In 2002, I was asked to advise the search committee for the Dean of Engineering at Princeton University on what they should be looking for in their next dean. At the time, I was Dean of Science at my favorite university, the University of British Columbia, in my favorite city, Vancouver. Of course I said yes. Who wouldn’t want to give Princeton advice? I carefully read the materials that were sent and enjoyed the conversation with the committee.
For the next few weeks, I kept thinking about the interesting challenges at Princeton. Finally, I asked my husband, also an academic computer scientist, if I was nuts to be thinking about applying for the job. I wasn’t an engineer, I’d never been at an Ivy League institution, and I was Canadian through and through. My husband suggested that I call Bob, a close friend and computer scientist, on the search committee to ask him what he thought.
Bob didn’t say a word when I asked if there was any chance that Princeton might consider me. Then I mentioned that Princeton would have to be willing to hire my husband Nick as well. Bob blurted out,“The computer science department already discussed that,” and then, “we just couldn’t figure out how to get you out of Vancouver.”
In deciding whether to apply, I kept coming back to my life goal: To make the culture of science and engineering supportive of everyone with ability and interest, independent of gender, race or anything else. After 14 years at the University of British Columbia, I’d learned how difficult it is to influence the culture of science and engineering from Canada. At Princeton, leading effective change would have a much bigger impact. Yet, my heart was committed to UBC and Vancouver. In the end, I decided to lean in and apply.
During my first visit, several female Princeton faculty told me rather disturbing stories about their experiences. When we met the next day, they wondered if the stories had lessened my interest. I said no, it made the job more interesting since clearly change was needed. In my second visit, I met with the president, Shirley Tilghman, an academic leader who shares my passion for increasing diversity in science and engineering. I made the decision during that meeting that I would immediately accept the job if offered, in spite of being heartbroken about leaving Vancouver and terrified of going to Princeton. A few days later Shirley phoned to offer me the position and I said yes.
The transition to Princeton was extremely difficult but also a wonderful learning experience. We worked with faculty, staff, students and alumni to create a strategic vision that still guides the engineering school. Many of the issues faced by female faculty and students were addressed. Being at Princeton dramatically increased the power of my voice and ability to effect change. And it led to my favorite job ever, President of Harvey Mudd College, the best place for undergraduate science and engineering education on earth.