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Dr. Maria Klawe: Pioneering World-Renowned Computer Scientist and Executive Leader

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Dr. Maria Klawe.

Dr. Maria KlaweMaria Klawe began her tenure as Harvey Mudd College's fifth president 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 Harvey Mudd, 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 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, 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 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.

Klawe is a renowned lecturer and has given talks at international conferences, national symposia and colleges across the U.S. and Canada about diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines and industries, gender and gaming, and lessons from her own career in STEM industry and education. She has devoted particular attention in recent years to improving K-12 science and mathematics education.

Klawe is one of the ten members of the board of Microsoft Corporation, a board member of Broadcom Corporation and the nonprofit Math for America, the chair of the board of the nonprofit, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a trustee for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and a member of the Advisory Council for the Computer Science Teachers Association, and the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Selection Board. She is co-chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Simons Institute at UC Berkeley. She is the recipient of the 2014 Women of Vision ABIE Award for Leadership and was ranked 17 on Fortune's 2014 list of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders.

Added links:

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the Canadian IT Pro Connection where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:17: Maria, with so many notable contributions, thank you for sharing your considerable expertise, deep accumulated insights, and wisdom with our audience.
"....I love talking with you Stephen and it's fun doing this series of interviews. I think we've been doing them for about nine years now and it helps me reflect on what's happened every time we do another interview...."

:00:52: Our last full interview we did was 2012 and a lot has happened since. What is new at Harvey Mudd and what is the value?
"....I think the thing that was getting the most publicity was the progress we had made in reaching a better gender balance in our student body....Publicity is nice, but the reason it actually matters is that the whole purpose of what we're trying to do at Harvey Mudd is to innovate in Science & Engineering undergraduate education and demonstrate that it is possible to have an outstanding, rigorous educational institution that is fully reflective in terms of diversity of our demographic population. The thing is that even if you achieve that and nobody knows you achieve it, nobody is going to copy the things that you've done to make that possible. We are not just trying to change Harvey Mudd, we are trying to change the world of science and engineering education and by being better known it means that everything that we do has greater impact....When I first arrived at Harvey Mudd they had wonderful students, faculty and educational programs and great things going on at the college, but one part of the Harvey Mudd experience I felt was not in line with the level of excellence that was there...The general feeling was that many of our classes were dark or old fashioned and were very inflexible in terms of the kinds of new pedagogy that are a path that we wanted to use. So two years ago opened the Shanahan Center for Teaching and Learning, which is this extraordinary building....Never in my academic life have I experienced seeing an entire campus have the culture change so dramatically with just the addition of one building. So we've been on a program of renovating all of our academic spaces and we probably have another five to seven years to go, but it's been exciting to see many of our existing buildings also become light, bright and beautiful, as well as highly functional and we are now starting the same kind of change in the residential space....The final thing I want to mention is that we are in our first public fundraising campaign in 20 years. We've launched the public phase of the campaign in the beginning of February one year ago so we are in our second year and it's going really well...."

:09:57: What are your goals for Harvey Mudd in the next five years?
"....We are very small (about 800 students), and the plan is to increase the student body from 800 to 900 over a period of ten years. We want to do the growth very carefully and make sure that we don't lose the magic of Harvey Mudd....For the entire 60 years of our existence our focus has been on innovation and excellence in undergraduate Science and Engineering education and it's our goal to constantly seek to be better, evaluating the new things we've been doing and sharing the ones that turn out to be successful. The piece we are focusing on, particularly in the next five years, is to show that we can do that while also creating an incredibly inclusive environment and one in which absolutely everyone (whether they have a disability or a person of colour or are gay or transgender or whatever), that if they bring the interest and ability and commitment to hard work that makes for success at Harvey Mudd, they will thrive.The next thing that just started in the last year (in sort of a coordinated visible way), is to collaborate with other institutions to share and disseminate successful practices. The first big initiative along these lines is called BRAID and it stands for Building, Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity, and it's a collaboration with 15 Computer Science Departments where the chairs of their departments committed that they were willing to work on at least three of the four best practices that have shown success in a number of other institutions....If you put the effort in and if you have leaders who are really committed then things can change. We have already run (for many years) a design workshop which brings together institutions that are emphasizing design in their engineering program so that's probably the first formal collaboration like this, but I'm still hoping that we'll still be able to do similar kinds of things across many areas in science and engineering, and that we can take things that society would like to see improve and then we collectively work together on it....Another goal is continuing to raise our visibility and reputation, because we really want to have the culture change in science and engineering and if we are going to be able to be a significant player in moving that forward we have to have people know that we exist....The final goal is to raise the necessary financial resources to enable all of the above and that's why are doing our campaign and why I'm constantly looking for people who are really passionate about improving education in science and engineering and trying to get them involved with Harvey Mudd so they can see that they can really make a difference...."

:22:04: In a nutshell, why should organizations, foundations and individuals provide funding and support for Harvey Mudd?
"....One of the things we've done from the very start is to lead the way in creating outstanding educational innovations which combine the strength of the liberal arts approach with the broad, rigorous science and engineering. That's our calling card and what our mandate was when we were founded and we have not strayed from it at all....Also I think we're the first science and engineering institution to emphasize experiential and interdisciplinary education, and our Clinic Program (in which teams of students work for the academic year on a problem for a company or a national lab or NASA or whatever), celebrated 50 years and it has been copied in all kinds of places. I think today nobody would question that interdisciplinary education is important because all of the most important challenges facing the world are not going to be solved by a single area of science and engineering; they are all going to be inter-disciplinary. The final reason is that any donation that you make to Harvey Mudd, whether it's a thousand dollars or a hundred million dollars, has so much more impact here than it would at any of our competitors because we are so small and also because we don't waste money. We are really good at efficiently using resources to make change...."

:26:01: You always were famous, but you even have greater impact now, so can you perhaps share any insights that you've gained comparing when you were a dean versus being a new president and now where you currently stand as a president after many years and your stature has risen considerably. When you look back do you think maybe you were a little bit naÔve?
"....I've always been naÔve. I think one of the reasons I've been successful is that essentially I take on the next position with enormous idealism about what's possible. I always believed what people say when they are trying to recruit you (about how much they want the change and their aspirations for greatness and all this kind of stuff), and I arrive expecting to do exactly those things....My typical path is to take on one of the roles; things run wonderfully for maybe the first twelve months and then I find out that in fact whoever the powers that be aren't as enthusiastic about change as they thought they were...Then there's a period of time where I do a bunch of changes in my own approaches to smooth things because I realize that being very bold and aggressive about making these changes is not going to get me anywhere. I then find a way to reset things so that we're building more consensus among the community about where we are going and eventually we achieve success....Yeah, I'm really naive. I'm getting to really understand that naivety about taking on these kinds of things is an asset, because you believe you can do more than most people would do because you are so idealistic. I think part of the success is finding a way to adjust the approach, the strategy, the style of what one does in order to legitimately achieve things in a way that the culture of the institution can embrace...."

:30:31: You supported YouthSpark Live this year and you gave some amazing words of advice which were very useful, and I was able to share that with the audience and even write about it. Do you have any advice updates from those words that you shared?
"....I think what I tend to do with advice is I try to focus on things which I think are counter to common myths. For example, one thing I often tell people is to take the time to learn something that is difficult for you to learn that you feel you don't have the genetic makeup or intellectual capacity to be good at. If you have any interest in being a teacher, taking the time to really learn and observe what you go through when trying to learn something that's very difficult for you to learn makes you understand so much better what students who are struggling are going through, and gives you much better strategies on how you can actually help them....One of the things I think is really important (even as a young person), is how to mentor others because you learn a lot from helping others and it makes it more likely that people will help you....Another thing I learned really late and am now trying to persuade Mudd students and many others to learn a lot earlier than I, is to learn how to ask for help. I would say it's probably in the last dozen years that I've gotten a lot better at both asking for help and listening to advice people give me and taking it seriously....My final one is persistence and hard work is so much more important than natural ability or really anything else. I've seen so many times somebody getting close to something and they have a setback. If they had persevered through it they would have come out even further ahead than they would have if they had not had the setback...."

:37:58: What are your top five personal goals and how will you accomplish them?
"....This big charge that I've been on a very long time is increasing the recognition worldwide of the importance of creating truly inclusive learning and work environments....The second one is to write a book about why today's undergraduates deserve an education like the one offered by Harvey Mudd. Obviously I'm not saying everyone should go to Harvey Mudd, but what I am saying is that for success in today's world it's really great to have a broad and deep education that spreads across science, engineering, humanities and social sciences and the arts....The third one is to continue to learn and grow as an artist. I feel unbelievably lucky to be able to be a president of an amazing place like Harvey Mudd, and participate in lots of other interesting work-related things and yet have time to commit to working on my artwork....The fourth one (which you have a role in), and that's to give a TED Talk. I have committed to give a TED Talk at TEDx in LA in December of this year, and the focus is going to be on imagining what it would be like to be in a truly inclusive world....The last one is to spend lots of time with my family and friends...."

:48:24: Can you talk about your added recognitions since 2012, what they mean to you and how you can leverage them to shape the world?
"....The one that was by far the most surprising was last year Fortune Magazine did for the first time their 50 Greatest Leaders List, and I was number 17 on the list and I had no idea it was happening....Last year I got the Women of Vision from the Anita Borg Institute....The AAUW Leadership Award (American Association of University Women), and there was the induction into the US News STEM Hall of Fame....When I think about this stuff happening I have a bunch of reactions and one of them is I feel honoured and grateful. The second immediate reaction is the imposter syndrome (I don't belong in whatever this group is). The third is I think a more reasonable response, which is Iím not really receiving this for my own work, I'm receiving it as the leader of Harvey Mudd College and also the participant in a number of other projects where thereís a whole community of people who are working to do extraordinary things and I'm really receiving it on their behalf. I'm not saying that I don't do anything, I mean I do, do things, I have crazy ideas and I try to bring them to life, but nothing you do as a leader is done by you, it's done by you in concert with typically hundreds of people. Certainly at Mudd, hundreds of people, sometimes thousands of people. The final one (this sounds sort of ridiculous), but people listen differently to your ideas and your suggestions when you've received a lot of recognition (they expect your ideas to be more important and impactful than they would otherwise), and so it leverages your ability to contribute to change in positive ways...."

:58:54: You probably can't share but I'm going to ask it anyway because Microsoft and Broadcom have been in the news. Is there anything you can share from your work with Microsoft and Broadcom since you are on the board at their invitation?
"....I think what would be appropriate to say is that both are incredible learning experiences and I feel so lucky to have those learning experiences. I also feel in both cases that I am making a contribution, that I'm bringing a slightly different perspective and a different set of experiences. Iím much less knowledgeable than many people on the board in some areas, but I think I can see things that maybe other people wouldn't be as likely to see just because I'm coming from a different world. In both cases, lots of challenges and lots of opportunities...."

:01:01:34: You do have a lot of volunteer roles, is there anything you'd like to share about them?
"....I think the thing that's completely new since we last talked is EdReports. This is something I've been working on for about three years....We had this idea of creating something like the Consumer Reports for instructional materials starting with math. We spent almost two years after that working on a design for such an organization. The funders turned out to be Hewlett Foundation and Helmsley Foundation and Gates Foundation. We launched our first set of reviews for K through 8 instructional materials in mathematics in March. We have just done a review of our methodology for doing the reviews, we've made some changes (we've said from the beginning that we are a learning organization so there are things we didn't get right initially). We have a wonderful board. It's completely different, non-profit kind of experience from what I've done with ACM or ABI or CRA, but because I had spent ten years in this space and had done a lot of work with school superintendents, principals and actual teachers and stuff like that, it's been a great experience. I expect I will probably chair the board for 3 years or something like that. I'm a big believer if you create something it's important not to stay as a leader for too long because you don't want it to be your thing, you want it to be whatever that thing is...."

:01:09:11: You've had many challenging experiences from 2012, are there any that you want to share and any lessons that they provide?
"....The first one is in 2012, there were two deaths that were unbelievably painful for the Mudd community. These are the first two deaths like that in my personal experience at Mudd....The second one I already referred to a little bit: navigating the decision to grow Harvey Mudd to 900 students over ten years....The final one which I already referred to is a year ago from March 2014 (actually right around the time I found out I was on Fortune's Greatest Leaders list), I was diagnosed with a tumor in my jawbone. Fortunately it wasn't malignant, but it was very fast growing and there are health consequences if you don't remove it because you can get an infection which goes either into your heart or into your brain, both of which are not recommended and so I had the surgery...."

:01:25:22: Looking forward, how would you describe yourself in terms of family, friends, activities, interests, hobbies, life in general, dreams of the future, career and related to that, what are some of the forces shaping you now? And related to that are there mentors who continue to shape you in some way or influence you?
"....The first thing is I'm really happy, I love my job and every member of my family (my husband and each of my children) are in a really good space right now and that's a wonderful thing. I feel very fortunate that I am able to work on things that are really important to me and that I love spending time on and are a very good complement to what I do in my work. I have agreed to stay at Mudd for another five year contract after the current five year one I am on ends, so that's actually another six years from now....There's this book I claim I'm going to write, so that's a lot of stuff....In terms of mentors, I've always had my husband and each of my children as confidants, somebody who provides advice, somebody who's a great sounding board and is enormously supportive, so that hasn't changed, it's just gotten better. Also I lean very heavily on my cabinet (my vice presidents and a couple of other people); if I'm in town we meet for two or three hours a week every week and I make no decisions about anything without consulting them first - they are amazing both as individuals and as a group....But the one that I probably wouldn't have said in 2012 because it wasn't true at that point.....Barbara Patocka, Wayne and I started doing phone calls sometimes weekly and sometimes every two weeks for over the 3 years and they have become just amazing mentors to me...."

:01:34:21: If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you have asked and then what would be your answers?
"....Is being president of Harvey Mudd your favorite job ever?....Do you have any regrets of not becoming president at a top research university?....Any regrets about leaving Canada 12 years ago?...."

:01:39:14: Maria, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.
"....I have a special thank you to you Stephen. You were the first person to ever start asking me these types of questions and you have become a champion for Harvey Mudd College, diversity and the tech industry, and somebody who is really helping us do what we are trying to do and I just want to say thank you for that...."