In the 13 years since Maria Klawe took over as president of Harvey Mudd College, she has surprised skeptics and achieved a milestone that has confounded most institutions of higher education.
Today, 50 percent of Harvey Mudd graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are women, and students of color are on the rise at the elite technical college.
The shift is no accident; Klawe made diversity her top priority when she took the helm at Harvey Mudd, in Claremont, Calif. And while she’s made strides, she’s also faced big challenges during what she describes as the most difficult years of her professional career.
Klawe is a noted computer scientist and academic and a former Microsoft board member. Before becoming the first woman to lead Harvey Mudd, she served as dean of engineering at Princeton University and dean of science at the University of British Columbia. Klawe will share insights from her journey as a leader in computer science and champion for diversity when delivering the 2019 commencement address for the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering this Friday, June 14.
We caught up with Klawe for a preview of her remarks and a broader discussion of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology industry. Listen to the podcast below, subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast in your favorite podcast app, and continue reading for highlights from the conversation.
On achieving gender parity: It’s all about how you teach, how you present the discipline, the kind of learning environment you create for your students. What we’ve found is that if you start out from the very beginning with your introductory courses, making it clear how the concepts that you’re teaching actually have impact in the world, not only emphasizing the rigorous theoretical foundations, which are really important, but also the application areas, if you make sure that all of your students feel engaged and supported then it’s really not hard to attract underrepresented groups and it’s not hard to retain them either.
On challenging diversity skeptics: It’s just a matter of time before we get rid of all of these myths about women not being genetically or biologically predisposed to be good at certain areas. The truth of the matter is, if you teach curriculum appropriately, if you provide appropriate levels of learning support for all of your students, you will see all of your students be successful.
On the hardest years of her career: One of the things that happened at Harvey Mudd is in the time that I’ve been president, we’ve gone from being about 30 percent female in our student body to about 50 percent female. We’ve also, in the last six or seven years, gone from being about 1 percent African American to now being about 5 percent, and close to 10 percent if we also count multi-racial who have one parent African American and students from Africa. But 5 percent African American up from 1 percent and from about 5 percent Latinx up to now about 20 percent Latinx. That’s a really big shift over a relatively short period of time. One of the things that we talk a lot about at Harvey Mudd is it’s one thing to attract students and have them join the college, come to the college. That’s not easy in itself. That took a lot of work and a lot of learning what we needed to do to be able to attract those students to Mudd. But it’s an order of magnitude more work to make sure that the experience they have, whether it’s in courses, in dorms, just in the general learning environment, is as supportive as [it is for] our traditional student body, which would be white males and to a somewhat lesser extent, Asian males.
We have had to examine just about everything that we do in how we teach our curriculum to try to make sure that we are addressing the needs of all of our students. The year that that happened, that was in the fall. In November Trump was elected. There was a lot of angst, I would say, among our students of color, our faculty of color, our LGBTQ community faculty and students, our female students, our immigrant students. There was this sense of anxiety across the entire nation. Almost every campus was dealing with some kind of unrest.
We had a student of color die of an overdose in February of the school year and he was beloved. We didn’t know that it was an overdose because there was a machine that was broken at the coroner’s office in Los Angeles County and it took them four months for them to tell us that it was an overdose. There was a lot of belief that he had actually committed suicide. Then three weeks later we had a student suicide at the college across the street, which is called Scripps College. That was an African American student, and that was clearly a suicide. The rhetoric went around the Claremont Colleges [was] that the Claremont Colleges are so hostile to students of color that they have to kill themselves to get attention. We had protests and demonstrations happening on every campus. It’s an interesting situation where you have five small undergraduate colleges but the students know each other and if anything blows up on one campus it ricochets to the next one, and then to the next one over, et cetera.
What she learned from that experience: No matter how hard you work on anything, there will be setbacks. There just are always challenges. The most important thing I personally learned out of that is when these things happen, you have to support each other, you have to help everyone move forward, and you have to stay true to what your mission is and your goals. That’s what got us through that. Just in case you’re wondering why this year was so challenging, we had a student suicide right at the beginning of the semester. We’re such a small place. We have less than 900 students so we’re a very tight-knit community. It was a very, very difficult thing to go through.
The computer science field she would pick today: If I were starting out today, the areas I would be focusing on would be machine learning, AI, data science, and the ethics and social responsibility that are integrated with those disciplines.
A message to new grads: The biggest thing I want to say is that you’re really fortunate to have learned this knowledge, to have this opportunity to have so much impact with your lives. But with that comes this huge responsibility to actually care about what that impact is. And part of making sure that happens is making sure that we have diverse people who have access to this knowledge.