Cherry Murray Steps Down as Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean

Led school during period of rapid growth—and huge ambitions

Cherry Murray

Cherry A. Murray, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) since mid 2009, announced today that she would relinquish the post at the end of 2014. She intends to return to regular service on the faculty, according to the news release. In a personal message to her colleagues, Murray wrote:

After my father’s death last year, I came to the realization that I have about 10 more years to my active career. I began to assess how I wish to spend that time and concluded that I want to be less involved in day-to-day administration and more focused on accomplishing a few big things for which I have a real passion. The first thing I plan to do is to take a breath and figure out exactly what my next chapter will be—definitely some teaching, writing and research, and maybe something completely new as well.

In an interview, Murray noted that she was at the end of a five-year term as dean—and at the end of another five years, it would be too late for her to do something else. One of the key projects she will be working on as an engineering faculty member in the year ahead involves interfaculty initiatives in teaching (although the details of those collaborations are not yet finalized).

The surprise announcement comes as SEAS—established as a freestanding school within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in the fall of 2007—is enjoying strong academic momentum. According to FAS dean Michael D. Smith’s 2014 annual report, recently released, the number of undergraduate concentrators in SEAS has soared from 292 in academic year 2007-2008 to 775 in 2013-2014—for the first time surpassing the number of arts and humanities concentrators (746). And total enrollment in SEAS courses has more than tripled during the past five years, led by student interest in computer science and new bachelor’s degree programs in biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. There are now 82 ladder faculty members in SEAS, up from 70 just before the former FAS division assumed its status as a school. In the interview, Murray said that her dual goals when she arrived were to attract undergraduate concentrators to engineering disciplines and to foster technological literacy among all undergraduates. “We are two-thirds of the way there,” she pointed out, with more than 5,000 undergraduate enrollments in classes offered by SEAS. She is particularly proud of the school’s accomplishments with respect to women, reporting that one-third of undergraduate concentrators are women, and that in computer science—a field in which women are underrepresented everywhere—the number of concentrators is “up by a factor of two.”

That growth is reflected in the significant emphasis given to SEAS in The Harvard Campaign. Within the $2.5-billion FAS fund drive, SEAS accounts directly for nearly one-fifth of the goal: a $450-million campaign to secure 20 new faculty positions, secure resources for research, and endow graduate fellowships. But SEAS is also written in under other fundraising categories, including the goal for investments in learning and teaching innovation (the school naturally emphasizes experiential learning, hands-on design, and laboratory research, and requires new facilities for newly designed courses), and perhaps for FAS’s goals involving faculty and programmatic research support generally. And fundraising for the school’s major new facility in Allston—a multi-hundred-million-dollar facility first disclosed in February 2013—is a University priority (separate from the FAS campaign) under the larger Harvard Campaign umbrella.

(Faculty members have indicated their design preferences for the new facility. The Harvard Crimson has reported and SEAS has confirmed that computer sciences, biological engineering, and mechanical engineering will move to the Allston location, while applied mathematics, applied physics, electrical engineering, and environmental science will remain in Cambridge—suggesting that the necessary academic planning is well advanced. And recent messages from the central administration reveal that conceptual plans for the building will be forthcoming by mid 2015—suggesting progress toward settling on the size, architecture, and perhaps financing of the complex.)

Thus there is a great deal under way within SEAS—and a great deal of fundraising and complex decisionmaking to effect in the next year or two. In that context, Murray said in the interview that the school is only at the very beginning of the fundraising campaign, so this is “exactly the right time to for someone else to step in.” In the announcement, she said:

I am proud of what the entire SEAS community has accomplished over the last five years. It has been an honor to work with the wonderful faculty, staff, students, and alumni who make up this special community. Together, we have made solid progress toward building a new kind of engineering school, embedded in the liberal arts and with no boundaries between disciplines. SEAS enjoys tremendous support from Harvard’s leadership and skyrocketing interest among students. The Campaign is off to a strong start [no details were released] and the opportunity for SEAS to truly change the world for the better is unlimited.

The announcement summarized the strategic planning Murray undertook, shaping the SEAS campaign’s goals, aimed at enabling SEAS

to expand the size of the faculty, integrate design and active learning across the curriculum, support new research initiatives in fields in which Harvard has a distinct advantage, create new interdisciplinary degree programs, expand entrepreneurship activities for faculty and students, expand diversity efforts, and invest in innovative instructional facilities. Murray also helped conceptualize the planned expansion of SEAS into Allston, where it will join Harvard Business School, the Harvard Innovation Lab, and eventually other academic units at the heart of an emerging research innovation campus.

Dean Smith said of her tenure:

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Cherry for her many contributions as dean. Under Cherry’s leadership engineering has thrived as a part of a Harvard liberal arts and sciences education, and SEAS has become a dynamic connector of faculties that has opened new and promising research opportunities possible only at Harvard. As we work to appoint an interim dean and begin the search for her successor, we owe her a debt of gratitude for the solid foundation she has laid upon which future leaders will build.

That an interim dean is not yet appointed suggests that Murray’s decision was arrived at recently. According to the news announcement, Smith will appoint an interim dean soon and will launch a search for Murray’s successor later in the academic year.

President Drew Faust also added her thanks in the announcement:

Cherry Murray has ably led SEAS through a crucial formative moment in its history. She has worked creatively to enliven the interplay of engineering and the liberal arts, and to enable new connections both within SEAS and with other parts of Harvard. She has thoughtfully guided SEAS’ expanding role within the University and charted exciting directions for its future growth, including emerging plans for Allston. She has been a leader in advancing innovative pedagogy, new relationships with industry, and imaginative uses of technology. And her own research has made powerful contributions in applied physics and beyond. I join her colleagues in SEAS and across Harvard in thanks for her dedicated service as dean.

Among other accomplishments under Murray’s leadership, SEAS has established the Institute for Applied Computational Science (IACS), to foster inquiry into the application of computational methods to science and engineering challenges, and has created a new master of science degree program. (It welcomed its first class last fall.) Murray offered her own perspective on engineering in this century for Harvard Magazine’s issue on the University’s 375th anniversary.

Murray, whose research focuses on condensed-matter physics, came to Harvard from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and previously worked at Bell Laboratories. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama selected her to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Looking back on her tenure, Murray wrote in her personal note about the strategy she and her faculty conceived for SEAS—a strategy that is now being validated by students newly attracted to engineering and applied sciences at Harvard:

Thanks to the work we have done together, SEAS has made incredible progress toward becoming a new kind of engineering school….We set a strategic direction that emphasized first and foremost teaching and learning. The success of our dual mission—to provide an unparalleled education to concentrators and graduate students and technological literacy to all Harvard College students—is reflected in the remarkable interest in our courses. That educational mission supports, and is supported by, the amazing work taking place in the labs of our faculty—research that is changing the world for the better. In other words, SEAS has a lot of momentum and a bright future.

Read the announcement here.

This post was updated at 4:30 pm 28 October, 2014 to include remarks from a personal interview with Dean Murray.

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