Tuesday, February 5, 2013

SEAS Moving to Allston!

What has been the subject of some buzz and quiet rumors came fully out of the bag at today's FAS meeting. SEAS, or at least most of it, will be moving to Allston. We'll be going into a building on the south side of Western Ave near HBS and the i-Lab, now only partly finished and awaiting a construction restart. The primary driver for SEAS is the need to expand the faculty and lab space and the difficulty (impossibility, maybe) of doing that in Cambridge.

Several of my colleagues spoke today, expressing their reservations. I am sure this will all be reported in the Crimson and in Harvard Magazine tomorrow. I was prepared to speak but we moved onto the next item before I could be recognized. I thought it might be worth putting down here the gist of what I was going to say. (Not prepared remarks--scratched out on the back of the agenda while others of my colleagues were speaking.)
Thank you, Madam President. I would perhaps uncharacteristically like to play the role of optimist here. I would remind my colleagues that their remarks may read a lot differently a century from now than they do today. Rarely can I remember so many SEAS professors rising to say that they like things pretty much as they are! 
We in SEAS are, at best, on a local optimum in the development of applied science and engineering, and we won't be able to get off it without moving and growing. The issue is not whether everything we have today will be just as good after the move as it is today. The issue is whether the problems created by the move, mitigated and resolved as best we can, outweigh the opportunities created by moving. I find that very hard to imagine, given the constraints under which we are now operating. The future is over there.
Let us recall that the Medical School has moved not once but twice--once in the early 19th century and then in the early 20th. Both times, enormous institutions grew up around it as it became a center of medical service, education, and research. On the second move it was put in swampland that at first had nothing around it, not even the ballpark that would shortly thereafter be erected a few blocks closer to the city center. What would HMS be today if the president and fellows had been too timid to move it out of Cambridge, or to move it again out of its home down near the MGH? Can we imagine what may grow up around SEAS?
Of course the analogy is imperfect--the medical school is purely professional. Or is it? The Longwood shuttle carries undergraduate research students by the dozens over to the medical area every day. It would be much better if it could all stay in Cambridge--but it can't. Faculty go back and forth to the Wyss. Commuting is a nuisance, but the landlocked alternative future for SEAS would be a tragedy of short-sightedness.
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.

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