28 May 2019


The Physical Campus in a Virtual World

by Nitin Nohria

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On the north wall of my office hangs a series of framed architectural drawings that date from the early 1920s. Each of these antique blueprints depicts a different architect’s vision for what would become the first buildings of the Harvard Business School campus. One of these drawings shows the winner of this contest, and it closely resembles the buildings that went into construction in 1925.

I keep these drawings on display as a reminder that the institution we inhabit today is the result of a discrete series of choices made over many decades by the faculty, students, and alumni who preceded us. Many of these choices were not obvious. I often wonder if the early leaders had made different choices—say, to locate the campus on the other side of the Charles—how very different our institution might be today.

Last fall, we opened our newest building, Klarman Hall. This magnificent convening space joins several other recently opened facilities, including Tata Hall, which houses our Executive Education program, and the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, which serves as a gateway to the School for Executive Education participants. Together, these buildings have constituted a significant and much-needed upgrade of our physical campus, and it thrills me to see these spaces integrated into the daily lives of our students and faculty.

But each time we unveil plans for a new building, I am asked a pointed question: Why, at a time when so much of education is moving online, are you investing so much in these physical spaces? It’s a question I reflect upon every time I look at a blueprint or don a hard hat to tour a campus construction site.

In an era when online learning is becoming pervasive, it may sound quaint to dwell on our institution’s physical spaces. But I believe the buildings that make up our campus are more than just physical structures. They are carefully designed spaces that allow us to create transformational educational experiences—structures that are as important to our work as an acoustically inviting concert hall is to a symphony, or a well-thought-out ballpark is to a baseball team.

At Harvard Business School, we teach via the case study method, and we do so in specially designed classrooms with semicircular, multilevel seating, where every student’s name is on a placard; this allows every participant to see, hear, and identify their fellow classmates. I’m convinced that if we taught a case study in a room arranged like a single-level high school classroom, it would be a completely different—and lackluster—experience.

Why, at a time when so much of education is moving online, are you investing so much in these physical spaces? It’s a question I reflect upon every time I look at a blueprint or don a hard hat to tour a campus construction site.

Why, at a time when so much of education is moving online, are you investing so much in these physical spaces? It’s a question I reflect upon every time I look at a blueprint or don a hard hat to tour a campus construction site.

Outside class, our students spend much of their time collaborating on projects: To facilitate this work, we have dozens of adaptable project spaces that allow for whiteboarding, video conferencing, or group editing of computerized slide presentations. As in our classrooms, well-designed and well-equipped spaces facilitate this group learning.

In both our MBA and our Executive Education programs, we enable most if not all students to live on campus, making us one of the only business schools in the world that is truly residential. Living and studying together 24/7 creates an immersive educational experience. I am convinced that if our MBA students were strewn about Boston in apartments, or if our Executive Education students resided in hotels, the relationships they form with their peers would be less deep, and the overall education we provide would be profoundly less transformational.

Other manifestations of the physical versus online dichotomy abound on our campus. Eight years ago we launched the Harvard i-lab adjacent to our campus; this facility has become a hub for entrepreneurship, not only at Harvard Business School but also throughout the University and the surrounding community. Even Baker Library is evolving. When I was a student, we thought of libraries primarily as a physical space; during my graduate school days at MIT, I was even known to sleep overnight on a couch at the Sloan School’s library. Today many of the resources students and faculty need from the library are available online, but I’m thrilled at how the Baker staff have worked to keep the physical space relevant, vibrant, and inviting—and that the library remains at the heart of our campus, just as the architect who drew its blueprint nearly a century ago envisioned it would be.

Although it may be counterintuitive, as online education continues to grow, I believe the physical spaces we design and inhabit will become only more important. As proud as we are of the online courses offered through HBS Online, we do not imagine them supplanting the experience of living and studying on our campus. In the same way that recorded music is a complement, not a substitute, for attending a live concert, and in the same way that watching a ballgame on television can’t really compete with the experience of sitting in the stands, the physical experience that is made possible by the brick and mortar of the Harvard Business School campus remains vital and irreplaceable. And as we continue to conceive of the new physical spaces that will accommodate our students through our institution’s second century, I continue to look forward to the meetings at which blueprints are spread on the table, and hard hats are at the ready.

Nitin Nohria is Dean of Harvard Business School.

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