineering faculty, which now numbers near 70. This growth would put the program on a par with the two Venky regards as peers, those of Caltech and Princeton, which have about 110 and 125 faculty members, respectively.

The need to hire more faculty in engineering is driven by the nature of modern scientific inquiry, as well as by issues of cultural literacy. Engineering knowledge is becoming increasingly important in law, business, and government, for example. Furthermore, advances in biology and chemistry increasingly require collaborative engineering expertise. “You cannot even advance in science without a significant presence in engineering research,” says Venky, “because you will not be able to do the great science,” such as nanobiology. The enthusiasm of other faculties for collaborative inquiry with DEAS suggests that he is right. “Harvard cannot be a great university,” he says, “without a great engineering research organization.

The challenge, he notes, will be to maintain the distinctive, nondepartmental structure of DEAS as the faculty grows. “An individual department,” he believes, based on his experience at Bell Labs and elsewhere, “is too small to make moves across disciplines” a key characteristic of its work. But as the school grows, some additional administrative and academic structure will become necessary. Venky will work with faculty groups this summer to ensure that such details as a revised curriculum and strategies for the appropriate mentoring of junior faculty are hammered out; he may hire an external consulting group to further strengthen relationships within DEAS and ties to FAS and other schools. “But I’ll be careful,” he says. “We need to be relatively lean…so that people have access to the people who are making the decisions, and I am always accountable to the faculty whom I serve.”