a day in the life of dean irene

Like engineering deans everywhere, Ilene Busch-Vishniac of Johns Hopkins puts in long hours and keeps a hectic pace.

By Kerry Hannon

A package of contraceptive pills on the window sill? What? Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., proudly points them out to a visitor. The set of unused birth control pills were a gift from a female colleague back at the University of Texas at Austin, where Busch-Vishniac spent 16 years as an engineering professor. The colleague, who decided against using the pills, went on to have three sons, all the while carrying a full teaching load. The symbolic gift was a thank you to Busch-Vishniac, who had counseled the woman that she could, indeed, do both. Busch-Vishniac herself has proven that by her own example, as she has risen to the top rank of academia while raising three children. Not that it is easy—for her or for most women. In an ASEE survey of woman in engineering education, nearly everyone said that balancing work and family is difficult; 20 percent said it is very difficult.

Busch-Vishniac has advanced, big time. Two years ago, "Dean Ilene"—as she is fondly called around the red-brick, white-trimmed building campus in the heart of the edgy city—took up her current post after nearly two decades at UT-Austin as the Temple Professor of Mechanical Engineering. While there, she won the Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the Society of Women Engineers.

Music to Her Ears

Research was and is her passion. One particular area that has interested her throughout her career has been acoustics. In particular, she won acclaim during her days in the Lone Star State for designing highway sound barriers. That may sound mundane, but from an engineering standpoint, it is a fascinating exercise and truly critical in today's world of superhighways and burgeoning traffic flows around our major cities. Try living near the Baltimore Beltway—as Busch-Vishniac does—and you'll understand the importance of the work she did to soften the cacophony of cars on sensitive eardrums.

Her fascination with noise is not all that surprising. Busch-Vishniac, a native of a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, originally set out on her adult career path to be a pianist. Sound is close to her heart, to be sure—she loves music of all kinds. But after she took a course in the physics of music during her freshman year at the University of Rochester, Busch-Vishniac never looked back. That classroom experience sparked an interest in acoustics and the engineering challenges that surround sound, and from that time onward she keenly focused her studies in that arena.

Busch-Vishniac, 45, is one of only a handful of female engineering deans in the country. The others include Kristina Johnson at Duke University, Eleanor Baum at Cooper Union, Denice Denton at the University of Washington, Jane C.S. Long at the University of Nevada-Reno, and Janie Fouke at Michigan State University. The lack of women at the core of engineering programs has been an issue of late and of significant concern. Just over 21 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees are awarded to women, according to ASEE data, and that number dips to 18 percent for Ph.D.'s. Busch-Vishniac is out to change all that.

She understands the demands of being a minority: she was one of just three Jewish students in her elementary school class. She says students routinely ambushed her on her walks home from school, shoving and sometimes actually hitting her. "You get strength from those sorts of traumatic events," according to Busch-Vishniac.

Today, she works at being a mentor to other women and minorities trying to get started in the engineering field. "There are so few women in big-time engineering positions. I feel an obligation to be available and support women coming along today," she says with conviction. Her take is that women have always been intimidated by the demands of the profession combined with the desire to raise a family. But the times they are a-changing, and Busch-Vishniac is on the cusp of that change. Day-in, day-out, she juggles a dead-run schedule at Hopkins with her family—daughters Cady, age 14, and Miriam, 12; Ethan, her husband of 24 years and a professor of physics and astronomy at Hopkins; and two demanding but lovable mixed-breed dogs, Princess and Karaoke.

To say that this sixth dean of engineering at Hopkins is dynamic, forthright, direct, in-your-face, and funny to boot, would be an understatement. Not to mention whip-smart. Clad in a monotone, practical dark pantsuit, loafers, and a brightly colored scarf, and with her palm pilot always near at hand, she exudes competence and practicality. A whiteboard takes up an entire wall of her sunny office overlooking a campus lawn, where a gaggle of students are lolling in the late autumn sun. The massive antique wooden slide rule over the door is a small nod to nerdiness. Remember slide rules? She does.

Growing at Hopkins

Busch-Vishniac admits that she is blunt and straightforward, and loves to engage people in debate. No one interviewed denies this claim. "Patience is not one of my virtues," she says with a hint of pride. "I tend to be very fast. I need to slow down sometimes so that I'm not 20 miles ahead of everyone. I'm a big-picture person, I'm not good with minutiae." "She's willing to take on tough issues and delegates effectively," says Andrew Douglas, the assistant dean for academic affairs at Hopkins. "And she takes herself seriously."

But with a touch of humor. Busch-Vishniac keeps two huge, dirt-covered shovels on display in her office—symbols of the progress she has been making at Hopkins since she took the reins just over two years ago. Although last year was the 85th anniversary of engineering at Hopkins, the school ceased to exist between 1966 and 1979. It was decided in the mid-'60s that a separate school was unnecessary and engineering became part of the arts and sciences department. Now it's digging again, both literally and figuratively. The program is ratcheting up under her leadership from a fund-raising perspective as well as with new facilities and a growing student body.

External funding still needs to be pumped up by 15 to 20 percent a year to improve the School of Engineering's financial position, she says. The faculty of 102 (8 of them women) will probably stay at roughly the same size, but new buildings with enhanced laboratory facilities and smart classrooms are underway to enable Hopkins to continue excelling in such fields as biomedical engineering and computer science, including a major focus on Internet privacy issues. "That's the future, no doubt," she says.

"Information security is an important new initiative," says Provost Steven Knapp. "And certainly her interest in biomedical studies attracted us during our national search for a new dean to succeed Don Giddens. Strong-willed and a quick study, she understood the high energy it takes to move this school ahead quickly without losing our high standards."

The Dean as CEO

But at Hopkins, unlike at many other universities, the deans are like chief executive officers of their own companies—the power structure is very decentralized. The dean controls the budget, rather than having it handed down to him or her. That's one of the things that attracted Busch-Vishniac to the job in the first place. "I'm an executive now," she says. "I envision myself as a CEO even more than a dean." With roughly 4,500 full- and part-time engineering students (27 percent of whom are female) and those 100-plus professors, she's got a big company to run and allocate resources appropriately to build into the future.

Her focus and tenacity are legendary. Jim West, who worked with Busch-Vishniac at Bell Labs after she earned her mechanical engineering Ph.D. from MIT in 1981, remembers her sitting in his office as he rifled through stacks of paper with loads of work to do. "She simply said, 'Keep doing what you're doing. Don't mind me. I'm going to sit here until you have time to talk to me.'" She did, and he finally stopped and answered the questions she had on her mind as a new worker at Bell who was anxious to get ahead.

So how does this hard-charging, devoted mother, wife, dog-lover, and dean get through her day? Let's set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. Get the girls going, breakfast for all, walk the dogs. Out of the house by 7:30 a.m. at the latest.

Drive the three miles south to campus, and in she goes. From 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., she's on her own, firing off a quick succession of e-mails—a way to keep the pace going without losing time chatting on the phone. Then the appointments kick in. There's one from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. that always runs late, another from 10:00 a.m. or thereabouts to 10:30 a.m. There's a nanosecond break to take a sip of water or a trip to the restroom, then another meeting from 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Move on to lunch at the desk: doing paperwork or responding to e-mail again or returning phone calls.

"I tend to be very fast. I need to slow down sometimes so that I'm not 20 miles ahead of everyone."

There's an appointment from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Keep moving, there's another from 2:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., then 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. It's just a typical day. Some of the regular dates are with the assistant dean of facilities, because of all the building going on for the engineering school, and the senior director of operations. But there are plenty more, and she is reluctant to share that time with an outsider. "These are private meetings," she says. Then four nights a week she is out pressing the flesh trying to reel in that dough for the engineering department's latest endeavors "I don't like to ask for money, but I'm learning," she says. She crashes at around 11:00 p.m. in the best of all worlds. And then it starts all over again. Time to watch The Sopranos? Or The West Wing? You must be joking.

Weekends, when she is not in the office or at a fund-raising function, what does she do to fill any unexpected downtime and recharge? "I mow the lawn," she says. " It calms me down." If she snags even more time to herself, it's on to digging into a good murder mystery. Her husband, as a professor, has a somewhat more flexible schedule and can help ferry their daughters about town for their various after-school activities. That helps. But if he is off at a dinner meeting, she and the girls just throw together a big salad and have a non-fancy but healthy dinner.

Busch-Vishniac is sincere when she laments that she misses interaction with students, and she is trying to set office time aside each week—mostly for graduate students at this point—for one-on-one meetings. But that's hard to do when you are in charge of manning a newly re-energized school. She chuckles when she remembers the early months of her deanship. "One of my colleagues pulled me aside and said that I was wardrobe challenged," she says. "I was stunned. She quickly took me to Nordstrom's and I wound up with hundreds of dollars in clothes and at least nine pairs of shoes. After all those years in Texas where clean cowboy boots was all you needed, I was a bit overwhelmed." When she asked her colleague if she could voice an opinion about any of the selections, she was simply told 'no.'

That's probably the only time she didn't pipe up about what was on her mind.

Kerry Hannon is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.