William B. Streett, Ph.D.

Groundbreaking researcher, education reformer, champion of women engineers

William B. Streett, Ph.D., former dean of engineering at Cornell University, who was recognized by the Society of Women Engineers for his support of women in engineering disciplines, died on February 5, 2024. He was 92. He is survived by his wife, Mary Sansalone, Ph.D.; his children Robert, David, Kathleen, and Michael; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Born during the Great Depression in Lake Village, Arkansas, Dr. Streett joined the Arkansas National Guard at age 15. He studied engineering at Little Rock Junior College and later transferred to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he earned accolades for academic excellence in all four years. After graduating in 1955, he served as a commissioned officer in the Army for 23 years, achieving the rank of colonel. He earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1963. His research, sponsored by NASA, measured the solubility of helium gas in liquid hydrogen for the purpose of developing rocket fuel.

Dr. Streett conducted postdoctoral research at Oxford University on a fellowship from NATO, then returned to the United States to join what was then Cornell’s School of Chemical Engineering. He became a senior research associate and then a tenured professor in 1981. By 1984, Dr. Streett had been appointed to serve part time as the associate dean for research and graduate studies, and the next year he was selected as dean, a position he held for nine years.

During his tenure as dean, Dr. Streett sought to broaden the undergraduate engineering curricula to include such professional skills as relationship building, effective communications, and creativity. He launched a program to teach engineering students written and oral communications and encouraged them to enroll in courses in humanities and other nontechnical subjects to broaden their learning.

He also promoted the recruitment of women and other historically underrepresented groups to engineering and created programs to help them succeed. By 1994, the college reported an average enrollment of 25% women, compared to the national average of 17% that year. He also increased the number of tenured women faculty members from one to 14 and was an ardent supporter of the student-based SWE Cornell Collegiate Section. For these reasons, Dr. Streett was honored with SWE’s Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award, which acknowledges men who make a significant contribution to the acceptance and advancement of women in engineering.

Cornell faculty praised Dr. Streett for his thoughtful and courageous leadership and his commitment to the faculty; he helped 19 faculty members earn election to the National Academy of Engineering. He also oversaw an expansion of the university’s engineering facilities, opening Frank H.T. Rhodes Hall in 1990 to house electrical and computer engineering programs. This hall became the new home for the Cornell Theory Center, now called the Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing, which houses one of the nation’s most powerful supercomputers.

Dr. Streett retired from Cornell in 1995 as the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering Emeritus and co-founded Impact-Echo Instruments, Inc., with his wife, also a Cornell professor, to market a technology she developed to test concrete structures in a nondestructive way. In his spare time, Dr. Streett mentored engineering students and hosted exchange students, and took up woodworking, stained glass making, and silk screen printing.

Dr. Streett is remembered for his devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, West Point, and the New York Times, as well as his generosity of spirit.

— Laurie A. Shuster, SWE Editor-in-Chief