Harvard Engineers a New Future


By William C. Symonds Engineering has traditionally been something of a backwater at Harvard University. But now President Larry Summers is talking about creating a School of Engineering at the nation's premier university. It's a key part of Summers' grand plan to reshape Harvard for the 21st century. "Technology is so central...to what's shaping our world today, and there is enormous excitement about the possibility of augmenting [Harvard's] capacity in technology," he says.

Currently, Harvard's engineering courses are offered through the Division of Engineering & Applied Sciences (DEAS), which is part of the massive Faculty of Arts & Sciences that runs Harvard College and many graduate programs. Since 1998, the number of faculty equivalent to full-time has grown by a third, to 60, while the number of graduate students has doubled, to 270. Also about 400 undergraduates major in engineering, computer science, and other applied sciences.

"Now, we're contemplating increasing the faculty to 100" over a number of years, says Venkatesh "Venky" Narayanamurti, dean of DEAS. Dean Venky, as he's known around Harvard Yard, says "critical mass" would move Harvard beyond its current status as a "boutique engineering school." A faculty of around 100 would put its program on par with the highly regarded ones at Princeton and the California Institute of Technology, but it would still be far smaller than the powerhouse program at neighboring MIT.

BILLION-DOLLAR PRICE. Even so, "It would be tremendously exciting if Harvard creates a leading engineering school," says Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, which represents the nation's engineering colleges.

He notes that the engineering curriculum is undergoing the biggest change since the 1950s, as schools struggle to incorporate new fields like bioengineering, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. In this environment, "Harvard would no doubt stimulate other schools of engineering" to rethink how and what they teach. Huband says such an initiative could easily cost $1 billion or more. But he predicts that "Harvard would have the support of major corporations, since the perception is that there is a need for quality engineering education."

Harvard wouldn't be for all students. Rather than offer everything from civil to electrical engineering, Dean Venky says Harvard's Engineering School would aim to be at "the cutting edge in certain disciplines." Among them: information technology, bioengineering, and nanotechnology.

FOR THE TECHNO-CHALLENGED. It would also work closely with Harvard Business School and Harvard College. "We'll be kind of unique because we'd be embedded in a liberal-arts environment and able to do interdisciplinary work with [Harvard's other schools]," says Venky.

The Engineering School would also seek to give Harvard undergraduates majoring in other subjects a better handle on technology. "There isn't a [college] in the country where nonspecialized students are learning much of anything about technology," says Summers, who's also working to update the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard College. "But I think it's very important that the history major [for instance], who in 20 years is going to be a U.S. senator, actually learn and understand something about technology."

"Our mission would be to produce leaders of the future," adds Venky, who predicts the initiative would produce a significant increase in the number of Harvard students studying engineering. There's little doubt it would be appealing. Since Harvard began ramping up its engineering program in 1998, the number of graduate-student applicants has tripled. Now, says Venky, "we're almost as selective as Harvard College" -- the nation's most choosy.

PLAYING CATCH-UP. Summers says the new school would likely be located on the land Harvard has acquired across the Charles River from Harvard Yard, near the Business School campus. No date has been set for creating the new school, but Dean Venky says he hopes to have a plan "in the next few months."

Until now, Harvard has been behind the curve in recognizing the growing importance of engineering and technology. Many of its peers among the elite liberal-arts universities -- including Stanford, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth -- have long had engineering schools. This initiative is a welcome sign of Summers' determination to bring some long-overdue change to Harvard. Symonds is Boston bureau manager for BusinessWeek


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