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By Pierre Home-Douglas

Maria Klawe has found a novel way to deal with day-long meetings with professors, administrators, and industry representatives that drive some people to a mixture of distraction and ennui. She whips out her watercolors and starts to paint. Call it a little example of multitasking, but when you're the new dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at Princeton University, plus a marathon runner, kayaker, hiker, guitar player, and a talented watercolor painter to boot, you have to squeeze things in whenever you have a chance. Plus, “It makes me enjoy the meetings so much more,” Klawe explains. “Painting is one of my favorite activities in the world. Sitting in meetings isn't one of my favorite activities, but it's necessary to get various kinds of work accomplished. Doing the two together gets the work done while making me very happy. And,” she adds with her typically self-deprecating humor, “it keeps me from talking too much.”

Actually, given a chance, Klawe has lots to say about what she wants to do at Princeton and the role that engineering should play in the university and beyond. One of her main goals is to broaden the scope of engineering and ensure that all the undergraduates at Princeton benefit from the school's first-rate engineering program. “We need to teach courses that talk about the impact of technology on society and how different technical decisions can really change things in society rapidly or over a longer period of time.” The key issues that affect society require interdisciplinary approaches, she argues. “It's not just science and engineering that need to work together. You need other areas like humanities and social sciences involved because they have a perspective that also matters.

“It's almost said so often that it sounds like buzz or hype, but it's important that people in government who make key decisions in science and technology often don't have any education related to engineering whatsoever. People in arts need to know more about science and technology so they can make informed decisions.”

In the fall of 2003, SEAS embarked on a large strategic planning process. A series of 11 one-day workshops focused on what should be the priorities at the school for the next five to 10 years and identify six to 12 areas of engineering that Princeton can become a world leader in. Most of the workshops examined the interdisciplinary approach, which works to bridge the gap between engineering and the rest of the university. While other schools have engaged in similar studies, Klawe says SEAS went out of its way to engage a wide spectrum of the university and the alumni, as well as the school's faculty, staff, and students. “Another key factor in our strategic planning process,” Klawe points out, “is that our president, Shirley Tilghman, has made SEAS one of her top three priorities.”

The 52-year-old Klawe seemed destined for a career in academia from an early age. Both her parents were faculty members at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, so it just seemed natural to her that she would end up teaching. She planned to study engineering, but when she discovered that the math courses at Alberta were weaker in the engineering program than in honors math, she chose the latter. After her first year she went to see the mathematics chair and told him that since she'd taken the honors calculus course, she would be the ideal person to teach it. As Klawe recalls a little sheepishly, “He smiled at me politely and said, ‘We normally don't let undergraduates teach classes, but we would be very happy for you to work as a teaching assistant.' So I did.” Klawe was 18 at the time.

After earning her bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in mathematics it seemed natural to become a mathematics professor. But such positions were scarce in the mid-1970s—particularly at prestigious universities—so she embarked on a second Ph.D., in computer science. Five months after starting her degree at the University of Toronto, she suddenly found herself getting job offers from computer science departments all over Canada. She ended up accepting a position as an assistant professor at Toronto. But no sooner had she started than her life took another turn—all the result of a seminar. The person giving the seminar, Nick Pippenger, delivered a talk on his work as an IBM researcher so captivating that Klawe ended up accepting a position at the IBM Almaden Research Center in California a few months later—along with her new husband, Nick Pippenger.

“After we met at U of T and fell in love we looked around for work,” Klawe recalls. “U of T made an offer to Nick and we were recruited by MIT. But Nick is extremely shy and I thought that getting married and having kids would be enough of a life-change without going to a university as well. So we chose IBM.”

In her eight years at Big Blue, Klawe ended up managing a department with five research groups, all working on building more interaction between mathematicians and computer scientists. The work was exciting and groundbreaking. But there was little chance she would stay indefinitely.

In 1988 she accepted the position of head of the department of computer science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In the following 15 years she moved up through the ranks, serving as vice president for student and academic services and then as dean of science.

Training Ground

It was in her new managerial roles that she came to appreciate that her time at IBM had provided her with something potentially more valuable for her academic career than knowledge about computers and mathematics. “Industry has great management training and universities don't,” she says matter of factly. “Universities tend to put people into managerial positions such as department chairs or deans without giving them a lot of basic management training. IBM, on the other hand, was a superb training ground.”

Klawe recalls working like crazy, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., during the management training sessions. “You're not allowed to get e-mail or take phone calls or anything like that. I complained the whole time but it was fabulous.” Another bonus: IBM proved very good with diversity issues, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Klawe reckons that the company was probably a decade ahead of universities. She credits IBM with providing her with extensive training on issues that had become major issues in universities and furnishing models for how to deal with them.

How does working in management in industry compare with the same job in academia? Klawe says the differences are huge. “The really key people who drive development in a university are faculty members. They are independent individuals. Your only real way to change things is to create an environment that allows them to do what they want to do better and have that align with what you want to see happen.”

She adds that you can't force people to do things in industry either, but you have more direct influence on what happens there. At a university, it is all indirect, which makes it that much more interesting—and more permanent. “If you do something in industry and you do it by management fiat, it can change as soon as you are no longer a manager or a manager of that group. But if you do something at a university and things change because faculty members want them to change, then the change will last as long as the faculty members are there.”

As someone who has worked on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border, Klawe has a unique perspective on the brain-drain issue that concerns many Canadian business leaders, who worry that the best and brightest in Canada's science and engineering community are drifting south. “When we left the United States our friends bet on where we would go and everyone was sure we wouldn't go to Canada because it was the lowest salary, the least prestigious place and everyone thought we would be nuts to do it,” Klawe remembers. They did it anyway. Klawe said she felt driven to enhance the computer science department at UBC and make it into a world-class department. “Over five years, it made that transition,” Klawe states. “Of all the things I've done in my life that's one of the things I'm proudest of.”

Still, she is blunt in her assessment that in Canada there are problems recruiting top people. “Canada doesn't invest enough in either its universities—particularly its top research universities—or in supporting research. It has improved dramatically over the past six to eight years but there is still a good way to go.”

Klawe hasn't ruled out the idea of moving back to Canada. In the meantime, she has her work cut out for her. She is president of the Association of Computer Machinery and chair of the board of trustees of the Anita Borg Institute of Women in Technology. She is also in the process of setting up a teaching scholarship at the University of Alberta in honor of her mother, who died in 2003. Klawe has put in $20,000 of her own money and plans to raise another $80,000 with her paintings. She figures it will take 10 years—perhaps less if she concentrates on portraits, which she regularly sells for $1,000 or more a piece.

As one of only a dozen or so women deans of engineering in the United States, Klawe is more aware than most of the struggle that women face making it to the top of their field in science and engineering. Klawe says that while discrimination against women is less overt than it was “it's alive and thriving in some areas.” In September 2003, a wide-ranging study at Princeton conducted by an 11-member faculty panel concluded that women scientists at the university are unhappier with their jobs than men are. In addition, nearly a quarter have experienced inappropriate behavior from male colleagues.

Klawe wasn't surprised by the results of the study, and says they are similar to those found at other universities. Still, she remains optimistic. “We have made good progress in terms of recruiting outstanding women faculty. Four of the nine faculty members joining the SEAS over the last year are women. Twelve years ago there were two women faculty in SEAS. Now there are sixteen—out of 120.”

Redressing discrimination against women in engineering will take time, Klawe says. “We're maybe a third of the way there.” She adds, “I just hope the next third moves a lot faster than the last one.”


Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.
He can be reached at


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