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Lokvani Talks To Harvard University Dean Narayanamurti

Ranjani Saigal

Venkatesh Narayanamurti is the John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor and Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Professor of Physics at Harvard University. He was also formerly Dean of Physical Sciences at Harvard.  Previously he served as the Richard A. Auhll Professor and Dean of Engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Prior to that he was Vice President of Research at Sandia National Laboratories and Director of Solid State Electronics Research at Bell Labs.  He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the IEEE, and the Indian Academy of Sciences.  He has served on numerous advisory boards of the federal government, research universities and industry.  In addition to his duties as Dean and Professor, he lectures widely on solid state, computer, and communication technologies, and on the management of science, technology and public policy.

Harvard is famous for being a liberal arts school. Why did you decide to spearhead the effort to create an engineering school at Harvard?

During the late 90s, a decade when technical fields grew enormously, fields like computer science, nanoscience and quantitative biology were really becoming important. I believe that to be a strong University in this era one needs to have a strong program in the applied sciences.  By creating an engineering school at Harvard we sent a sign internally that Harvard recognizes engineering as important for its future.  We also have the opportunity to redefine engineering education at Harvard to prepare our students for the 21st Century.

What is the new model for engineering education in the 21st century that is embraced by Harvard?

Our school of engineering at Harvard will not train specialized engineers but rather we will be creating engineers who are broadly educated, comfortable in communications and understand societal issues.  I consider engineering as the new ‘liberal art’.  In addition to gaining familiarity with technology, engineering education can impart training in collaborative working methodology and problem solving which will be valuable regardless of the profession that the individual chooses to pursue after graduating from Harvard.  To specialize in a particular field of engineering, students will need to pursue graduate studies, similar to science, medicine and law.

Also in this millennium interdisciplinary studies are going to become increasingly important. I was an early champion of interdisciplinary initiatives and collaboration. In 10 years at Harvard, I have reached out to colleagues in the FAS, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School, and the Harvard School of Public Health to establish new partnerships and build new relationships that span traditional academic boundaries. In 2003, I was appointed the first dean of physical sciences at the FAS, a position I held three years while simultaneously serving as dean of the then-Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It has enabled me to create opportunities for students to prepare themselves better for the interdisciplinary world of science and technology

Having created this new school at Harvard, why have you decided to step down as Dean?

I have had a long tenure as a Dean and I am grateful for the opportunity. But I think it is a phase in the school’s life when new blood can bring new energy and ideas to the school.  Of course I will always continue to support the efforts of the new Dean.  I would now like to turn my attention to working on transforming the undergraduate education as a whole. I think an important aspect of the transformation of education is changing the way we teach and how Universities are managed. The ideas of management that work for industry need to be modified when it comes to University management. I am planning to spend a sabbatical at the Harvard Business School to develop case studies to help improve teaching of undergraduate courses. Later I also hope to turn my attention to writing about leadership of science and technology based institutes including universities.

In the recent decades India trained engineers have been very successful and have made a great dent in the world of technology. Do you see any fundamental difference between engineering education in India and the US?

The current Education system in India has a lot of emphasis on rote learning rather than on entrepreneurial intellectual exploration. At the undergraduate level this may be okay but at the graduate level American universities score better for they allow for more entrepreneurial explorations. Indian engineers do well for some of the most talented individuals go to engineering colleges.  

While Engineering was a very popular choice amongst Indian Americans a few years ago, many students seem to shy away from it at the present time.

What advice would you give to college going youngsters on choice of majors?
First I strongly believe that students should explore their options thoroughly and major in a field that they have a passion for.  It is what makes for success.  As I have said before I would encourage students to look into Engineering as an undergraduate major for it would give them a sound basis for any profession they may choose to take in the future.  You learn problem solving skills which stands you in good stead through your life.
Thank you so much for your time

Thank you

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