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Harvard SEAS Dean Parkes Outlines AI and Climate Change as Major Priorities for School

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Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean David C. Parkes shared plans to prioritize artificial intelligence and climate change during his first Crimson interview as the school’s new dean on Thursday.

Parkes said the school will pursue intellectual discussion and initiatives around these topics in collaboration with all parts of SEAS and the Faculty of Arts Sciences — which encompasses SEAS, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard College — as well as Harvard’s other graduate and professional schools.

“Harvard’s Engineering and Applied Sciences school is quite special because we are adjacent to the FAS,” he said. “We are therefore able to benefit from the social sciences, the humanities that are part of the FAS.”

Parkes underscored the importance of reflecting societal interests when tackling scientific questions.

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“It’s not enough just to get the science right or get the engineering right but we have to also connect with society in the right way,” Parkes said.

With the number of Computer Science concentrators growing over the past years, Parkes said teaching and using new AI technology “while being appropriately careful” is essential.

He highlighted “a big opportunity” at the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence for AI research and education. The institute has continued to extend its operations, recently purchasing nearly 400 advanced graphics processing units to bolster its academic computational cluster.

Parkes also said there will be “opportunities” to hire new faculty with expertise in machine learning and bolster efforts to mentor undergraduates.

Outside of his teaching position, Parkes has also worked as SEAS area dean for Computer Science from 2013 to 2017 and co-directed Harvard’s Data Science Initiative from 2017 until he assumed the SEAS dean role. According to Parkes, those positions helped him see what departments need to be “successful” and collaborate with departments and schools “all across Harvard.”

In addition to AI and climate change, Parkes said SEAS is in a process of “ideation” to develop a third priority.

Parkes also discussed the following issues:

Enterprise Research Campus

Parkes will preside over further expansion of the school as the construction of the Enterprise Research Campus in Allston continues. The complex will hold life science buildings, a hotel, a conference center, and housing.

The Boston Planning and Development Agency approved the first phase of the ERC’s construction in July 2022. Harvard leaders and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the ERC Wednesday. The first phase is expected to be concluded early 2026, according to Parkes.

The University has faced backlash for years from Allston residents concerned about unaffordable housing, climate impacts, traffic, and fewer opportunities for small businesses. Parkes said the University takes the “vitality” of the Allston neighborhood seriously and that ERC would provide affordable housing and create jobs.

“I hope this can be a place that feels lively and feels welcoming,” he said.

Diversity, Belonging and Inclusion

As SEAS nears the end of its five-year diversity, inclusion, and belonging strategic plan, Parkes said that a new five-year plan is in preparation.

Parkes said it was “really important” to him that SEAS attracts people who “can make the most of our environment here.”

“The way that we achieve that is by making our environment inclusive,” he said.

“Everybody in the community, whether they be students or staff or faculty are taking ownership as to how important this is,” he added.

According to Parkes, the new plan will be chaired by Paula Nicole Booke, assistant dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at SEAS. It will also be led by a staff member and a faculty member.

The new initiative, Parkes said, will assess the goals and data produced by the previous plan, then create “actionable” objectives and continue to collect data.

“It’s going to be asking the question, ‘What are the important things that we should be focusing on for the next five years?’” he said.

—Staff writer Mert Geyiktepe can be reached at mert.geyiktepe@thecrimson.com.

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