SWE’s nearly two-decades-long series profiling women deans has revealed some keen observations and insights into this key role. Reviewing highlights from over the years, we also take a look at where these leaders are now.
By Peggy Layne, P.E., F.SWE, FY97 SWE President
When SWE Magazine profiled Eleanor Baum, Ph.D., and Linda Katehi, Ph.D., in 2002, they were two of only 13 women leading engineering colleges in the United States. Dr. Baum was the first woman appointed dean of an engineering school at Pratt Institute, in 1984, and Dr. Katehi had just taken the helm at Purdue. Today there are 79 female deans of engineering, and a total of 183 women have served as dean since Dr. Baum’s appointment in 1984, as identified by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). SWE has profiled 37 of these women engineering leaders in academe.
Deans play a key role in higher education, serving as a link between the faculty and the university administration. They have broad responsibilities over faculty hiring, budgets, alumni relations, and student success. The deans profiled in SWE Magazine have shared their perspectives on the rewards and pitfalls of the position.
For some, serving as dean is the capstone of their academic career, while for others, it is a steppingstone to other leadership positions in higher education. Of the 37 deans profiled, six currently continue in that role, five have served as dean at more than one institution, and 16 have gone on to other leadership roles, including vice president, provost, president, and chancellor.
“Universities have very strong cultures. Even if you know a program will benefit the institution, you must get students, faculty, and staff to support it in order to implement. You can’t force it on them. People who try to implement good ideas without community support may fail.”
– Linda Katehi, Ph.D., distinguished professor and O’Donnell Foundation Chair II, Texas A&M University
Linda Katehi’s memoir detailing her career in academic leadership will be released this year.
The women deans we’ve interviewed over the years have taken a variety of career pathways. Some worked in industry before pursuing their Ph.D.s, while others took more traditional academic career paths. For example, SWE Achievement Award recipient Kristina Johnson, Ph.D., now serving as president of The Ohio State University, has moved from academe to government to industry and back to academe over the course of her career. Susan Blanchard, Ph.D., earned a biology degree and started a family in her early 20s before going back to school for degrees in biomedical engineering in her 30s. And M. Katherine Banks, Ph.D., raised six children while pursuing graduate degrees and rising through the academic ranks.
To see the pathways of these accomplished women, including where they are now, please see the sidebar below – “Career Paths and Trajectories.”
The power in telling our stories
After serving as dean at Purdue, Dr. Katehi moved to the University of Illinois as provost in 2006 and then to the University of California, Davis as chancellor from 2009 to 2016. Now a distinguished professor at Texas A&M, Dr. Katehi presented a webinar (https://bit.ly/3rCKiNN) for SWE’s Academic Leadership for Women in Engineering program in June 2021 where she reflected on her long and illustrious career. In the webinar, she emphasized the importance of telling our stories. Her memoir, Higher Ground: A Woman’s Journey through the Hidden Halls of Academia, is scheduled for publication later this year.
As she moved from faculty into administration, Dr. Katehi came to realize that those positions are not as powerful as they appear, observing, “Universities have very strong cultures. Even if you know a program will benefit the institution, you must get students, faculty, and staff to support it in order to implement. You can’t force it on them. People who try to implement good ideas without community support may fail.” She thinks of administrative positions as service roles, ways to support the institution, colleagues, and students.
Women in leadership roles, particularly in a field where they are underrepresented such as engineering, face a lot of scrutiny. Dr. Katehi noted that “as you move from faculty to administration, the network of people you can trust becomes very small, especially for women. This is also true for underrepresented groups. One of my mentors told me that when you are an administrator, your enemies grow by the day, and you need to know when you have too many enemies that it is time to get out. If you go into administration to exercise power, it will not work. If you go to make change, know there will always be some who oppose you.”
SWE Achievement Award recipient Ilene Busch-Vishniac, Ph.D., was profiled in SWE Magazine in 2003 when she was serving as dean at Johns Hopkins University. She went on to become provost at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and president of the University of Saskatchewan. In a recent conversation with SWE Magazine, Dr. Busch-Vishniac recalled, “The early women deans have kept in touch. We would sit together at engineering deans meetings. In a room full of men, we wanted to be seen.”
After several leadership roles, Ilene Busch- Vishniac left academia to do technical consulting.
Pam Eibeck later became president of University of the Pacific.
Cheryl Schrader described in her 2005 interview why and how she took on leadership roles.
Dr. Busch-Vishniac pointed out that for many of the early female engineering deans, it was their first administrative position, whereas their male colleagues were more likely to have served as department heads before becoming dean. She observed that the women deans have been highly qualified and many have moved on to higher positions, with more opportunities to move up now than in the past. “The average term for presidents and provosts is getting shorter,” she noted. “Women taking those roles need to be aware that they won’t be there for long. They need to think ahead about what they want to accomplish.”
When stepping out of an administrative position, academics need to make a choice regarding what to do next. If they go back to the faculty, they may resume their previous research area or change topics. After her presidency, Dr. Busch-Vishniac consulted in her area of technical expertise (acoustics) and is now working with a medical device startup to develop a smart stethoscope. She exclaimed, “I’m working on a device that could save millions of lives, and having so much fun!”
Cheryl Schrader, Ph.D., was dean of engineering at Boise State and went on to become chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology and president of Wright State University. In her 2005 interview, she described why she took on leadership roles and how she went about it: “I wanted to make a difference, to have an impact. Early on I took responsibility and led efforts at the department, college, and university level. I identified a mentor in upper administration and learned some of the fine and subtle points of leadership. I sought opportunities to excel in my profession and to contribute my organizational skills within technical societies. Along the way I met with many successes and built confidence in my own abilities.”
While most faculty members don’t start out aspiring to administrative leadership roles, in her 2007 interview for SWE Magazine Pam Eibeck, Ph.D., noted that she “may have been the only assistant professor who actually wanted to be a dean. I was fascinated by people who had a big, broad vision of where the university fit in the larger society, what changes were going on in the legislature, the economy, with students. Many researchers focus on narrow problems, but I like to think broadly, so administrative jobs were interesting to me from the beginning.” After five years as dean of engineering at Texas Tech University, Dr. Eibeck served as president of the University of the Pacific from 2009 to 2019.
Two recently profiled deans have moved into presidencies in the past two years at very different institutions. Gilda Barabino, Ph.D., became the second president of Olin College of Engineering in 2020, and Dr. Kathy Banks became the 26th president of Texas A&M on June 1, 2021. By way of comparison, Olin College is one of the newest higher-education institutions in the country, opening in 2002 as an entirely undergraduate private engineering school with 330 students, 48% of whom are women. As a highly selective institution, it provides partial scholarships for all its students and employs an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum.
At nearly the opposite end of the spectrum, Texas A&M is one of the largest engineering colleges in the U.S., a public land grant institution, and the first institution of higher education in Texas, founded in 1871. With more than 59,000 students overall, 20,000 engineering students in 15 departments, and more than 700 faculty members, Texas A&M awards more than 2,000 bachelor’s degrees in engineering each year.
In her 2016 interview for SWE Magazine in 2016, Dr. Barabino described her approach to leadership:
“By nature I ascribe to authentic and servant leadership; that is, leadership motivated by personal conviction and values and by a desire to serve first, then lead.”
Dr. Barabino continued, “Earlier this month I was presented with an honorary degree from my alma mater, Xavier University of Louisiana, and during the presentation of the degree the citation read, in part, ‘shaped by the isolation and challenges that come with being a pioneer she has continued to excel in her own career and serve as a role model…’ In the same vein, being a pioneer — woman of color — has influenced my leadership style; my sensitivities to inequities are heightened and that further serves to reinforce my style as an authentic servant leader.”
Like many faculty members, Dr. Barabino did not start out aspiring to an administrative leadership position, but opportunities along the way broadened her perspective: “One of the biggest things I did early in my career was being open for opportunities to take on service and leadership roles, ranging from search committees to academic administration to leadership positions in professional societies. Though I did not have any aspirations toward academic administration as a faculty member, I remained open to considering a position as vice provost for undergraduate education at Northeastern University. I served in that role for three years as an associate professor and learned that serving as an academic administrator broadens one’s perspectives on higher education and one’s ability to pursue impactful activities. Through that experience, I realized that I had an aptitude for higher education leadership.”
In her 2018 interview, Dr. Banks credited SWE with starting her on the path to leadership:
“I first learned of my interest in leadership as an undergraduate when I was president of the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Florida.”
She added that, “Since then, I have held leadership roles in the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Engineering Education. All of these experiences have taught me how to effectively build consensus within diverse groups and lead large initiatives.”
Dr. Banks acknowledged the importance of mentors in her leadership journey: “There are many people who have supported and guided me throughout my career, and it would be impossible to name them all … My undergraduate advisor gave me the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research and convinced me to attend graduate school. My mentor in my first academic position encouraged me to enter a new research area, directed me toward funding opportunities, and supported me in leadership roles as the research topic gained international interest. At Purdue, I was mentored by two outstanding deans of engineering, Dean Linda Katehi and Dean Leah Jamieson, and inspired by President France Córdova … I have been very fortunate throughout my career to identify and work with very successful role models.”
On being a trailblazer
In her SWE webinar, Dr. Katehi noted that while many changes have improved conditions for women in engineering since she entered the field almost 50 years ago, she is sometimes still frustrated with what we have not yet been able to change. “We have made much progress, but there is still much left to do. Fifty years ago, we were asked to go through a dense forest and become trailblazers. Many others came behind and made the path wider so that it’s now a highway. Young women think the highway continues forever, but it stops somewhere, and you must be prepared so that when you find yourself at the end of the highway, you must persevere to make it easier for those who come after.”
Peggy Layne, P.E., F.SWE, is former assistant provost and director of the ADVANCE program at Virginia Tech. She holds degrees in environmental and water resources engineering and science and technology studies. She is the editor of Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers and Women in Engineering: Professional Life (ASCE Press, 2009). A Fellow of the Society of Women Engineers, Layne served as SWE FY97 president.
Career Pathways and Trajectories
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|Name||Year Profiled||Dean Institution||Descipline||Current||Other Positions|
|Eleanor Baum||2002||Cooper Union, 1985-2010||Electrical||Retired||Previously dean at Pratt 1985-1997, retired|
|Linda P. B. Katehi||2002||Purdue University 2002-2006||Electrical||Dist prof Texas A&M||Provost Illinois 2006-09, chancellor UC Davis 2009-2016,|
|Denice D. Denton||2003||University of Washington, 1996-2005||Electrical||Deceased||Chancellor UCSC 2005-06, deceased|
|Ilene Busch-Vishniac||2003||Johns Hopkins University, 1998-2003||Mechanical||Chief Innovation Officer, Sonavi Labs||Provost McMaster, president U Saskatchewan 2012-14|
|Janie Fouke||2004||Michigan State University, 1999-2005||Biomedical||Dean, Nanyang Tech U, Singapore||Provost U Florida 2005-2008|
|Belle Wei||2004||San Jose State University, 2002-2012||Electrical||Chair, Center for Advancing Women in Technology, Professor of Engineering Education & Innovative Learning, SJSU||Provost Cal State Chico 2012-14|
|Zorica Pantic||2005||University of Texas, San Antonio, 2001-2005||Electrical||Higher education consultant||President Wentworth Inst Tech 2005 – 2019|
|Cheryl B. Schrader||2005||Boise State University, 2003-2011||Electrical||Retired||Chancellor MO S&T 2012-17, president Wright State 2017-19|
|Zulma Toro-Ramos||2005||Wichita State University, 2005-2013||Industrial||President, Central Conn State 2017-||Chancellor UPR Mayaguez 1999-2001, dean New Haven 2001-05, provost U Ark Little Rock 2013-17,|
|Linda C. Lucas||2006||University of Alabama, Birmingham, 2001-2012||Biomedical||Retired||Provost UAB 2012-17|
|Linda Abriola||2006||Tufts University, 2003-2015||Environmental||Sorensen Family Professor of Engineering, Brown University||Institute director & university professor at Tufts 2016-21|
|Kristina M Johnson||2007||Duke University, 1999-2007||Electrical||President, The Ohio State University||Provost JHU 2007-2009, under sec DOE 2009-2010, chancellor SUNY 2017-2020|
|Pamela A. Eibeck||2007||Texas Tech University, 2004-2009||Mechanical||Retired||President U Pacific 2009-19|
|Esin Gulari||2007||Clemson University, 2006-2012||Chemical||Retired||Director, Chemical & Transport Systems Division and acting assistant director for engineering at NSF, 2000-2004; professor, Wayne State University, 1979-2000|
|Susan M. Blanchard||2008||Florida Gulf Coast University, 2005-2012||Biomedical||Retired||Professor, NCSU, 1993-2005; Research associate & assistant research professor, Duke, 1983-1993|
|Sallie Ann Keller||2008||Rice University, 2005-2010||Statistics||Division director, Biocomplexity Institute, UVA||IDA director 2010-12, provost Waterloo 2012-13|
|Candis S Claiborn||2008||Washington State University, 2006-2016||Chemical||Professor and dean emeritus||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, Washington State University 1991-2016|
|Cherrice Traver||2009||Union College, 2005-2011||Electrical||Distinguished professor, Union College||Professor, Union College, 1986 – present|
|Deirdre Meldrum||2009||Arizona State University, 2007-2011||Electrical||Distinguished professor, Arizona State||Professor, University of Washington, 1992-2006|
|Dianne Dorland||2010||Rowan University, 2000-2010||Chemical||Retired||Professor, University of Minnesota Duluth, 1986-2000|
|Sandra Woods||2010||Oregon State, 2012-2014||Civil||Retired||Professor, Oregon State, 1984-2001; department head Colorado State, 2001-2005; dean Colorado State 2005 – 2012|
|Leah H. Jamieson||2011||Purdue University, 2006-2017||Electrical||Distinguished professor, Purdue||Professor, Purdue, 1976 – present|
|Sarah A Rajala||2012||Iowa State, 2013-2019||Electrical||Retired||Professor, NCSU, 1979-2006; dean MS State 2008 – 2013|
|Laura J. Steinberg||2012||Syracuse University, 2008-2014||Civil||Executive director, Institute for Integrated Science and Society, Boston College 2020-||Professor, Tulane University, 1995-2006; Professor & department chair, SMU, 2006-2008|
|Kathleen A. Kramer||2013||Director of Engineering, Univ of San Diego, 2004-2013||Electrical||Professor, University of San Diego||Professor, University of San Diego, 2004 –|
|Cristina H. Amon||2013||University of Toronto, 2006-2019||Mechanical||Distinguished professor, U Toronto||Professor, Carnegie Mellon University, 1988-2006|
|Debra Larson||2015||California Polytechnic State Univ SLO, 2011-2017||Civil||Provost, Cal State U Chico 2017-||Professor, department chair, associate dean, associate vice provost, Northern Arizona U, 1994-2011|
|Robin Coger||2016||North Carolina A&T, 2012-||Mechanical||Dean, NCA&T||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, UNC Charlotte, 1996-2011|
|Gilda A. Barabino||2016||City College CUNY, 2013-2020||Biomedical||President Olin College 2020-||Professor, Northeastern University, 1989-2007; professor Georgia Tech 2007-2013|
|Nada Marie Assaf-Anid||2017||New York Institute of Technology, 2009-2018||Chemical||VP Strategic Communications 2018-||Professor and department chair, Manhattan College, 1994-2009|
|Elaine P. Scott||2017||Santa Clara University, 2019-||Electrical||Dean, Santa Clara University||Director, eng prog Seattle Pacific 2006-2012, dean UW Bothel 2012-19|
|Katherine M. Banks||2018||Texas A&M University, 2012-2021||Civil||President, TAMU 2021-||Assistant & associate professor, Kansas State University, 1989-1997; Professor & department head, Purdue, 1997-2012|
|Sharon L. Wood P.E.||2018||University of Texas at Austin, 2013-2021||Civil||Provost, U Texas Austin 2021-||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, University of Illinois 1986-1996; professor & department head, U Texas, 1996-2013|
|Emily L. Allen||2019||California State University, Los Angeles, 2013-||Material science||Dean, Cal State LA||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, department chair, associate dean, San Jose State, 1992-2013|
|Barbara D. Boyan||2019||Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013-||Biomedical||Dean, VCU||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, U Texas San Antonio, 1981-2002; professor & associate dean, Georgia Tech, 2002-2012|
|Julia M. Ross||2020||Virginia Tech, 2014-||Chemical||Dean, Virginia Tech||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, department chair, UMBC, 1995-2014; dean UMBC 2014 – 2017|
|Jenna P. Carpenter||2020||Campbell University, 2015-||Math||Dean, Campbell U||Assistant professor, associate professor, professor, associate dean, Louisiana Tech, 1989-2015|