Campus & Community

Harvard christens School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

5 min read

First new Harvard School in 70 years

An afternoon of reflection, promise, and a bit of humor marked the official launch of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on Thursday (Sept. 20), the first new Harvard school since the John F. Kennedy School of Government was created 71 years ago as the Graduate School of Public Administration.

Harvard President Drew Faust officially ushered the former Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences into its new status a little after 2 p.m., unfurling the new School’s banners during a luncheon ceremony held on the lawn of Pierce Hall.

“As we dedicate our new School we affirm the vital importance of engineering and the applied sciences as part of the Harvard academic enterprise,” Faust said. “And at the same time, we affirm their power to connect, to bridge, and therefore to enliven and strengthen a great many other parts of the University as well. May the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences build bridges elegant, exciting, and new. May it shape our understanding of how the world works and how we can make it better. May our new School be an engine of ingenuity for many years to come.”

Faust reflected on the convoluted history of engineering at Harvard and on the intellectual vigor of the field regardless of its administrative status.

Harvard engineers and applied scientists stand apart for discoveries such as the crystal oscillator used in radio and television, the first large-scale automatic digital computer, the Mark I, and the discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, which led to new medical imaging technology. More recently, Harvard engineers and applied scientists solved the riddle of the plant kingdom’s fastest movement, the closing of the Venus’ flytrap, and have stopped and restarted a beam of light.

With this kind of history, Faust said, one can only wonder what marvels the new School will produce. One thing assured, however, is that the School will continue to act as a bridging force as its faculty and students draw from an array of other Schools and disciplines in its work.

Venkatesh Narayanamurti, the School’s first dean, welcomed several hundred faculty members, administrators, and visitors from institutions across the country to the ceremony. He thanked them for witnessing the launch of a “new era of science and engineering at Harvard.”

With the School’s launch, engineering has come full circle here, Narayanamurti said. Harvard’s first school of engineering was established more than a century ago, in 1847, as the Lawrence Scientific School. That school was dissolved in 1906, however, out of the belief that the more practical aims of engineering were incompatible with the broader goals of a university.

Since then, engineering and applied sciences programs have existed under various names and umbrellas, most recently as the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, created in 1996.

Several speakers credited Narayanamurti as the driving force behind the creation of the new School. Faust called him the “north star in our engineering galaxy.”

Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest, the afternoon’s keynote speaker, and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes injected notes of humor into the proceedings. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, blessed the new School, but offered a word of caution as he did so. He joked that now that engineering is a School, instead of a more mysterious “division,” people will be watching its activities with the same diligence with which they currently monitor Harvard’s other Schools.

Vest, who spoke during an afternoon symposium in Sanders Theatre, kidded Harvard on its belated creation of an engineering school. He compared the School’s founding, more than three centuries after Harvard’s, to the University’s appointing a provost only in 1994, long after many other universities had one, and its recent appointment of a woman president. Vest borrowed a Winston Churchill quote about America to refer to Harvard’s belated action:

“You can always count on Harvard to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all the other possibilities,” Vest said.

Humor aside, Vest said that Harvard’s new School is being created at a time of both great need and great opportunity. He said America is facing international competition in the coming years because of both the globalized economy and the computer revolution that allows work to be done almost anyplace.

Vest said he believes the nation’s only possible response is to work harder, innovate better, and maintain its status as an international leader.

Research universities such as Harvard and MIT and their engineering schools are crucial partners in innovation, he said.

The times, however, are not just challenging, they’re exciting as well, Vest said. A great blossoming of scientific knowledge is fostering advances that can improve the lot of humans around the world.

“We are living, working, and learning at the most exciting scientific time in human history,” Vest said.

With the excellence and proximity of Harvard’s other Schools, Vest said, the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to a variety of fields for which interdisciplinary collaboration is key.

Vest said the School will have no greater asset – or responsibility – than the students it attracts and urged the School to ensure that the freshman experience broadens and energizes those students.

“The new Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has an unparalleled opportunity to engage … not only across the boundaries within its own School but across the University and across the world,” Vest said.