Venkatesh Narayanamurti

The force of nature

In the mid-1990s, Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti thought he would never leave Santa Barbara. From his office at the University of California—Santa Barbara, he could smell the seaside salt of the Pacific Ocean, and the blooming fragrance of vining jasmine and citrus. With his interdisciplinary focus and recruiting skills he had built a world-class program as dean of the UCSB College of Engineering.

But then Harvard came knocking. Venky saw in the move to Cambridge an opportunity to work with the best undergraduate students in the world, and in the end that beat out perfect weather. He accepted the offer to become dean of Harvard’s Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a position he held from 1998 until 2008.

He had his work cut out for him. Near the end of the 20th century, Harvard administrators saw that it had neglected the fields of computer science and electrical engineering to the detriment of the university as a whole. The tech boom was leaving the station, and Harvard wasn’t riding it. 

Luckily Venky was the right man for the job. Harvard President Drew Faust once joked: “There are only a few people in the world known by one name. There’s Napoleon, there’s Madonna, there’s Bono … and then there’s Venky.”

He is humming with human energy. The Benjamin Peirce Research Professor of Technology and Public Policy and professor of physics at Harvard says that he grew up on a squash court in Bangalore, India, and he thrived on the fast-moving game.

In college, he took up running as a miler and three-miler (and can still rattle off his personal records). As the only physics major on the track and field team, a member of the debate team, and president of the College Union, Venky says he has always opposed to the stereotype of engineers and physicists as nerds. Perhaps it is his refusal to be typecast that best helped him usher the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences into new territory at Harvard.

While some scholars maligned engineering as too practical, and some engineers baulked at teaching applied sciences within the liberal arts, Venky saw it differently. He calls engineering “the ultimate liberal art.” It is the interconnecting glue. Or as he says, “Engineering is not learning how things work, it’s learning how the world works.”

Venky spent six or seven years—the majority of his deanship—fighting to elevate engineering and applied sciences to a full school. At last in 2007, he succeeded in getting 37 departments within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on board with the idea and Harvard’s SEAS took shape.