David C. Parkes will become the next dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), effective October 15, 2023.
Currently the George F. Colony Professor of Computer Science, Parkes leads research at the interface between economics and computer science, with a focus on multi-agent systems, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
In announcing the appointment, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Hopi Hoekstra called Parkes “a distinguished scholar of technology and society, who drives innovation and insight by bringing together people, disciplines, and industries around shared questions.” She added: “He is a beloved teacher, advisor, and mentor who invests in preparing the next generation of leaders. And he is a committed and insightful academic leader… who will bring to the deanship his characteristic fairness, thoughtfulness, collegiality, and willingness to listen to others that have made him such a trusted and valued colleague.”
A member of the Harvard faculty since 2001, Parkes founded the EconCS research group at SEAS, which conducts theoretical and empirical research at the intersection of economics and computer science, exploring artificial intelligence and algorithms for social and economic impact. In recent years, his work with students and postdocs has been focused on AI for economic discovery, multi-agent learning, responsible AI, and understanding AI-mediated markets, including online platforms and decentralized finance. He has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.
Parkes has earned plaudits for his commitment to teaching, advising, and mentorship. Twice named one of Harvard College’s Favorite Professors, he has received the Roslyn Abramson Award for Teaching and the Capers and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising “for his selfless contributions to creating a welcoming, collaborative, and productive community of scholars in computer science.” He recently collaborated on the launch of a new seminar that provides first-year Ph.D. students with skill building, community building, and professional development.
In 2012, upon being named a Harvard College Professor, a 5-year appointment that recognizes exemplary teaching, Parkes commented: “What makes Harvard truly great is the strength of our undergraduate body. It is an exciting and rewarding experience to be able to share new ideas, both in terms of the pleasure of teaching new things and the energy and enthusiasm that reflects back from students and motivates me to think about and understand concepts in new ways."
That student-centric perspective will be especially helpful this fall, as Parkes juggles his new responsibilities as SEAS dean with teaching CS 136, his algorithmic economics course that typically attracts upwards of 200 students.
Parkes has been an engaged university citizen, serving on committees and tasks forces dealing with Harvard’s Allston campus development, the future of libraries, transportation, and strategic planning. He has also co-led and helped stand up several initiatives. These include the master’s degree program in Data Science and the Summer Program for Undergraduates in Data Science. He has also served, with Professor Karim Lakhani, as the founding faculty co-director of the Harvard Business Analytics Program, a cross-university program to train leaders in data analytics. Most notably, since 2017 he has been the founding faculty co-director, along with Professor Francesca Dominici, of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, a university-wide convening of computer scientists, statisticians, and domain experts from disciplines such as law, business, medicine, and public health. Through these leadership roles, Parkes has helped to shape the emerging discipline of data science, advancing data-driven policy development, and improved understanding of the societal implications of big data.
“David is an outstanding convener and connector,” said President Claudine Gay. “His demonstrated ability to bring people together will enable SEAS—and Harvard—to identify challenges and opportunities emerging on rapidly changing horizons, and I look forward to working closely with him in the years ahead to advance our mission.”
“One of Harvard’s great strengths is its excellence across diverse disciplines. Taking advantage of that intellectual diversity to pursue big ideas is also a great challenge, since it requires crossing institutional boundaries,” added Provost Alan M. Garber, who co-led the search. “That David has succeeded time and again in doing so, in areas such as data science and AI, speaks to his remarkable ability to recognize the academic areas that we need to develop further and to gather people from across the University to refine and implement the vision. He is devoted to SEAS and to the rest of the University and will lead the school with great distinction.”
Parkes has also been a leader in his field outside of Harvard. He served on the inaugural One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) panel, as the chair of the ACM Special Interest Group on Electronic Commerce, and as a council member of the Computing Community Consortium at the Computer Research Association. While on sabbatical during the 2022-23 academic year, he was a Senior Research Scientist at Google DeepMind in London, a research laboratory that aims to develop artificial intelligence to address real-world problems. Parkes has remained connected with industry throughout his academic career. He has co-founded and served as an advisor to a number of startups and is the inventor or co-inventor on 17 patents.
When Parkes joined the SEAS faculty as an assistant professor (arriving on campus just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks), the Computer Science program had just occupied the newly completed Maxwell Dworkin Lab building in Cambridge. Fifteen years later, he was one of three faculty members who helped to design Harvard’s Science and Engineering Complex in Allston, now home to the SEAS Dean’s office.
Parkes is the fourth dean to lead SEAS since it was elevated from a division to a school in 2007 and the first computer scientist. He is also the first dean to rise from a faculty position in the school. Previous deans include chemical engineer Frank Doyle (2015-2023), physicist Cherry Murray (2009-2014), and founding SEAS Dean, physicist Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti (1998-2008).
Parkes said he is excited about the opportunities presented by dramatic advances in technology, while feeling a sense of urgency to work collaboratively to address fast-moving challenges.
“We’re going to need to expand our intellectual ambition around a few priority areas,” he said. “I have some thoughts about what they could be, but this will come from conversations with colleagues. This collaborative process is also one of the ways we can come together as a school and build a new narrative about who we are. Where should SEAS be leading? For me, artificial intelligence and sustainability jump out as two hugely important, technologically and scientifically deep, SEAS-spanning areas. They also require a deep understanding of societal context to drive positive impact. What is the unique role that SEAS can play?”
He added: “SEAS is special in our interdisciplinarity, both within the school, and through all that we gain from the intellectual richness of the broader university, including its professional schools, initiatives, centers, and institutes. We also benefit greatly from the infusion of the liberal arts through our ties with the FAS.
“Beyond being a connector across Harvard, we should also forge new ties with industry, nonprofit organizations, and policy makers,” he added. “I also want to be very focused on community. I want SEAS to be a welcoming place where everyone feels comfortable and at home -- able to be their best, to learn, and to contribute knowledge.”
A U.S. and U.K. citizen, Parkes was born outside London, raised in Cheshire, and completed his undergraduate education at the University of Oxford with a degree in Engineering and Computing Science. He earned his Ph.D. in Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, starting there as a master’s student through a Thouron Award.
Parkes lives with his husband Robert Carr in Cambridge. Together they enjoy the arts, travel, spending time with their families in the U.K. and Michigan, and relaxing by the water at their weekend home on the South Shore.
Michael D. Smith, John H. Finley, Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, will continue to serve as interim SEAS dean until Dean Parkes takes office.
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