Harvey Mudd College is led by Maria Klawe, HMC’s fifth president who began her tenure in 2006. A renowned computer scientist and scholar, President Klawe is the first woman to lead the college since its founding in 1955. Prior to joining HMC, she served as Dean of Engineering and Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. During her time at Princeton, Maria led the School of Engineering and Applied Science through a strategic planning exercise that created an exciting and widely embraced vision for the school.
At Harvey Mudd College, she led a similarly ambitious strategic planning initiative, “HMC 2020: Envisioning the Future.” Maria joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served as Dean of Science from 1998 to 2002, Vice President of Student and Academic Services from 1995 to 1998 and head of the Department of Computer Science from 1988 to 1995. Prior to UBC, Maria 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.
Maria has made significant research contributions in several areas of mathematics and computer science including functional analysis, discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, human-computer interaction, gender issues in information technology, and interactive-multimedia for mathematics education. Her current research focuses on discrete mathematics.
Maria is a past President of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) in New York, past chair of the Board of Trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, and a past trustee of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics in Los Angeles. Maria has held leadership positions with the American Mathematical Society, the Computing Research Association, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Canadian Mathematical Society.
Maria is one of the 10 members of the board of Microsoft Corporation, a board member of Broadcom Corporation and the nonprofit Math for America, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a trustee for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and a member of both the Stanford Engineering Advisory Council and the Advisory Council for the Computer Science Teachers Association. She was elected as a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery in 1996 and as a founding fellow of the Canadian Information Processing Society in 2006. Other awards include Vancouver YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Science and Technology (1997), Wired Woman Pioneer (2001), Canadian New Media Educator of the Year (2001), BC Science Council Champion of the Year (2001), University of Alberta Distinguished Alumna (2003), Nico Habermann Award (2004), and honorary doctorates from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (2011), the University of British Columbia (2010), Mount Saint Vincent University (2009), Acadia University (2006), Dalhousie University (2005), Queen’s University (2004), the University of Waterloo (2003) and Ryerson University (2001).
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Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Maria, you are an icon in so many domains where your innovations and accomplishments laid foundations in science, education, leadership, innovation, and research. This is the last in this interview series where we explored your considerable history from your early years and into your professional life of notable distinction, significant outstanding contributions in a number of fields including societal causes. Thank you for sharing your considerable expertise, deep accumulated insights, and wisdom with our audience.
“….It’s a pleasure to talk with you Stephen….”
Maria, in these series of questions, we are taking a chronological journey from your 30s’ starting with takeaways from our first two interviews. However before we begin mining your history let us discuss any current updates you have from your work.
Where is Harvey Mudd heading today and why?
“….The number one focus for Harvey Mudd College is creating the best possible undergraduate Science and Engineering education in the world. One of the things that we’ve been focusing on in the last few years is to do more than just offer that education to our own students, but to become a lab for innovation that can explore possibilities and share the results with other institutions….”
What are the three top recent achievements of Mudd?
“….About 40 percent of our computer science majors are female, up from about 10 percent in 2006….Another one is our faculty was thinking that even though our students take a lot of courses in social sciences, humanities and the arts where they do a lot of writing, they weren’t seeing those skills transfer into the technical disciplines. So they decided that we would offer a half semester writing course to every student in the first semester here which would be taught by faculty from all across the college….The third one is Payscale.com rates colleges according to how well paid their graduates are both within the first five years after they graduate and fifteen years after they graduate. We’ve been ranked in the top three since they started doing this rating and we were rated number one for return on investment this year….”
You have ongoing relationships with many programs and notable world leaders. Can you share some stories?
“….I think the most exciting thing that’s happened since we talked last was I was involved in a retreat in the use of technology to significantly improve K to 12 math education in the United States….Another is the launching of the Women of the Northwest dinner series….The final one is that Lenny Barshack decided that what I really needed to do (in terms of increasing my networking) was to participate in a ski race called the Silver Cup….”
You serve on many different kinds of boards and are highly respected for your deep insights and candor. Do you have recommendations from these experiences?
“….The opportunity to learn….Most of the influential people I have met, one way or another, in my life have come from serving on a board with them….You want to be on a board of an organization (whether it’s a company or a non-profit) whose mission you really care about, because you want to be making a contribution to something that you find interesting and important….”
We will now continue our discussion about your history.
From our earlier interviews, how would you summarize the shareable lessons?
“….The importance of being willing to learn new skills and new areas of knowledge….The importance of persistence and hard work….Knowing when to learn something new, learn a different approach, a different skillset in order to make progress….Knowing to ask for help….”
What were the most memorable events and contributions from your time at University of Toronto (UofT)?
“….Obviously the really big one was learning about computer science….By far the important thing in my life that happened when I was at the University of Toronto was that I met my husband Nick when he came to give a talk….”
Let’s extend the prior question to your time at IBM Research.
“….I was at IBM Research for 8 years and one of the wonderful opportunities that both Nick and I had there was being part of the community that was building a world class theoretical computer science department and building one with a very special culture….”
I’ve had discussions with professors who have had long histories in both industry and academia and some of the older ones, perhaps, feel that the research in industry was even superior than the research in academia, but maybe there’s been a bit of a switch now where the research in academia is superior to research in industry. Do you have any views on that?
“….I think there are still some areas where there is excellent research being done in industry….Now the vast majority being done in industry research labs is something in between, some mix of computer science and economics and mathematics….”
What led you to UBC?
“….We interviewed at maybe 20 institutions and we ended up with a dozen offers. We reduced it down to what we thought were the four extreme points of the set — the ones that weren’t dominated by anything else — and one of them was UBC….”
Wow, that seems like a common theme in your life — you take on these grand challenges and then you master them.
“….When we list the wonderful things that have happened in our life for Nick and myself, the most important one was getting married to each other. The next one was having our kids. And the third one was moving to UBC in Vancouver because it was just a wonderful choice – it was really hard, but it was really worth it….”
Dr. Klawe talks about her roles and contributions at UBC.
“….What I realized is that I would be much happier being on the academic leadership side so when the position of Dean of Science came open, I applied for that and eventually ended up in that role….”
You touched on some of this already, but let’s focus on what were the opportunities and challenges at UBC?
“….The obvious opportunity: It’s a fantastic university – there were wonderful people, wonderful faculty, wonderful students and staff….The challenges: Vancouver and the University of British Columbia was much further behind than IBM had been in terms of the issues around equity and discrimination and all those kinds of things….There was so much less money in the Canadian higher education system and we did such amazing things with such limited resources….But the thing that eventually caused me to leave is that unfortunately Canada is virtually invisible to the United States and unfortunately most of the culture in science and engineering is set by the United States….”
Can you get more into what led you to Princeton?
“….It’s a pretty funny story….If they had called and said ‘would you be a candidate’ probably at that point I would have said no because I really did not want to leave UBC, but because they asked me to give them advice, I said sure….”
Dr. Klawe describes her roles and contributions at Princeton.
“….I often say I’ve never been so successful at creating as much change during a short period of time as what happened at Princeton over 3 1/2 years….”
You really have described the opportunities and challenges at Princeton; do you have anything more to add?
“….One of the things you have to learn in each institution is what the culture is and where the levers are to create change….”
Why Harvey Mudd?
“….What happened was when Mudd sent their email saying that I’d been nominated for the position they (as many of them did) had a prospectus attached to it, and the only reason I clicked on it is because I am extremely interested in mathematics education and Mudd had an amazing reputation for innovation with mathematics education….”
Describe your roles and contributions at Harvey Mudd.
“….We are here for the students and we are trying to make this the most extraordinary four years of their life in terms of their growth as human beings, their growth in knowledge, their growth in ability to learn, their growth in ability to work with others and to communicate all these kinds of things and I really feel it happens here….”
Dr. Klawe talks about what are and were her research interests and their lasting impact while at UofT, UBC, Princeton and Mudd.
Describe your good and bad experiences during your later academic career and how they influenced you?
“….One of the mistakes I make over and over again in my life is that I assume that because I’m very honest about what I intend to do, that people are recruiting me to do those things….”
From your mid to current career path, how would you describe yourself – your attitude, your aspirations, your approach to societal contributions, family, friends, activities, interests, hobbies, life in general?
“….The first thing is I wake up every morning just so happy that I have my husband and my kids in my life….One of the things I feel incredibly lucky about now is I get to be part of this incredible institution that’s Harvey Mudd College and I get to spend time and energy on other things I care about. That’s pretty amazing….”
We’ve captured so much from the deep insights that Maria has that we’ll have to continue this final interview. This is the Part 1 of the final interview in this interview series where we explored Maria’s considerable history from her early years and into her professional life of notable distinction, significant outstanding contributions in a number of fields including societal causes.
In future interviews, we will continue to follow Maria’s outstanding work impacting business, industry, governments, education, and society.
Music by Sunny Smith Productions and Shaun O’Leary