If you’ve ever been in a meeting with Michael Lichten, chances are he got there before you. Not so he could get a good seat or take a few minutes to look over his notes, but so he could walk around the building looking for things to improve, large or small.
“I make a habit at meetings I go to of going through buildings on the way, even if it’s just to stop in and walk around,” says the associate dean for resources and physical planning. “I’m always in our buildings looking at what is happening, what should be happening, and making sure that if I think something can be improved, that we can get someone working on it.”
For Lichten, who retires this week after more than 38 years at Harvard, overseeing the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ buildings and facilities is full-time work — on and off the job.
“I’m always thinking about our buildings,” he said in a recent interview in his office. “Even when I’m not here, I’m thinking about what’s going on in our buildings, how are they doing, how can we make improvements?”
Lichten began his career at Harvard as the deputy director for energy conservation in 1981, when saving energy was still a relatively new idea.
“I was originally hired to lead a program that focused on reducing energy use across the FAS,” he said. “Since then it has continued to be a major part of my job, though obviously the technology and equipment have become a lot more sophisticated.”
Lichten, who was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey, earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Denver and master’s at the University of Colorado before joining Harvard. Over the years, he has seen a lot of changes take place on the Cambridge campus. He was involved in building construction, including both Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) buildings, the Murr Center, and the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering (LISE). Asked how many of FAS’s 267 buildings he has overseen a renovation project in, he responds in a heartbeat:
“Two hundred and sixty-seven.”
He has also seen firsthand the advancement of computers in the workplace. What began as a single computer terminal the entire office used to print energy-consumption reports has become individual computers at virtually every employee’s desk. But while there have been plenty of changes over the years, Lichten is quick to point out that some aspects of the University’s culture have remained the same.
“The education of our students and research of our faculty is why we’re here,” he said. “Everything we do is to support that, including the early energy savings programs we had. So that has not changed, which I think is Harvard’s great strength.”
When he officially retires later this week, senior director of facilities operations Zak Gingo will step into the role of interim associate dean. Gingo is the first to say he has some mighty big shoes to fill.
“It would be hard to overstate Mike’s impact on Harvard’s campus,” Gingo said. “He has played a key role in the construction or major renovation of literally millions of square feet of FAS facilities, including such prominent ones as Memorial Hall and Northwest Labs. Unbeknownst to most of them, Mike has shaped the experience of generations of FAS students, staff, and faculty by making our buildings safer, more comfortable, more accessible, more efficient, more sustainable, and more beautiful. A wonderful part of his legacy is that his work will continue to positively shape the experience of future generations.”