For most members of Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, it was just another monthly meeting, the last of 2006. For Venkatesh Narayanamurti, dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, it was one of the most important meetings of his career.
On that December afternoon, the professors gathered, as usual, at the Faculty Room, a spacious chamber in University Hall with sea-green and tan walls, lush Oriental carpets, leather-topped tables and chairs, five crystal chandeliers, and tall arched windows overlooking Harvard Yard. Dozens of oil paintings and marble busts of Harvard's past presidents and other luminaries--William James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, to name a few--add to the aura of gravitas and tradition.
At 4 p.m., after the customary tea was served, Derek Bok, then Harvard's interim president, started the meeting. When it came time to discuss the docket items, Dean Narayanamurti stood up, glanced down at his notes, and then told his colleagues that, following a presentation on the topic he had made early that year, he was now ready to propose that the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences be renamed the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Despite the name change, the school would remain part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the largest of Harvard's 10 faculty bodies, but it would now have the freedom to grow and establish collaborations across campus. This step, Narayanamurti told his colleagues, would ”help to enable Harvard to meet the changing needs of the times and the challenges posed by the future.”
As he concluded his remarks, he felt a wave of apprehension. The dean had spent the better part of the previous year working out all the details of such a move. Just a few months earlier, though, his well-laid plan appeared to be on the verge of collapse when then-president Lawrence H. Summers, who had come to accept the school upgrade, announced he would step down. Now, as the moment of judgment approached, Narayanamurti still had doubts about how some of his colleagues would respond.
An instant of silence ensued, but no objections were raised; the motion passed by acclamation. The proposal would now go to the university's top governing body, the Harvard Corporation, to be ratified, and then Harvard would finally have the beginnings of what it had notably lacked for its entire 372-year history: a world-class engineering school on a par with the university's other famed dominions, such as business, law, and medicine.
As the meeting moved on to other business matters, Narayanamurti grinned from ear to ear.
Sitting in his corner office in Pierce Hall last fall, Narayanamurti--known to nearly everyone as ”Venky”--recounted that day and the chain of events leading up to it. Engineering at Harvard, he noted, has long been a modest enterprise in comparison with the university's world-famous humanities and social-sciences departments and professional schools. After World War II, when most elite U.S. universities nurtured their engineering schools into full-fledged enterprises, Harvard had lumped its engineering and applied-sciences faculty into one division. The division status didn't command much respect inside or outside Harvard, and even the engineering faculty joked that they spent more time explaining what the term division meant than what they did there.
The transition to school--the first new school at Harvard in 70 years--is designed to fill a glaring gap in Harvard's report card, Narayanamurti says. ”Harvard will always get a grade of incomplete until it has a preeminent engineering school.”
The expansion plan is certainly ambitious. Armed with the Harvard name and a US $999 million endowment, the engineering school plans to increase its faculty from 70 full-time professors to 100, double its graduate student body to 600, enhance undergraduate courses for nonengineering students, and establish more collaborations with other Harvard departments and with industry.
In pushing for a first-rate engineering presence at Harvard, Narayanamurti had the backing of some well-placed academics. Thomas E. Everhart, a former president of Caltech and a Harvard graduate who has presided over Harvard's board of overseers--a body that advises the university on a wide range of issues--says the move was long overdue. ”With engineering and applied sciences becoming much more important in academia and in the economy as a whole, Harvard wasn't doing its share,” he says. Since Narayanamurti became a dean at Harvard nearly 10 years ago, Everhart says, the technology-oriented fields are finally getting much more recognition.