Allston: The Killer App

Harvard proposes moving the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to the University’s expanded campus.

Harvard's new master-plan submission shows the already-approved Allston science center site as the large tan block outlined in yellow at the lower section of the map.
The Allston science complex before construction halted in 2010.
A panoramic view of Allston: the science site (center), Harvard stadium (right)

In the quarter-century since Harvard first perceived that its potential for expansion lay in Allston, that idea has grown to encompass many things, including:

  • investments in land assembly (the first parcel was acquired in 1989), planning and regulatory review, architectural and engineering fees, construction (the currently suspended science complex), and senior University management time—together totaling at least hundreds of millions of dollars;
  • academic planning spanning parts of the terms of four Harvard presidents, two provosts, and countless deans; and
  • elaborate engagements with the affected neighbors in the Allston community.

What it has not yet produced is a vision for Harvard's future that would enlist faculty members' enthusiasm for new possibilities in research and teaching, excite donors, and translate into public understanding of the University's aspirations. Now there are hints that the first elements of such a vision might be coming into focus—albeit with the sharp birthing pains that always accompany a proposal to relocate a lot of people and their work to a new frontier.

A trickle of hints turned into a torrent of information at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on February 5. President Drew Faust and Provost Alan Garber—who was docketed to speak "about updated planning for new academic programs in Allston"—unveiled plans to relocate the majority of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to the uncompleted science facility there. SEAS faculty members, who indicated that the contemplated move had been made known to them only very recently, raised many concerns about the proposal.

Given the significance of this news, this report:

Moving SEAS to Allston: The News

•The President's and Provost's Presentations. Before the provost made his presentation, President Faust first took the unusual step of providing context for the discussion of "the evolution of planning for Allston" (see more below) and the first wave of programming for the science center there (on which construction was halted for financial reasons in 2010). She emphasized the "extraordinary opportunity" for Harvard and for SEAS to accommodate growth; build facilities for collaborative, interdisciplinary research; and create innovative spaces to support those priorities. She also emphasized that Allston is already home to the Business School; a daily destination for undergraduate student-athletes using the athletic facilities; a home to 22 courses taken by undergraduates during the past three terms; and the site of other facilities used by undergraduates, ranging from the ceramics studio to the Harvard Innovation Lab.

The plan for the Western Avenue health and life sciences building, unveiled last summer (see details below) "has evolved," she said, so that complex is now envisioned as "an anchoring presence" for "the substantial majority of SEAS" plus other flexible laboratory space. It is a place where SEAS, which prides itself as an engineering school embedded in a liberal-arts university, can plan connections to the rest of Harvard, she said, building on existing partnerships in bioengineering; digital technology, law, and privacy policy; and more. The school "must grow" she said, and could, in its new home, become "a hub in a wheel of connectivity" that shapes the rest of Allston as it develops.

Faust acknowledged difficult issues of maintaining ties to FAS and the College, as well as the other Harvard schools, and logistical challenges of transportation and class scheduling—solutions to all of which challenges would have to be found in the future. That said, the opportunities for SEAS and for Harvard were large, and realizing them would be a focus of the coming capital campaign (see discussion below). Meeting with the faculty now, she said, began the process of planning that future together.

Provost Garber echoed those points, noting that the planning for the first major academic building in Allston was only that: that subsequent phases of development would bring a bigger academic presence to the area over time. In meeting with SEAS faculty last week (the first such presentation, apparently; see faculty comments below), he said, he had heard clearly that faculty members were proud of their position as an engineering and applied-sciences school embedded in a liberal-arts institution, as Faust had noted, and that maintaining that status was vital.

The contemplated move, he said, was four to five years in the future. During that time, there would be "lots to learn" about improving transportation access; resolving the challenges of scheduling courses to accommodate students whose other work is in Cambridge; and maintaining research collaborations. The first round of solutions, he acknowledged, might not be "perfect."

He reiterated that a major motivation for contemplating moving "the majority of SEAS" (without specifying what parts might not relocate) is that "SEAS needs to grow." That reflects both the momentum of science and the judgment of the school's visiting committee and of alumni active in the field.

Garber saluted the faculty for expressing their deep concerns about how teaching will proceed from the new location. That requires serious study, involving SEAS, FAS, and the rest of the University, he said, starting soon. Student use of the Innovation Lab, he said, already exceeded initial forecasts by three or four times, so he cautioned against making overly pessimistic projections about students' behavior. In the future, he said, subsequent phases of academic development in Allston would make the science complex and its surroundings a "vibrant, productive part of our campus."

•Faculty Reaction. Several faculty members addressed the proposal. Updated February 6, 2013, 8:15 a.m., to complete identification of faculty speakers at the FAS faculty meeting.

Michael D. Mitzenmacher, Gordon McKay professor of computer science and area dean for computer science, noted that the move to Allston was new news to the SEAS faculty—as of a meeting with the provost a week earlier. The initial response was not enthusiastic, and in fact included overlapping groups of people who opposed the idea and would seek to stop it; those who objected because they felt they had not been consulted; and those who felt that the central administration had already made the decision to move the school, and so, since it was going forward, hoped to make the best of the situation.

Faculty colleagues were very concerned about maintaining SEAS's place in a liberal-arts university: in their view, MIT was a place for people enthralled by technology, whereas Harvard was a place for people enthralled by what technology can do. In this context, and in light of the recent enormous gains in SEAS undergraduate-course enrollments—about which the faculty were especially excited—there was great concern about how such engagement could be sustained if the school were physically separated from the rest of Harvard. Similarly, since most SEAS faculty members do multidisciplinary work with FAS colleagues, in rich research relationships, the threat of geographic separation loomed large. In fact, isolating the school in this way, he said, had the potential to defeat SEAS's educational and research purposes.

In light of these concerns, faculty members felt that their limited interaction with administrators had been of the not-to-worry variety: that there are problems, but they will be worked out. They felt that the motivation for moving was financial, not educational or scholarly, so the cart had been put before the horse, Mitzenmacher continued. Recognizing that the move would entail problems and challenges, without having solutions in place, left the faculty members feeling unexcited to outright hostile, even though they would like the situation to be positive for SEAS. At this point, they were left feeling very strongly that their involvement in the proposed move must be much deeper and more consequential, and that the discussion of the challenges had to be realistic—rather than vague promises that the hurdles for class scheduling, transportation, and research collaborations would be overcome.

Beyond those serious logistical matters, the faculty would want to know what else might be developed in Allston, and when—so SEAS would not feel it was being assigned to an isolated outpost for a long time. And finally, the faculty had been given no idea of what SEAS might gain from the move, in terms of resources, additional professorial positions, and so on, and when. On all those matters, Mitzenmacher concluded, the faculty felt the need for more openness, more clarity, and more answers to important questions—the foundation for building enthusiasm for relocating their school.

Rob Howe, Lawrence professor of engineering and area dean for bioengineering, referred to the meeting last week at which the provost "dropped the Allston bomb" and said that facts about how the move might proceed were scarce. He cited close bioengineering connections to colleagues in FAS, Harvard Medical School, and the affiliated hospitals—and said that Allston was closer to the MIT campus than to the FAS sciences centered along Oxford Street. A move, he feared, could reduce the impact of bioengineering collaborations across the University and choke off burgeoning student interest in the field. Would students be brought closer to SEAS by relocating the current undergraduate Radcliffe Quad Houses to new ones along the river? [The Allston plans of the prior decade once contemplated such a move, but no such undergraduate residences in Allston are now proposed; see below.] Absent mitigating measures not yet discussed, he said, a move to new quarters could leave SEAS "house-poor and lonely in Allston." He urged the provost and FAS dean Michael D. Smith to visit SEAS to learn more and to disclose their plans further in coming weeks.

Steven Wofsy, Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science and area dean for environmental science and engineering, said, "We have been building a community" closely tied to FAS's Environmental Science & Public Policy concentration and Earth & Planetary Sciences department. Graduate students work in different departments, the faculty members hold dual appointments, and there are many undergraduates pursuing secondary fields in environmental studies. The environmental concentration involves hard science, social science, and even computer sciences and electrical engineering. "If we move," he said, "our paradigm can't work." The concentration had been built as it was "because this is what our students want," he said. "There may be some way to survive this move," he said, "but it's not something that will help us."

(Although, as noted above, not all parts of the school are being included in the planned move to Allston, programmatically, among SEAS academic areas, environmental science and engineering may have the strongest case for remaining embedded in Cambridge for the reasons Wofsy outlined.)

Michael Brenner, Glover professor of applied mathematics and applied physics and area dean for applied mathematics, said that President Faust's description of the school resembled his own, so he would not replow the same turf. He simply wanted to note that no one at Harvard—faculty or students—lacks for things to do. Both professors and students pursue packed schedules. Many applied-math students are studying economics (traditionally FAS's largest undergraduate concentration). They dash in for a consultation, and then sprint off to their next obligation. Figuring out how to accommodate this kind of connection, and schedule, might seem a soft problem, but it was very real, in the context of a proposed SEAS move.

At this point, President Faust noted the other items on the faculty's agenda. Dean Smith, who is himself Finley professor of engineering and applied sciences, noted that the move to Allston represented an opportunity for SEAS; acknowledged that many important issues do not have answers because they need to be worked through with the faculty; and said he would be happy to visit with his SEAS colleagues, as suggested, to talk through their concerns, with the provost present as well.

Separately, outside the meeting, Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay professor of computer science, blogged about the case for making the move. Noting, "Rarely can I remember so many SEAS professors rising to say that they like things pretty much as they are!" Lewis wrote, "The future is over there." He continued:

The transportation issues are important, and I wish we had answers now. But this is an engineering and scheduling problem. It can be solved well enough. I remember how horrified the athletic community was about House randomization—athletes could never manage the commute from the Quad to Soldiers Field, they would quit teams, transfer to Stanford, etc. The commute is inconvenient, but it works;  now everyone takes it for granted, and the benefits of randomization are almost universally accepted. As the president noted, there is already lots of undergraduate traffic to the I-Lab too.

This is a momentous decision, one of those decisions that has to be thought about in a century-scale time frame. But let's remember that it is not a decision being made for the benefit of us who are here today worrying about it, but for the benefit of our successors and their successors into the indefinite future.

Updated February 6, 2013, at 9:00 a.m. Lewis and David Weitz, Mallinckrodt professor of physics and of applied physics, are cochairs of an SEAS space-planning committee, which will obviously be involved in thinking through implications of the move and proposed new facilities.

Some Allston History

•The Goldilocks Problem. The various sweeping plans for up to 10 million square feet of new facilities (dominated by science laboratories, possibly new campuses for the public-health and education schools, and perhaps new undergraduate Houses) advanced under President Lawrence H. Summers beginning in 2003 seemed distanced from teaching, with intractable transportation problems, and with a curious logic: Once the law faculty declined to relocate from Cambridge, why separate public health from its natural home in the Longwood Medical Area—and what intellectual connection would there be among Allston-based public health, education, and business schools? In the end, of course, the ambition exceeded the University's means after the 2008 financial crisis and resulting devaluation of the endowment. (As  noted, financial constraints forced a halt to construction of the science center in early 2010).

More recent plans—advanced by Harvard's Allston Work Team and subsequently refined by the provost and approved by the Corporation—are more financially realistic. Developments like the housing complex planned for Barry's Corner (at the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue) will be undertaken by private-development partners, reducing the University's incremental investment. A proposed new basketball arena presumably awaits donor support. A hotel-conference center could be privately financed; so could a proposed "enterprise research campus"—a commercial business park—at the eastern edge of Harvard's banked land (the so-called Allston Landing North site, toward the Charles River). And almost all the rest of the property is, in the University's most recent planning submission to Boston regulatory authorities, left blank for undesignated uses long in the future.

Between an overly ambitious plan conceived during the expansive early years of the new millennium (too hot, Goldilocks might have said), and the subdued approach required by the financial reverses at the end of that decade (too cold), might there still be room for a program that is just right—for Harvard, for the community, and for the wider world the University aims to serve?

•Allston 2.0. As a result of rethinking the status of Allston in recent years, the University has committed to resume building the science complex (presumably in a revised, less costly configuration). The Allston Work Team recommended in mid 2011 that a redesigned 500,000- to 700,000-square-foot health- and life-sciences center rise on the dormant foundation there. Possible users were thought to include global-health programs, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, an expanded Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and, in the below-ground levels, various vibration-sensitive imaging-research and -services programs. The Corporation subsequently authorized academic planning for the facility, to be completed by mid 2012. Construction was reported to be contingent upon fundraising in the forthcoming capital campaign. 

In June 2012, during a Harvard briefing for the Allston community, the University announced that a Health and Life Science Center would proceed. A letter from executive vice president Katie Lapp summarized the planning process led by provost Alan Garber, which "reaffirmed" stem-cell science as an important use of the building, augmented by "scientists in the fields of engineering and applied sciences" (separately identified as members of FAS and SEAS—whose work involves biological and life sciences, and affiliates of Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering  "platforms"). Lapp's letter specified that the development would be financed with "a mix of funding strategies including philanthropy." The supporting document outlined a 500,000- to 600,000-square-foot facility for 500 scientists and staff members, and suggested that architectural design might commence by the spring of 2013 with construction to follow conceivably in 2014—a fast schedule for a multihundred-million-dollar project with at least some requirement for gift support.

During a briefing on January 23 for a Harvard Allston Task Force community meeting, associate vice president for public affairs and communications Kevin Casey disclosed that the University had, on the schedule outlined last summer, engaged architect Stefan Behnisch to work on the Health and Life Science Center; Behnisch designed the original science complex on which work halted in 2010, and so knows what was intended, even as he faces the task of adapting his prior work. Casey also said that bioengineering and engineering would constitute "larger components of this facility," which he said would be a science and innovation hub—interesting language that suggested further evolution in University thinking about the science center's intended uses.

•A Campaign Catalyst? As these steps unfolded in public, the University pushed ahead vigorously with the private phase of its capital campaign, expected to be unveiled this coming autumn (see Harvard Magazine's January-February 2013 report, "The Coming Campaign"). 

During this stage of refining a campaign's priorities and testing prospective donors' support, the tires are kicked on leadership gifts. It is possible that the re-envisioned Health and Life Science Center had already attracted enough philanthropic support that Harvard felt confident it could proceed.

Alternatively, it is possible that the need for some grander vision or possibility has been expressed—the "wow" factor that can command the eight- and nine-figure gifts that drive multibillion-dollar campaigns today (witness the recent $200-million gift by real-estate developer Mortimer B. Zuckerman, LL.M. '62, to endow Columbia University's Mind Brain Behavior Institute). As sketched last year, the Allston science facility sounded as though it might principally involve relocating Harvard's core stem-cell researchers (not long after they moved into the renovated Sherman Fairchild Building, itself a $71-million undertaking): more a real-estate decision than a new frontier in Harvard science. And the result would be to site stem-cell experts at a venue not readily connected either to FAS colleagues or to those at the medical campus.

That double move, in turn, might give FAS space to expand its other sciences in the core of the Cambridge campus. But it would seem unlikely to best meet one pressing, obvious need: to accommodate the burgeoning SEAS.

A Case for Envisioning SEAS Expanded

Since it took on a new identity as a school, in 2007 (formerly it was a division of FAS), SEAS has seen its number of undergraduate concentrators nearly double, to almost 600. Total undergraduate enrollment in SEAS courses has ballooned (from about 900 in the fall of 2008 to nearly 2,000 in the fall of 2011). And applications for graduate study have soared. During the deanship of Venkatesh Narayanamurti, which led up to the change in the division's status, the faculty ranks increased by about 50 percent. His successor, incumbent dean Cherry A. Murray, set about refining an academic plan for the next decade; despite the financial crisis and recession, she set her sights on continued, aggressive growth in her faculty's ranks—and in the facilities needed to house their research and teach their students—potentially adding dozens of new colleagues, over an extended period, to a ladder faculty that now numbers 83 people (68 full-time equivalents), and might want to number, say, 100 full-time members.

Where to put them? SEAS occupies nearly 400,000 square feet of research, teaching, and office facilities. If it is to grow significantly, it needs more space. Shoehorning a building, or annex, atop the parking lot behind Pierce Hall might be an option for a while. Sherman Fairchild, if made available, would presumably require another nontrivial overhaul for scientists whose requirements differ from stem-cell researchers'—and it is separated from most SEAS facilities by the mass of the museums and the chemistry facilities (unfortunate for SEAS, which operates in a freeform, nondepartmental way). Some of those intervening facilities might also be overhauled but musical-chairs renovations are expensive—something SEAS and FAS planners would have to take into careful account.

Given these factors, and no doubt others, might the stars finally have aligned for something bigger: envisioning the Allston science complex as an entirely new home for much or all of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences?

The bruited-about size of a half-million square feet or more would seem ideal to house the current faculty and accommodate significant growth in efficient, collaborative laboratory and teaching spaces. The site lies diagonally across Western Avenue from the Harvard Innovation Lab, which has proved popular with, and accessible to, entrepreneurially-minded students and faculty members from across the University. It would be very close to Harvard Business School (HBS), a world-class center for research on and teaching about entrepreneurship, innovation management, technology enterprises, and finance.

That proximity could make for ideal HBS partnerships with SEAS students and faculty members eager to translate their discoveries and inventions into enterprises: the theme of innovation and real-world application that Harvard and other universities (most recently Cornell in New York City, Carnegie Mellon and Pitt in Pittsburgh, and the University of Illinois and others in Chicago) are eager to encourage—in response to internal interest, external demand for engines of economic growth, and the stellar example of Stanford and Silicon Valley. (The University of Illinois College of Engineering in late January announced receipt of a $100-million pledge to foster research and teaching in bioengineering and "big data" computation; it will pay for 35 endowed professorships—part of the school's aim to add 130 to 150 faculty positions in the next five years.) SEAS has in fact already partnered directly with several venture-capital firms to form The Experiment Fund, a direct channel for seed-stage financing for entrepreneurial student ventures. (Among those firms are Accel Partners and Breyer Capital, where the Corporation's newly elected fellow, James W. Breyer, M.B.A. '87, is, respectively, a partner and the founder/manager.)

The business school has recently proved more than adept at attracting large gifts; hopes to expand toward the science site; and might well be excited by the opportunity to accelerate such a collaboration as it sketches its considerable ambitions for the University's coming capital campaign. Perhaps there would be similar stirrings from among SEAS's alumni who are in position to provide similarly significant support for a big initiative they find exciting. A tantalizing precedent (like Breyer's connection to budding SEAS entrepreneurs) already bridges exactly these disciplines: the $125-million gift—the biggest in Harvard history—made in 2008 by Hansjörg Wyss, M.B.A.'65, to create the eponymous bioengineering institute. (Wyss led Synthes, a medical-device company.)

Allston: The Long View

Over the longer term, such a vision, if realized, might prove just the catalyst needed to make the commercial "enterprise research campus" farther east, toward the Charles River, an attractive location for private development. (That site currently lacks even the basic infrastructure for such investment; meanwhile, information-technology, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology companies have continued to invest at a torrid rate in facilities in Kendall Square, near MIT, and on Boston's emerging waterfront and around the Longwood area.)

All this is speculative. But it is intriguing, after 25 years of Harvard investment in Allston's still inchoate potential. Within the faculties, in the Allston community, and beyond, it would be understandable if fatigue and resignation had set in after the recent roller-coaster ride, as the soaring plans of the new millennium gave way to the financial crisis—making any significant development seem far out of reach. But perhaps Harvard has arrived at a moment of good fortune, when an organic solution to present needs, with longer-term promise, presents itself.

In other words, imagining SEAS, or much of it, in the proposed science complex in Allston might meet the Goldilocks test. The size of the facility suits the school's requirements. There is an academic and intellectual logic to siting it there, both now and in the future: to accommodate SEAS's growth and facilitate natural collaborations with HBS, with somewhat less logistically complicated ties than other prospective occupants to either FAS's Cambridge core or the Longwood area; and to house growth in subsequent decades—readily, on Harvard's adjacent Allston properties.

Lest anyone forget, a very large, long-deferred capital campaign, which could supplement whatever internal resources the University can bring to bear on the project, is under way. Naming opportunities, anyone?

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