After five years of leading Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Dean Cherry A. Murray has decided to step down at the end of December and return to teaching. In a question-and-answer session with the Gazette, she discusses her time leading SEAS, which has experienced dramatic growth in its seven years as Harvard’s first new School in 77 years. She also looks ahead to the School’s expansion into Allston, and ponders her own next challenges.
GAZETTE: Why is now the right time for you to step down?
MURRAY: 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. Announcing this decision now will give Mike Smith [Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences] and the faculty the opportunity to conduct a search and recruit a new SEAS dean who can begin as soon as next fall. We’re committed to ensuring that SEAS maintains the tremendous momentum it has achieved over the past few years.
GAZETTE: What are you most proud of during your tenure?
MURRAY: SEAS has made incredible progress toward becoming a new kind of engineering school, one that is embedded in the liberal arts and not constrained by traditional disciplinary boundaries. 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 increase in enrollment in SEAS 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.
We have launched and already made significant progress in an ambitious fundraising campaign, with the enthusiastic support of the Harvard administration, alumni, and donors. In a few years we will expand into a state-of-the-art SEAS campus in Allston that will relieve space constraints on our teaching and research and enable exciting new initiatives. We have hired a cadre of stellar new professors, with searches under way to further revitalize and expand our already superb faculty. We have increased the number of women and underrepresented minorities at SEAS, both on the faculty and in the student body.
I am particularly proud of the emphasis we have placed on education. We established a new A.B. concentration in biomedical engineering, new S.B. degrees in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, and [we] launched a new master’s program in computational science and engineering. We created several wildly popular Gen Ed courses such as “Science and Cooking,” dramatically enhanced and expanded the undergraduate teaching labs, expanded dramatically the emphasis on design and active learning across the curriculum, [and] began an annual SEAS Design and Project Fair for students to showcase their project-based learning. And the Institute for Applied Computational Science was established.
GAZETTE: There has been a boom in interest in engineering education, both here at Harvard and beyond. What’s driving that general growth? And what sets Harvard apart?
MURRAY: Future leaders, regardless of their field, will require a strong grounding in science and technology, and today’s students understand that. They also intuitively recognize that solving the world’s grand challenges requires technology, as well as an understanding of cultural, economic, and societal factors.
What distinguishes engineering and applied sciences at Harvard is that SEAS is embedded in one of the world’s great liberal arts institutions. We also made a conscious decision not to create departments; rather, our structure is one of porous areas that enable and encourage cross-disciplinary interplay. Another advantage is that our students and faculty are actively engaged in both research and education with colleagues across all of Harvard’s departments, professional Schools, hospitals, and institutes — a group of potential collaborators with unparalleled depth, breadth, and expertise.
GAZETTE: Where does the Campaign for SEAS stand?
MURRAY: We’re doing extremely well, especially compared to historical fundraising for engineering at Harvard. We have an ambitious goal and have established a lot of momentum. We have an energized and actively engaged volunteer campaign advisory group. It is a huge plus that the SEAS campaign is a high priority for the University as well as for FAS [the Faculty of Arts and Sciences]. The campaign will help SEAS to advance a number of important priorities, including expanding the size of the faculty; fostering effective teaching that integrates design and hands-on learning across the curriculum; supporting new research initiatives in fields in which Harvard has a distinct advantage; creating new interdisciplinary degree programs; expanding entrepreneurship activities for faculty and students; expanding diversity efforts; and investing in innovative instructional facilities.
GAZETTE: Faculty discussion and planning around the expansion of SEAS to Allston have been ongoing. What’s the view within SEAS about the prospect of the move to Allston?
MURRAY: I think we’re at an exciting moment. The SEAS faculty has been very engaged in the planning process. They developed a vision for Allston and a set of design principles, we’ve settled on a program plan — essentially the inventory of types and quantity of teaching, research, and community space that the new building will contain — and now we’re working with the architects to develop designs for the building. SEAS will end up with spectacular teaching and research space in Allston and hopefully a more rational, less spread-out footprint in Cambridge. When SEAS expands to Allston, it will amount to a consolidation of the School into two spaces instead of the current 17. In Allston, we’re going to get a huge number of people together under one roof who have not been collocated before, and that will lead to even more collaboration and a stronger SEAS community.
GAZETTE: What do you see as the opportunities that lie ahead for SEAS?
MURRAY: With a successful campaign and continued high level of interest on the part of students, SEAS will continue to grow. We have a long-term plan to increase the faculty to achieve the critical mass needed to support our current enrollments, and that gives us the opportunity to recruit truly world-class educators and researchers in the fields that will make a huge impact, in areas such as computational science, translational life sciences, energy and the environment, robotics, and nanophotonics. I think our goal of having every Harvard College student eager to take at least one SEAS course is also within close reach. We have strategically focused [the School’s] teaching and research on several target areas that will have a profound impact on our future. SEAS has the potential to be one of the world’s top programs in those areas.
GAZETTE: How has SEAS changed during your time as dean?
MURRAY: We’ve gone from essentially a startup, launched in 2007 as Harvard’s first new School in 77 years, to a vibrant, thriving community. Obviously, we have more students in our classrooms and labs. But we have also enriched the learning experience by significantly expanding the depth and breadth of our curriculum, enhancing the teaching and research spaces, and extending the extra- and co-curricular resources and opportunities. Through its research and teaching, SEAS has become a connector and integrator at Harvard.
GAZETTE: You have been a powerful advocate for policies that support technology and innovation. What do you see as the emerging issues that policymakers should be focused on?
MURRAY: For the United States, the support of education is absolutely critical. Back in the 1950s, with the GI Bill, the focus on federal sponsorship of research in universities, and the vision of Vannevar Bush, higher education was looked upon as a public good. But I’m afraid we’ve lost that perspective in the U.S., at least in our public discourse. This is a real problem. The erosion of that ideal is very serious. And the erosion of the federal government support for basic research is also incredibly serious for the economic status of the country.
I don’t know how to say this except bluntly: Technology literacy for everyone, particularly policymakers, is critically important. Leaders of the country, including those in the court system, the Congress, and the executive branch, need to have some understanding of the technology that pervades our society and enhances our lives. Science and technology are also key to addressing our century’s global challenges, such as how to provide a decent standard of living in a sustainable way to the projected 9 billion people on Earth within this century. Technology can be used for good or evil, and because there are serious lags in time before regulations and policies catch up with technology, it is essential to have policymakers and decision-makers who are aware of all its risks and benefits.
GAZETTE: What’s next for you?
MURRAY: 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. I intend to remain actively engaged in the SEAS and Harvard community. I’ll continue the work I’m already doing on some national policy, particularly my membership on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board and service on a congressionally mandated commission that is assessing the state of our national laboratories. For the longer term, the truth is I’m thinking about what I want to do next. I’ve been advised to take some time before committing to anything new, and I think that’s excellent advice.