Engineering school in good hands with Klawe

By Steven Schultz

  Maria Klawe
Princeton NJ -- Of the many accomplishments that have prepared Maria Klawe for

her new role as engineering dean, one that does not appear on her resume is her success in learning to juggle.

It's a skill she began developing in 1979 as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Despite self-described klutziness -- "like the nerd who does no sports" -- she was entranced when she saw an impromptu performance by a professor visiting from MIT. Taking her on as a challenge, the professor worked with Klawe for about two hours a day through his one-week stay.

"By the end of that week I was at the point where a normal person would be in five minutes," said Klawe (pronounced KLAH-vey). "But it was enough. I just worked on it for months and years, and here I am -- 25 years later and I can juggle," said Klawe, who now performs a brief show with four balls to demonstrate the importance of taking on new challenges.

At Princeton, Klawe has set herself another kind of challenge -- propelling the School of Engineering and Applied Science to the highest ranks in the country and integrating the school more closely into the rest of the University. According to those who have worked with her, Klawe is just the person to do it.

"She has enormous energy, and she's not one to be easily daunted," said James Sturm, a professor of electrical engineering who served as interim dean. Colleagues said that whether keeping four balls in the air or pulling diverse faculty members together to achieve things they never thought possible, Klawe approaches everything in life with a powerful enthusiasm, tenacity and refusal to conform to molds.

"Just hang on to your hat; things are going to happen," said Sturm. "She has lots of ideas and you never quite know where the great success is going to be, but (the engineering school) is going to be a very different place in five years than it is today."

Areas of excellence

As she prepares for change, however, Klawe has set a measured pace. Since starting in January, she has spent much of her time meeting with people from inside the engineering school, from around the University and from industry and other universities to learn about the school and how it fits into the broader context of engineering and education. These interviews are leading up to a major strategic planning initiative that will hit full stride this fall when the school will hold a series of 10 one-day retreats. The retreats will range in subject from undergraduate and graduate education to faculty research and industry interaction and could ultimately involve nearly 1,000 people, Klawe said.

"The really key thing we have to do over the next 12 months is decide what our areas of excellence are, what we are going to focus on," said Klawe, a computer scientist who came to Princeton from the University of British Columbia, where she was dean of science. "They have to be a set of areas where we can really become the best in the world. They have to be chosen so that they help us move our level of impact and reputation into the top ranks." While Princeton's engineering school is often ranked in the top 20 in the nation, Klawe wants to move it squarely into the top 10.

Choosing areas on which to focus does not mean cutting back on others, she said. It means finding areas that, with a modest investment, could leap forward and carry the rest of the school with them. "I think of us as building on the things we already do and linking them together," she said.

An example is a proposed merger between the Princeton Materials Institute and the Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials (POEM). Although the initiative was under way before Klawe arrived, she has worked closely with the two groups to make it happen. "When you get them talking to each other and sharing ideas, leveraging each other, you can get so much more than by having them operate separately," she said.

The strategic plan also needs to stay true to Princeton and its strengths in undergraduate education and fundamental research, she said. "And, in fact, it's building on the things that make Princeton unique and wonderful that is going to get us where we want to go. There is just no way we are going to be a Caltech or an MIT, so it has to be a Princeton solution. I have no doubt that there is one. That is what the strategic planning process is about. If we collectively come up with a position that we support, that is what will succeed."

Klawe's past accomplishments suggest that success is likely. "She has an uncanny ability to come up with win-win solutions," said Lorne Whitehead, who was one of Klawe's associate deans at the University of British Columbia and who became dean of science pro tem after Klawe left. "There is a creativity about her that is both inspiring and infectious."

Among the many initiatives she undertook at UBC, Klawe assembled a faculty of science advisory committee, which included people both inside and outside the university. The group helped her advance many projects, including a successful effort to broaden the admissions criteria to seek more well-rounded science students. That initiative required a deft hand politically, Whitehead said. "If there is one thing you could say about Maria's personality, it is that she makes groups work happily together. She is just brilliant at that."

A new force

Sometimes making people work together involves throwing cookies at them -- or at least threatening to do so. David Srolovitz, a Princeton professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and acting director of the Princeton Materials Institute, recalled a faculty meeting at which Klawe quickly set a light but productive tone. She pulled all the cookies from a previous gathering in front of her place and said, "Anybody who asks a question gets a cookie. Anyone who falls asleep gets a cookie thrown at them," Srolovitz said.

"She has a way, in a group of 100 people, of keeping it really informal, but also keeping control," Srolovitz said.

People at the E-Quad are quickly getting used to Klawe as a new force of life. An avid and accomplished painter, Klawe has been known to break out brushes and paints during meetings. Anyone entering her office is likely to notice, in a corner of her whiteboard, the word "jerk" written in large letters circled in red with a line through it. Her "no jerks" sign is a reminder to herself and others that "no matter how famous you are, how successful you are, there is no excuse for being a jerk," and sometimes figures into discussions about which potential faculty members to recruit.

Faculty members see Klawe's frank and iconoclastic spirit as an important element in moving the engineering school forward. "I am very optimistic, and more than any other reason I am optimistic because she is not afraid to try unusual and big things," said Srolovitz. "That's what you need if you really want things to change."

The fifth ball

Among the projects Klawe has in mind is an alternative undergraduate track that introduces applications of engineering into the first year of study, which usually are dominated by pure math and physics. She also wants to encourage many more undergraduates from around the University to take at least one engineering class, which, she said, is an increasingly important part of being well educated in a technology-filled society.

Beyond teaching and research initiatives, Klawe is trying to make the E-Quad a nicer place to work. At the suggestion of a staff member, she supported a pilot program to bring a yoga instructor into the building once a week. Another project involves setting up a café in the front of the E-Quad to serve as an interdisciplinary socializing spot. "When people -- staff, faculty or anybody else -- come up with an idea for what would make this a better place to work, we try to do it," she said.

As she encourages new ideas at all levels, Klawe often draws on her experience in learning to juggle and an accompanying "rule of success" that she has adopted (along with the "no jerks" maxim): "Take the time to become good at something at which you are naturally bad." It's a reminder, she said, that applies to individual people and entire schools.

"The best way to learn about learning -- both how you learn and how others learn -- is to work on something that's hard for you," she said. At Princeton, the challenge comes in balancing the tendency to focus on core strengths and the need to innovate, she said. The engineering school, for example, has not had traditional strengths in collaborating with industry, although it has made great strides in recent years, particularly through the POEM center. "If you want to be a great engineering school, you have to figure out how to do it well. It's probably going to take us some time," she said.

At UBC, Klawe took her juggling message straight to the undergraduates, putting on a short demonstration during her annual opening address to the freshman class. That talk was always the start of a close relationship Klawe had with undergraduates, said UBC senior Reka Sztopa, who was president of the school's Science Undergraduate Society. Klawe routinely attended student events and was even known to join in their laser tag games.

When the UBC science students found out last fall that Klawe was leaving for Princeton and would not be on hand for the dean's traditional job of calling out students' names at graduation, they begged her to come back. Klawe warned them that it was unlikely the administration would let her do it, but this time it was the students' turn to show her what was possible. "After a few letters and a few e-mails back and forth, [the administration] said, 'Sure,'" said Sztopa.

Klawe said she was moved by the students' interest and returned May 22-23 for the graduation. She also has a more tangible remembrance: As a going away present, the students gave Klawe a fifth juggling ball. "We told her the next time she comes back we want her to be able to juggle five," Sztopa said.


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