Engineering Improvements at Harvard

  • Prosperity
  • 2015

In hard meritocracies like engineering and computer science, either you can solve a problem or you can’t—there is no credit for having a glitzy credential or a fancy label on your stationery. Harvard and other top universities that are not used to being also-rans have found over the past decade that their engineering, computer science, and applied science schools have fallen behind leading institutions like Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Cornell, and Stanford. In these fields where change is blindingly fast, improvement must be constant or one will be lapped by the rest of the field.

Back in 1996, Microsoft executives Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates gave Harvard $25 million for a new engineering building that they hoped would lift Harvard toward the upper tier in computing and engineering. But just from 2007 to 2014, undergraduate enrollment in engineering at Harvard tripled. By 2010, the facility provided by Ballmer and Gates was overcrowded and dated.

As the fastest-growing major at Harvard, computer science has particularly outstripped the university’s ability to keep up. So in 2014 Ballmer came back to his alma mater with a gift (rumored to be approximately $60 million) to increase the school’s computer-science faculty from 24 to 36 professors. This 50 percent expansion will allow a similar increase in student studies.

Just a few months later, in 2015, financier John Paulson emphatically put his own imprint on this effort to improve Harvard’s engineering programs. He provided $400 million—the university’s largest gift ever—to endow its school of engineering and applied sciences. This will allow the engineers to leap to an entirely new campus in Allston, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Harvard Yard, where they will occupy advanced new facilities next to the university’s innovation lab and business school. With engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators placed together in an enterprise zone stocked with powerful tools, it is hoped that much useful scientific invention will follow.