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Maria Klawe Shares Lessons on Leadership, Governance, and Diversity

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Robyn Burleson

25557543661_9c4f8e5c00_cOn Tuesday, March 8, the Bedrosian Center welcomed Maria Klawe to the Bedrosian Center at USC for an engaging conversation as part of our Lunch with a Leader series. Ms. Klawe is the President of Harvey Mudd College and has been a powerful force in closing the gender gap in science and engineering. She has devoted significant attention to improving science and math education across all ages and has studied the effects of gender on electronic game playing.

Klawe began the conversation by describing the main elements that structure her life: she has always been the first female to hold each position she has had, and she has held a passion for increasing diversity in science and engineering since she was 13 years old. Klawe explained, “I have a lot of experience having a microscope focused on me because women had not been in that position before.” As a teenager, she began noticing widespread messages that certain groups, mainly women, are not good at science. As a result, she decided to dedicate her life to bringing all kinds of diversity—gender, sexual orientation, race—into the science and engineering fields.

As part of her mission at Mudd, Klawe described how she has created a tradition of shared governance with faculty and students. Through her leadership, the college made great strides with diversifying the student body. The first step in increasing diversity at the college, she explained, was to reject the notion that diversity involves lowering standards. The Board created a strategic planning initiative containing six main themes—one of which was diversity. To support the initiative, Mudd held a week-long diversity worksho25557542701_3d4b91eef3_cp open to students, faculty, and the public. Through a series of discussions and engaging speakers, including a passionate keynote speech from Freeman Hrabowski, the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County who has championed diversity initiatives at his university, diversity became a pillar in the strategic plan, and the Mudd community owned it. Klawe notes, “It was important for the community to embrace diversity. The students, faculty, and staff really needed to own it in order to accomplish real change.” Progress would not have been possible without the strategic buy-in and community-wide support.

In addition to the workshop, Klawe and the Board implemented a variety of changes designed to increase diversity at the college. They looked at the photographs hanging throughout campus, the tour guides and admissions representatives that were the face of the college, and the photographs in admissions brochures to ensure that a diverse student and faculty body was represented. She focused resources on diversifying the faculty by training candidate search committees on best practices and having each faculty candidate interview with diversity leadership. She implemented term limits at the Board level to help revise the culture: “We have developed a Board who is much more connected with the Harvey Mudd of today than the Harvey Mudd of 20 years ago.”

Klawe also developed proactive programs to get women onto campus; for example, during her first 4 years as president, she wrote a personalized letter to every female admit, as a way of addressing the low yield rate for female students. Furthermore, Klawe realized that the college needed to learn a lot more about their applicant pool, specifically why certain students were choosing to not come to Mudd. She started meeting with leaders to try to raise the profile of Mudd nationally, and faculty started contacting every admitted student of color direc25354592620_15b3096445_ctly. Yields started rising almost immediately.

Throughout all these changes, Klawe has discovered that persistence matters. She explained, “We are never perfect. We are an organization in transition, and we are trying very hard every step of the way. Persistence is the biggest cause of success in every discipline.” As part of her impressive leadership style, she tries to both listen and be responsive about student, faculty and board concerns.

Klawe shared a few pieces of advice for students of color and female students in the STEM fields. She encouraged students to build a network of people within the discipline and to never let someone push you out. Speaking from her own experience, she explained that she has built an extensive network of women who are interested in science and math that she can call up for support and advice. She also encouraged students to seek out their institution’s Office of Student Diversity for further support.25354587600_05a4cbe55b

To round out her set of accomplishments, Klawe is also a skilled artist and paints more than 30 watercolor paintings per year. The arts and sciences blend regularly at Mudd, and many students are artists and musicians. As one of her last words of wisdom, she encouraged students to become more involved with the arts, as she believes that the arts can benefit students immensely.

Lunch with a Leader provides students, faculty, and members of the public the opportunity to hear ideas from local, state, and national leaders, share their own ideas, and gain inspiration for effective governance in a more intimate and informal setting.

Bedrosian Center