Diamond in the Mudd

Diamond in the Mudd

The many facets of Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College's new leader

It's a new day at Harvey Mudd. Known for its focus on engineering, science, and mathematics education, the 700-student liberal arts school-part of California's Claremont Colleges consortium-has done well in realizing its vision of attracting the brightest students. And with about 1,600 applications received each year, Admissions staff can be choosy when selecting each 175-student freshman class; about 90 percent of Mudd students were in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

 

The school's quirky culture is likely as much of a draw as the academics. On campus, "you see all sorts of crazy stuff," says Elaine Hart, a recent grad and immediate past president of the student body. There's the strong presence of unicyclists, for one; students have been known to unicycle the eight-mile route to a donut shop. During one walk through the quad, Hart recalls seeing a guy riding a bike with a giant parachute trailing behind, while up the pathway a bit there were a couple of sword fighters. Just another Mudder kind of day.

With half a century behind it, Harvey Mudd College's focus is on tomorrow. "Getting the next few years right is going to be important, not just for the near term but for the next 50 years," says Hal Van Ryswyk, a professor of Chemistry and the chair of faculty.

Bill Mingst, associate chair of the Board of Trustees, notes that HMC was founded during the Sputnik era. "Sputnik mobilized people to take a new vision, and I think globalization is mobilizing people today." Mudd needs "someone to take the college to new levels of preeminence in undergraduate education," he adds.

Maria Klawe, whose presidency at HMC began July 1, is considered more than up to the task. Mudd's first woman president, Klawe (pronounced KLAH-vey) realizes the importance of continuing the upsurge of women applicants to engineering and science programs, says

Mingst. Mudd ranks second in the nation in percentage of women engineering faculty.

Gender aside, it was Klawe's appearance on paper that first caught presidential search committee eyes. She had been an academic department head, a vice president of student/academic services, and then a dean. She had worked at an IBM research center. When the search began a year ago, Klawe was taking Princeton University by storm. Beginning her third year there as dean of its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, she was successfully making that academic area more welcoming and accessible to the rest of the university community, despite its physical location on the edge of campus. "It's a background that just covered everything we wanted to cover," sums up Mingst, co-chair of the search committee.

In the months to come, Klawe's enthusiasm, energy, and optimism-along with her warm, casual demeanor-would win over members of that committee, which also included Hart and Van Ryswyk. No doubt, Klawe is multi-faceted in the roles she plays: creative collaborator, educator, problem solver, lifelong learner, leader, bridge builder, and now, of course, Mudder.

If one walked by an all-day meeting in progress and just spotted Klawe, it might appear to be a class in watercolor painting. Only a closer room scan would reveal that Klawe is the lone paintbrush-in-hand participant. Besides any meeting notes, surrounding her are some brushes, paint tubes, a small mixing tray, and a watercolor block.

"I'm a better participant when I'm painting," she contends. "I'm listening to everything but it keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything. If I'm painting, it brings me down to a much more normal level." Those who have been in both types of meetings with her have agreed.

"I'm a better [meeting] participant when I'm painting. It keeps me quieter. Usually in a meeting I want to say something about everything."

For Klawe, that unconventional approach "simply makes sense," says Sarah Moore, a 2006 Princeton grad. "It fits with the rest of who she is, someone who incorporates many passions into her daily life, and who can make any setting comfortable and informal."

Van Ryswyk says Klawe "has a reputation for being disarmingly informal. I'd almost characterize her as sort of a 'Birkenstocks on the coffee table' kind of person." But he and others at Mudd see that "it's not at all a sloppiness. She's just very at ease with herself."

That sense of comfort may be why students going through an academic confidence crisis seek out Klawe. Assurances like "you can do this, you'll get through this" often help students to continue trying.

 

The emotional connection that develops with students is what she likes best as an educator. "You're getting to be part of their lives at a time when they're making choices and decisions about what they're going to try to do with the rest of their life," she says.

And Klawe does make a point to be part of students' lives. After a semester of work on a research project, Kenrick Kin remembers being invited to her home for ice cream along with the other student team members. "It's hard to get to know everyone, but Maria genuinely tries to," says Kin, who got encouragement from his dean and advisor when applying for graduate school.

Despite her career in higher ed, Klawe knows the K-12 world well. For several years, she introduced hands-on activities to young students so they'd know there's more to math and science than arithmetic. She launched a project on using computer games in math education, and then co-founded an educational software company.

"The thing that scares me the most is that we would think it was amazingly bad for an educated person to not be able to read-but for some reason we think it's okay for an educated person to say, 'I'm not good at math,' " Klawe says. "I really want our culture to value having our students learning math and science in high school and continuing [the subjects] in college."

Klawe's passion for education attracted her to a small college like Mudd. "It's possible to be president but be very close to students and faculty, and have the opportunity in later years to either teach or do research or both," she says.

Klawe enjoys the challenge of tackling problems-not just in class, but through research and on campus as well.

She is particularly committed to investigating how technology can support the lives of people with aphasia, a disorder that affects a person's ability to speak, read, and write as well as understand spoken words. Aphasia struck Klawe's friend Anita Borg, founder of The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She was diagnosed during treatment for a brain tumor (which later took her life).

Then at the University of British Columbia, Klawe launched The Aphasia Project. "I realized Anita could still deal with numbers and images, even though she could no longer read and write," Klawe says, adding that this made even simple tasks like writing down a doctor's appointment impossible. That's when she envisioned a tool that uses images and sounds as substitutes for written words.

Klawe had already committed to joining Princeton by that time, and soon after her arrival she found some students interested in the project. Now it's a collaboration between both schools.

Klawe's problem-solving instincts also kicked in when she learned that Princeton's first-year engineering students often feel disconnected from that school because they're not yet taking those courses. During a "Tea and Talk" session with the undergraduate engineering council, of which Moore was a member, the conversation turned to how they could ensure freshmen had familiar faces to direct questions to. "Maria did not hesitate to volunteer herself as that friendly face," Moore recalls. The group devised the idea of assigning small groups of freshmen to attend regular dinners with Klawe. It became a forum to share concerns and offer suggestions.

The dinners "were successful beyond what we had hoped," Moore says, adding that a series of sophomore dinners followed. "Maria is an admirable facilitator of discussion." Moore also admires Klawe's ability to move ideas to action. "If something is a good idea, then it gets a chance, and more than just a chance. Maria can turn a good idea into an inspiring reality," she says.

"I just don't believe in elitism," Klawe explains. "You should bend over backwards to take everyone you encounter as seriously as possible. It doesn't matter if they're a full professor at Princeton or a clerk in a Safeway store. You should listen to their ideas."

On the road and at home, knowledge expansion is a reality for Klawe. But sometimes she finds herself learning in ways she doesn't expect. This January, while in India at a Microsoft technology festival, she scheduled some campus visits. Her travel companions had no trouble getting their nightly z's while on the road between schools, but Klawe says she quickly learned this: "Driving in India is definitely not something I'd be able to sleep through. It's absolutely hair-raising-one-lane roads with four lanes of traffic, big trucks that appear out of nowhere."

Getting so little sleep likely contributed to her getting a severe case of bronchitis. That forced the multi-marathon runner to learn another thing-how to slow down. Not easy, when during that recovery she was transitioning to a college on the opposite coast.

Choosing the easy route isn't her style. "Take the time to learn something you are naturally bad at," she'll say. The self-proclaimed "extremely uncoordinated" person (who once took 29 swings just to make bat-to-softball connection) learned to juggle and can now manage four balls at once. Currently she's trying to beat her daughter's high score on a Sony PlayStation Portable game.

With a focus in North America on expanding natural abilities, "you learn very little about what strategies you need to learn something that comes to you less naturally," Klawe says. By analyzing where you're failing and practicing more, you wind up being able to "weave together pieces of what you've learned to do."

She often finds herself learning from both colleagues and students. "You don't need to be mentored by people who are more experienced or older than you," she says, adding that Moore was one of the few people who knew she was considering a move to Mudd.

For higher ed officials, the lesson is that student feedback matters. "The students coming to get this education have an important role in play in helping shape that education," she says.

About 15 years ago, Klawe was first told she'd be a good fit for a presidency role. Her inclusive nature particularly stood out.

Vince Poor, who has worked in Princeton's Engineering department since 1990 and became Klawe's successor as dean of the school, was impressed by the strategic planning process she took on there. "She brought in a great diversity of people to get their ideas," he says, including students, faculty from across campus, alumni, and industry leaders. It's "a tribute to her leadership" that the result was both a coherent plan and a vision shared by faculty.

Moore recalls the first time she met Klawe, at an informal Engineering Council event. Arriving late, the freshman saw a circle of chairs. "In a chair sat one fireball of energy, Maria, calling all of the students there by first name, whom I knew for certain she had not met before," she says. "Maria's preference for circles became something we occasionally joked about in the Engineering Council, but I think it is also anecdotal of Maria's leadership style. She leads as part of a whole, trying to make everyone feel as an equal."

As for being a leader in her field today, Klawe is excited about the increasing emphasis on the needs of society in research. "Science and engineering are becoming more collaborative," she notes.

Already at work on a strategic vision for the next 20 years or more at Mudd, Klawe is in a position to influence the ways in which students understand the impact of what they're doing on society.

One of the deepest marks Klawe made on Princeton during her short time there was the strategic planning initiative. But another mark is even more visible to anyone walking into the engineering quad. "She really changed the EQuad-the physical feel of it, particularly in the front," says Poor. "It's been completely transformed from her influence."

There's the inviting cafe she opened, for one. "People who don't have other business in the school come here just for that," Poor notes. Its art gallery displays pieces created by staff and faculty, and it was fitting that a series of Klawe's watercolors graced the walls soon before her departure.

"You don't need to be mentored by people who are more experienced or older than you."

An annual art of science competition, now in its second year, allows students, staff, and faculty an outlet for showing the beauty produced by research projects, whether it's a blown-up picture of a microscope slide or a video of very small life forms. The welcoming environment has "turned our side of campus into a place where many more people tend to congregate now," Poor says.

Klawe's bridge-building talents came in handy during her transition out of Princeton. She tied up loose ends such as finding her successor and beginning the search for other senior-level positions. And she found a computer science professor willing to continue on with The Aphasia Project. Leaving also meant having to finish up some paintings she had promised, such as one for the provost of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, whose members compose pieces to be played by groups of people on their computers.

Of course, Klawe's transition to-do list had a Mudd focus, as well. During meetings there, she was conscious of the fact that all eyes were on her. "When you're moving into a presidency, the degree of interest and possible anxiety and concern about who you are has intensified," she says. "Everything you do is being watched very carefully and extrapolations are being made about it." Crucial to building a bridge of trust as a new leader, she adds, is not jumping to voice an opinion on issues in which she's not yet well informed, despite that "everybody's looking for you to give the definitive word."

Besides her new duties, Klawe has more painting to do. "I've been asked to paint a self-portrait for the cover of the fall magazine." It's a project she finds less stressful than other portraits. "You're the only one who could get upset about what you look like," she quips.

This winter, just after her appointment, Klawe was already looking like a true Mudder. Students there figured that a get-to-know-you lunch with their new president was just the place for a traditional Mudd ceremony.

 

About 15 students in outrageous costumes-think velvet robes, swords, and funny or elaborate hats-arrived at the event and tapped Klawe on the shoulder. With banging drums and a "Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Klawe" chant (she's got a number of honorary degrees, after all), the new leader got knighted and caped.

"I just thought that was great," she says, adding that the spirit of the ceremony is indicative of the school's self-depreciating humor. "I refer to it as being wacky. They make jokes of all kinds of things and just have a sense of humor about who they are."

"I love the culture. I feel like the students are very much like I was at their age. I feel very close to them. My husband feels the same way," Klawe shares. "It's a sense of coming home, that this is a community we belong in."


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