SEAS Neighbors Eye Soon-to-be Vacated Space

Faculty in Applied Mathematics and Environmental Science and Engineering may have some unusual neighbors moving in come 2020: decaying whale skeletons and rotting coral reefs.

As Harvard finalizes plans for the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s new Allston campus, the school’s current neighbors, from the Museum of Comparative Zoology to the Physics Department, are eagerly eyeing the space in Cambridge it will vacate.

Under current plans, the much-hyped new campus will be home to Computer Science and Bioengineering in their entirety, while Electrical Engineering and Materials Science will partially relocate to Allston, beginning in 2020. These moves could open up significant space alongside the SEAS teaching areas remaining in Cambridge: Applied Mathematics, Applied Physics, and Environmental Science and Engineering.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators are gauging other departments’ interest in the vacated space, according to FAS Dean Michael D. Smith. He said departments in the crowded Sciences Division and various museums have expressed interesting in using that space.

SEAS, however, will have first dibs, Francis J. Doyle III, Dean of SEAS, said.


“What other units outside of SEAS do is really conversations with Mike Smith and part of his planning process,” Doyle said. “I know he’s looking to us first to figure out how we’re going to reconfigure within our footprint back here.”

Though Doyle said there have been no “policy decisions” made on who will occupy the soon-to-be vacated space, he is not surprised about the interest.

“It’s human nature,” Doyle said. “I think there probably will be squatters and vultures kind of circling—space is the ultimate commodity on any university campus.”

Indeed, at Harvard, space is king. The Physics Department’s relative lack of office and laboratory space makes hiring new research-based professors difficult, department chair Masahiro Morii said.

“In physical sciences, the availability of laboratory space often limits our ability to attract the best talent,” Morii said, adding that laboratory space is often a point of contention when negotiating hiring packages. Creating new laboratory space far from Harvard Yard is not an optimal solution, he said.

“For a while there was an attempt to house some of the experimental groups in Alewife,” Morii said. “But it turns out that the back-and-forth time is just prohibitive—especially if the Red Line doesn’t work.”

Not all Science departments are interested in the new SEAS buildings, however, and not all interested parties fall within the Sciences.

The Astronomy Department, for instance, has not expressed interest in the SEAS buildings, department chair Abraham “Avi” Loeb said. The Law School, whose campus borders SEAS’s current location, is “interested in the possibilities that available space might create,” Law School Dean for Administration Francis X. McCrossan wrote in an emailed statement. McCrossan noted, however, that the school has “yet to engage in any substantive conversations about this.”

On the other side of Oxford Street, some of Harvard’s museums also fancy the prospect of much-needed space. James Hanken, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, said he has no room to store many of his collections, and that specimens stored in the museum’s main building are degrading as a result of improper temperature and humidity controls.

Though the museum recently added 50,000 square feet of collection and lab space in the climate-controlled basement of the Northwest building, Hanken said the additional space is not enough to house all collections adequately.

Some of MCZ’s largest specimens are currently stored off-site at Concord Field Station in Bedford, Mass. There, the skeletons of whales, porpoises, and other large animals lie in underground missile silos that contained Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War.

“It’s a terrible environment again insofar as it’s not climate-controlled, it’s very humid, we have a lot of historically famous coral reefs, dried coral reefs, that ... are literally rotting because of the combination of inappropriate temperature,” Hanken said. “Those are collections that we would desperately like to find a better home for.”

Even in the museum itself, many skeletons and skulls stored in the main building’s attic and top floor are falling apart, Hanken said.

“These are in some instances extinct species, in other cases they are endangered species, and in many instances they are specimens that we could no longer replace,” Hanken said. “They’re incredibly valuable historical records of Earth’s biological history—they’re literally irreplaceable, and it’s our obligation, professional obligation, to conserve these things as best we can.”

“We literally see them falling apart right in front of our eyes,” he said.

Representatives for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Harvard Semitic Museum, and the Harvard Art Museums said they have not expressed interest in the new buildings.

Details on when and how potential Cambridge space will become available remain unclear. Morii said a visiting committee to the Physics Department noted the lack of clear plans for the transition.

“One of the things [the committee] said was, ‘You guys don’t seem to know how you’re going to coordinate this in the first place.’ Nobody they talked to inside the University knew exactly what the timeframe of this move is,’” said Morii. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we noticed.’”

Morii said he suspects SEAS administrators will want to “consolidate group spaces in a more rational way” after the partial move in 2020 before freeing up space to others, a process he estimates could take more than a year.

Doyle said his “first priority is figuring out how we reconfigure and where faculty might be stretched across hallways or buildings or floors,” emphasizing the importance of related faculty having “contiguous space.”

Though Smith said conversations have started, he added that they have “not been finalized by any stretch of the imagination.”

—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.

—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.


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