Interviews, North America

Maria Klawe – President of Harvey Mudd College

I was the first female computer science professor, the first female head of a science department, then the first female vice president and then the first female dean of science.

Maria Klawe became Harvey Mudd College’s fifth president in 2006. Prior to joining HMC, she served as dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University. Klawe joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served in various roles from 1988 to 2002.

Prior to UBC, Klawe spent eight years with IBM Research in California and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. (1977) and B.Sc. (1973) in mathematics from the University of Alberta. Klawe is a member of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit Math for America, the chair of the board of the nonprofit EdReports.org, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a trustee for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. Recent awards include the 2014 Women of Vision ABIE Award for Leadership and the Carnegie Corporation’s 2017 Academic Leadership Award.

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

I’m currently the president of Harvey Mudd College, a small science and engineering undergraduate college in Southern California. Before that I was the Dean of Engineering at Princeton University and before that, the Dean of Science at the University of British Columbia. My research interests are in mathematics and computer science and I have served on the boards of tech companies ranging from start ups (currently Glowforge) to large ones (Microsoft and Broadcom). I’ve had a lifelong commitment to changing the culture of science and engineering so that it’s supportive of everyone independent of gender or race.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

When I completed my Ph.D. in pure mathematics in 1977 there were very few tenure track faculty positions in mathematics available in Canada and the US. I was lucky to get one at Oakland University in Michigan but didn’t enjoy being there mostly because of loneliness. When I learned that there were lots of opportunities in computer science departments for people doing research similar to mine I decided to do a second Ph.D. in computer science. Within nine months of starting my Ph.D. (which I never completed) I had a tenure track position in a top computer science department. A couple of months later I met a star theoretical computer scientist, Nick Pippenger, who worked for IBM research. We were married nine months later and we moved to a new IBM research group in theoretical computer science in California. After three years there I lobbied to become the manager of a new group in discrete math because I felt it would give me more opportunity to create change. A year after launching the new discrete math group I was promoted to manage a department with five research groups including discrete math and theoretical computer science. As a result I received a lot of management training while at IBM Research.

After eight years at IBM Research we moved to the University of British Columbia where I became the head of the computer science department and led its transformation into a world-class department. There were many reasons for the move including the desire to establish a top computer science department in western Canada. Our children were six and three and we wanted them to grow up in Canada and attend public schools in French immersion. Moreover my aging parents lived in British Columbia. Nevertheless, it was a hard decision. We took salary cuts of 50% and left one of the world’s top research groups in theoretical computer science.

We stayed at UBC for almost fifteen years. I was the first female computer science professor, the first female head of a science department, then the first female vice president and then the first female dean of science. Throughout my time there I worked to attract more female students and faculty to computer science, and then as dean of science doubled the number of female faculty in science over four years. I was also the first NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for BC and the Yukon (concurrently with being VP and then dean of science) from 1997 to 2002.

Over time I realized that if I wanted to have a broader impact on the culture of science and engineering we would need to return to the United States. Even though UBC had demonstrated significant success in recruiting and retaining female students and faculty in fields where they are seriously under-represented like computer science, this was largely ignored in the US. As a result we moved to Princeton in 2003 where I became the first female dean of engineering.  When I was approached by Harvey Mudd about the presidency in 2005, neither Nick nor I were interested in leaving Princeton. However we knew we wanted to move back to the west coast eventually, so I let them have my resume but told them I wasn’t a serious candidate. I tried to withdraw from the search several times, but eventually was offered the position. In spite of being sure we would stay at Princeton for much of the three weeks after the offer, at the last moment I decided it was a “magical opportunity” and said yes.

The opportunity I saw was that Harvey Mudd’s commitment to innovation in pedagogy and curriculum could make it possible to demonstrate that women and people of color could excel in all areas of science and engineering.

The opportunity I saw was that Harvey Mudd’s commitment to innovation in pedagogy and curriculum could make it possible to demonstrate that women and people of color could excel in all areas of science and engineering. After almost fourteen years as president, our faculty and students have shown that this is true. We are now close to fifty percent female in all disciplines, and forty percent female in our faculty. We have significant numbers of Hispanic and African-American students as well. Our student body has gone from being about sixty percent white eight years ago to about thirty percent today.

What was the best decision in your career?

My best decision was to learn computer science. It led to meeting my husband of forty years and to joining IBM Research and getting excellent management training as well as exposure to business culture and issues.

Moreover, because my husband and I were leading young theoretical computer scientists at a time when there weren’t enough to go around, as we became more senior it was always easy for us both to get positions at the same institution. When we moved to UBC Nick became one of the best known computer scientists in Canada. When we moved to Princeton he became a tenured full professor there with an honorary appointment in the math department. At Mudd Nick is a tenured full professor in the math department (math rather than computer science since the teaching load is high and there is no math course that he would not love to teach whereas there are many such computer science courses).

Finally, my background in computer science made it possible for me to cofound a tech start up in 2001 (which went under five years later), serve on the board of another start up for five years that was successfully acquired by Dolby, and serve on the boards of Microsoft, Broadcom and now Glowforge.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

The greatest transformation is happening right now with data science, machine learning and robotics transforming every aspect of society.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

I think about all the amazing women in tech I know at all stages of their careers. Right now half of the department chairs at Mudd are female, half of the CS faculty are female, half of our CS majors are female. I think about AI leader Fei Fei Li at Stanford who started AI for All with Olga Russakovsky who is now a CS faculty member at Princeton. I think about Jennifer Chayes who founded and led three research centers at Microsoft and just moved to UC Berkeley as the Vice Provost for Data Science. And Marie Ekeland in Paris who is the first female VC in Europe to raise a fund of $200M.

In your words: Why aren’t there more women in tech?

The biggest reason is the low participation of women in undergraduate programs in computer science and areas of engineering that produce most of the people being hired into tech careers.

The biggest reason is the low participation of women in undergraduate programs in computer science and areas of engineering that produce most of the people being hired into tech careers. The second reason is the culture in some tech companies that is not supportive of women, and leads to a higher percentage of women than men leaving tech careers within the first seven to ten years after graduation from university. Another reason is the difficulty that female entrepreneurs face in getting funding for their companies.

If you had 1 Million € to invest in women, what would you do?

I don’t think 1 Million € is enough to move the needle. However the investment of 1 Billion $ by Melinda Gates over the next ten years will likely have impact. She is investing in programs to recruit and retain more women in computer science at the university level, venture funds that support female founders, and several other initiatives.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

Don’t let being female stop you from aiming for the career you want.

Maria Klawe became Harvey Mudd College’s fifth president in 2006. Prior to joining HMC, she served as dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University. Klawe joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served in various roles from 1988 to 2002.

Prior to UBC, Klawe spent eight years with IBM Research in California and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. (1977) and B.Sc. (1973) in mathematics from the University of Alberta. Klawe is a member of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit Math for America, the chair of the board of the nonprofit EdReports.org, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a trustee for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. Recent awards include the 2014 Women of Vision ABIE Award for Leadership and the Carnegie Corporation’s 2017 Academic Leadership Award.

See more interviews of our amazing Gals.

Meet Our Other Gals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *