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Launch of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

It’s not insignificant that Susan Graham and Tom Everhart, two of the previous three presidents of the University’s Board of Overseers, have come from the world of engineering and technology.

Of course, our terrific new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Mike Smith, is himself a computer scientist and a member of our engineering faculty.

So, too, is Barbara Grosz, a wonderful colleague now serving as acting dean of the Radcliffe Institute – a part of Harvard especially close to my heart.

And our engineering and technology enterprise is proud to claim strong ties to the University’s most recent Commencement speaker – who at long last got his Harvard diploma this past June, just 32 short years after he left the College to launch a modest venture some of you have heard of.

We are proud, as well, of our association with his illustrious classmate and longtime colleague, Steve Ballmer, also a former Overseer and a great supporter of Harvard engineering.

So you can see how engineering at Harvard has been an extraordinary force for leadership.

And then, of course, there’s Venky — the one and only Venky – the North Star of our engineering galaxy, whose foresight, determination, and energy we have to thank for the milestone that brings us together today.

Although Harvard over the decades has tended not to trumpet its own work in engineering and technology, it’s clear that it has been home to some extraordinary leaders in that domain. We can only imagine what the future may hold, now that engineering will take the more visible and central seat at our University’s academic table that its importance demands.

It shouldn’t be surprising that engineers have come to occupy positions of leadership and great influence at Harvard. If you look in the American Heritage Dictionary under “engineer,” the first definition you find is the one you’d expect: someone professionally engaged in a branch of engineering. Two entries down, you find another definition: “one who skillfully or shrewdly manages an enterprise.”

In that sense, as I set out on my own new adventure, you could say that the challenge before me is to come to merit the title “engineer.” If you someday deem me to be worthy of it, I promise to wear it proudly. Meanwhile, I will look forward to the insight and the advice and the support of our real engineers and applied scientists – starting with many of you here today – as I pursue my course of study. For today, I rest content that you have recognized me as an honorary member of your distinguished company by including me in this historic event.

It’s not every day, or even every decade, that a Harvard president has the privilege of helping to launch a new Harvard faculty or school. Charles William Eliot, who served for 40 years, got to do it a few times. But if you know something about Harvard history, you’ll know that President Eliot, for all his extraordinary vision and prodigious legacy, was more of a mind to disassemble the closest thing Harvard had to a school of engineering than he was to launch one.

I’m referring to the Lawrence Scientific School, founded – as Venky noted – in the mid-19th century for the express purpose of “teaching the practical sciences.”

Not long before Eliot took office in 1869, he wrote that “the whole tone and spirit of a good college ought to be different in kind from that of a good polytechnic or scientific school.” The former, he said, promoted a commendable “desire for the broadest culture.” The latter — he noted with skepticism, if not more – had “a practical end constantly in view.”

So he tried, unsuccessfully, to merge the Lawrence School into MIT. And, thwarted in that effort, he prevailed upon the governing boards to dissolve the Lawrence School in 1906 – and to have its surviving programs parceled out to Harvard College and a new Graduate School of Applied Science.

In the century since, the organizational saga of Harvard engineering has had far more twists than a Mobius strip – but, like a Mobius strip, it has come full circle, in Venky’s apt phrase.

The historian in me can’t resist briefly cataloguing the changes:

A new Harvard Engineering School came to life just as World War I came to a close.

Then, in the aftermath of World War II, the Graduate School of Engineering was reorganized as a Division of Engineering Sciences within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Then, in 1951, it became the Division of Applied Science.

Then, in 1955, it became the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics.

Then, in 1975, it became the Division of Applied Sciences.

Then, in 1996, it became the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

It’s hard to imagine that any other part of Harvard’s academic universe has undergone the travails of such a seemingly endless identity crisis.

Yet, through it all, Harvard’s engineering and technology enterprise – whatever people have cared to call it at any given moment – continued to make remarkable contributions to the world of useful scientific knowledge.

Early in the century, the invention of the crystal oscillator at Harvard transformed the nature of communications by radio and telephone.

At mid-century, Howard Aiken and Grace Moore Hopper’s creation of the first-ever large-scale automatic calculator – the Mark I – was a watershed in computer science.

A few years later, Harvard faculty discovered nuclear magnetic resonance – and thus laid the foundations for the modern-day imaging technologies.

More recently, our faculty have done everything from designing ingenious nanowire circuits to solving the riddles of the Venus fly trap – from creating digital encryption systems that cannot be broken to literally stopping a beam of light in its tracks.

Now and in the future, our faculty, students, and staff can look forward to pursuing the marvels of modern technology as members of a full-fledged school – now here to stay, and, in fact as of today, literally etched in stone.

We can look forward to exciting new forays at the frontiers of computer science and electrical engineering.

We can anticipate transformative developments in nanotechnology and material science.

We can envision robust new efforts at the intersection of engineering with biomedical research.

We can expect innovative approaches to promoting the sustainability of our planet.

We can foresee that our new school will, in decades to come, accomplish remarkable things in the realm of the utterly unforeseeable.

Engineers do many things. One of the most important things they do is to help build bridges. To be sure, it’s not often that Harvard engineers are involved in building bridges, in the literal sense of civil engineering. But, in many ways, Harvard engineering – Harvard’s new School of Engineering – is all about building bridges.

Bridges that connect basic with applied science, and applied science with technology.

Bridges that connect science and technology with questions of ethics, of public policy, of how societies progress and how people live and work in our new century.

Bridges that connect our new school with an array of other Harvard professional schools – from business to medicine, from design to public health, and beyond.

Bridges that connect the University to industry – and to an array of consequential challenges facing the larger world.

Bridges that connect our faculty with our students, and that join the rigorous pursuit of new knowledge with the education – indeed the inspiration – of those who come here to learn. And who constitute the next generation of scholars and engineers.

Bridges that remind us that the word “engineering” derives from the same root as the word “ingenuity.”

So, as we dedicate our new school, we affirm the vital importance of engineering and the applied sciences as a part of Harvard’s academic enterprise. And, at the same time, we affirm their power to connect, to bridge, and therefore to enliven and strengthen a great many parts of our University as a whole.

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.

– Drew Gilpin Faust