Harvard Launches New Engineering School

Harvard University is upgrading its engineering and applied science division to the status of a full-fledged school, on a par with its other famous schools such as law, business, public health, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Festivities celebrating the creation of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences took place September 20 in a tent immediately adjacent to the Maxwell Dworkin engineering building, which was dedicated in 1999 and is named after the mothers--using their maiden names--of Microsoft chieftains Bill Gates and Steven Ballmer. The building is on the site where Howard Hathaway Aiken had his Computation Laboratory and built in 1944 his famed Mark 1 electromechanical computer, with help from IBM.

Despite the presence of Gates and Ballmer in Harvard College's class of 1977, Aiken's achievements, and the continued strong cooperation of IBM in the university's engineering programs, launching an engineering school is rather a departure and a bit of a stretch. Harvard's first engineering offerings were made only in 1847 as part of the Lawrence Scientific School, a couple of hundred years after the college's foundation, and even then were looked upon with considerable suspicion. Charles William Eliot, perhaps the college's most famous and influential president, felt that engineering comported poorly with the school's liberal arts culture, as it "had a practical end always in view." Harvard abolished the Lawrence school in 1906, and for a hundred years after that, engineering suffered constant reorganizations too tangled and painful to contemplate.

Speaking at last week's celebration, Harvard President Gilpin Faust, taking note of Eliot's attitudes, credited the university's engineering dean, Venkatesh Narayanmurti, with maneuvering Harvard toward a more tech-friendly outlook. Venkatesh Narayanmurti is said to know everybody and be known by everybody. He is called so ubiquitously by his nickname Venky that he sometimes is quoted even in print as Dean Venky.

How does Harvard propose to now make a mark in engineering education with a huge and world-famous polytechnic, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just down the street? Its strategy, rather than cover the whole ballfield, is to focus strategically on fundamental subjects like applied mathematics and physics, environmental science, and computer theory, with both the betterment of society and the enhancement of basic science in mind. At the same time it wants to emphasize experimental and innovative engineering education.

The pedagogical mission may seem the least dramatic of its objectives, but H. Vincent Poor, the dean of Princeton's engineering school opined during the celebration that "the best shot at engineering a renaissance in engineering education is for universities of Harvard's caliber to step up to the plate." Armed with the Harvard name, a one-billion-dollar dedicated endowment, and the greater autonomy that school status implies, Harvard engineering plans now to double the size of its faculty and student body.

Tools are not lacking. Engineering faculty and students have at their disposal an IBM Blue Gene Computer, said to be the highest-performance machine self-financed by a university, without government assistance. Just a stone's throw from the Maxwell Dworkin building is a fancy new laboratory building, designed by a famous Spanish architect, that will provide technical services across the whole gamut of applied science and engineering.

Still, it is a stretch. Keynoter Charles Vest, a former president of MIT, joked that Cambridge natives used to talk about the rivalry between Harvard and MIT, which Harvard seemed to not know about. Will people how jest about the emergent engineering rivalry between MIT and Harvard, which MIT doesn't seem to know about?

Down Massachusetts Avenue at MIT, people aren't completely oblivious. It's just what MIT needs, one professor commented, "a sharp kick in the butt." Nah, thought another: after a few years it will just settle to being a very good but very small school of applied science, like those found at a lot of other liberals arts colleges.

Given the tangled history of Harvard engineering, only time--perhaps a lot of time--will tell.

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