Kai Nip

Over the next 10 to 15 years, the University will expand the School of Engineering & Applied Science’s campus presence through a construction overhaul of lower Hillhouse Avenue. 

Yale intends to launch several major construction projects in the lower Hillhouse area, Provost Scott Strobel and SEAS Dean Jeffrey Brock told engineering faculty in a Thursday meeting. The project will take place on sites already owned and occupied by the University and will include the construction of a new SEAS quadrangle on the east side of Hillhouse Avenue. To accommodate the new facilities, the University will demolish Mason Laboratory, Helen Hadley Hall and the southern portion of Dunham Laboratory. The plan will also reorganize SEAS faculty offices by research focus rather than department.

The announcement follows the University’s 2022 announcement to establish SEAS as an autonomous faculty body with 30 new faculty members. The expansion, which will raise the SEAS ladder faculty size from 92 to 122, chiefly aims to add faculty in computer science — the most popular major among engineering undergraduates and an area that has historically lacked institutional support — and materials science.

“We envision something that reflects both the history and heritage of Yale’s campus but also makes a bold statement about modern, forward-looking engineering for the future,” Brock told the News. “We’ll see spaces that are organized around new centers of activity, initiatives and research directions, in addition to things like collaborative spaces and spaces for innovation, makerspaces and entrepreneurship.”

Brock said that the plan was guided largely by the 2021 SEAS strategic vision report, which recommended that the University organize campus space by “research and teaching priorities rather than by department.” Yale has taken this organizational approach in several other recent facilities projects, including Kline Tower and 100 College Street.

The benefits of reorganization extend beyond facilitating research, biomedical engineering professor James Duncan told the News — it may also help SEAS recruit new faculty members.

“The construction/renovation plans will create new and updated space that will greatly enhance both our teaching and our research activities,” Duncan wrote in email to the News. “As noted in the announcement, the new lower Hillhouse space will be organized around research priorities, which will help us when recruiting new faculty and working with colleagues across SEAS.”

These organizational priorities will closely parallel those outlined in the University’s 2016 Science Strategy Committee Report, including data science, quantum science and materials science.

A prominent feature of the plan is the new SEAS quad, which will be located on the eastern side of lower Hillhouse Ave., where 17 Hillhouse Ave., Mason Laboratory and Helen Hadley Hall stand today. The quad, Strobel explained, will be open to Hillhouse Avenue and ringed by modern lab spaces. 

The project also seeks to modernize existing engineering buildings, including the Becton Center, Dunham Laboratory and Arthur K. Watson Hall, Strobel added. He pointed out that many such buildings are over a century old and were not designed for engineering teaching or research. 17 Hillhouse Ave., for example, was built to be the University’s health center.

Strobel said that the choice “to build engineering really at the heart of the campus” was not an accident. Rather, it reflects the University’s plan to make SEAS “the engineering school that’s most integrated with the rest of its University.” 

The first step of the plan, which will begin this summer, is to convert Kirtland Hall into flexible classroom space to accommodate classes that would have taken place in the buildings being renovated or demolished. Kirtland Hall currently houses the psychology department, which will move to 100 College Street, as detailed in the Provost’s annual facilities report.

The next step will be to design two new buildings: one at the corner of Trumbull Street and Hillhouse Avenue, the other at the current site of Helen Hadley Hall. Strobel said that these projects are “probably still a year or two out.”

In addition to the lower Hillhouse construction, the University will simultaneously begin construction of the new physical sciences and engineering building at the north end of campus.

“I would say the motivation is not merely to accommodate growth,” Brock said. “We’ve seen a huge increase in [student] demand [for engineering], and, as we’ve moved to accommodate that, we’ve realized that we really need state-of-the-art facilities to recruit top faculty and sort of signal to the world that Yale is ready to lead in this area.”

Brock said that while he is skeptical of the inherent value of academic rankings, they were an important motivation for the project. He explained that, in the planning process, the University conducted “a deep dive into the different characteristics and elements of the rankings” to figure out what elements are important to the University Community. 

“Certainly recruiting top faculty across engineering is a critical element that drives rankings,” Brock said. “But it’s also critical to what we can deliver in terms of research and in terms of education. Facilities are absolutely central to the recruiting process. Being able to bring in top faculty from other institutions or top faculty that are new PhDs requires that we offer them first-rate lab facilities that are integrated with the campus and the faculty.”

Rankings have been a particularly contentious subject for students and faculty in Yale’s computer science department, which continues to lag in rankings globally.

Students and faculty in computer science have long called for upgrades to the “outdated” Arthur K. Watson Hall, which currently houses the department. Several professors have said that the department’s sub-par facilities greatly impact its ability to attract world-class researchers and faculty members.

“We really made an active, deliberate decision to integrate computer science through the engineering school,” Brock said. “So what you’ll see is a shift of computer science out of the A.K. Watson building, where it currently sits, into multiple sites across the engineering campus.”

Brock gave several examples of how this organizational change will manifest itself in more substantive research changes. Robotics efforts in computer science, for instance, will become part of a larger robotics initiative that will include members of the mechanical engineering faculty. Likewise, efforts in artificial intelligence will be integrated throughout the engineering campus, allowing researchers to focus on algorithms and more outward-facing applications of AI and society.

Thursday’s announcement claims that the project will aid “Yale’s broad effort to address grand challenges of the 21st century,” like climate change and sustainable development. Applied physics student Saachi Grewal ’23 told the News that the University must commit to sustainable infrastructure development as part of this mission. 

“Alongside investments in the SEAS department[s], it is necessary for Yale to consider itself culpable in its continued use and investment in fossil fuels,” Grewal said. “To support a generation of researchers focused on mitigating climate change, the growth of the SEAS department[s] must align with more rigorous sustainability goals and designs for infrastructural development.” 

Grewal also noted that as a researcher on campus, she was excited to envision the increased capacity that the investment in SEAS could grant campus labs. 

“This is truly a historic announcement,” computer science professor Amin Karbasi agreed. “There were two times in my career that I felt very hopeful about the future of AI and data science at Yale. The first time was when the Foundation for Data Science institute was announced where I will be faculty in residence. And the second time was today.” 

The University detailed 11 major construction projects in its annual facilities report this past October.

Evan Gorelick is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered Woodbridge Hall, with a focus on the University's finances, budget and endowment. He also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production and Design Editor. Originally from Woodbridge, Connecticut, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College double-majoring in English and economics.