Content warning: This article contains a reference to suicide.
Update: Dr. Maria Klawe has formally withdrawn from the Presidential Search process as of Thursday, March 17.
By Rebecca Briesmoore and Brian Wagenaar
Dr. Maria Klawe, one of three finalists for Western’s presidency and the current President of Harvey Mudd College (HMC), a science and engineering focused school located in Claremont, California that is part of the Claremont Colleges system, was on campus Wednesday, March 9 for Western stakeholder sessions. Her packed day included a midday session with students.
Student Government Association (SGA) President Adam Engleman, the sole student representative on Western’s Presidential Search Committee, introduced Dr. Klawe to a group of roughly 15 assembled students (that slowly shrank over the course of the hour as students ventured off to other duties across campus).
SGA President Engleman and Director of Business Services Sherry Ford reminded students to provide anonymous feedback on Dr. Klawe, along with the other candidates, on the school’s search website.
Dr. Klawe’s survey will close at midnight on Saturday, with feedback presented to the Board of Trustees at their March 24 meeting on campus, when the Board is expected to announce a presidential decision.
Dr. Klawe’s background
At the session’s opening, Dr. Klawe took a few minutes to introduce herself, noting that students typically refer to her as “Maria,” “President Maria,” or, occasionally, and in jest, “President Klaw.” She described herself openly as a computer science and math geek.
Dr. Klawe turned to her background in academia, which has included more than 30 years of teaching, research, and administration at the University of British Columbia, Princeton University, and HMC. Dr. Klawe received her Ph.D in Math from the University of Alberta, and went on to lead math and computer science research teams at IBM’s San Jose campus.
Having been at HMC for more than 15 years, she felt as though the school was in strong standing, and that now would be the ideal time to move on and seek a new, exciting opportunity. To that end, Dr. Klawe notified the college of her intention to step down after her current contract expires in June 2023, if not sooner depending on search results.
Dr. Klawe said that despite her long and storied career, and having recently turned 70, she would prefer not to retire, opting to carry on her work in academia leading institutions and working with students. She listed the snowy climate and surrounding mountain beauty as top reasons for her interest in Western, adding that she took up skiing at the age of 59 and has become rather competent after more than a decade of continued practice.
Dr. Klawe also cited the fact that Western offers programs in both the liberal arts and science and engineering as critical to her interest, and mentioned that HMC, despite its reputation as a top tier STEM school (with a recent history of campus debate around curriculum alterations in the wake of reports of mental health impacts) requires students to take a third of their coursework in liberal arts disciplines.
Dr. Klawe closed her opening remarks by emphasizing her love for student interaction, and stressing her role as a mentor that now spans three academic institutions, with many of those mentor-mentee relationships still going strong.
The student reaction
Bailey Simon, a Math major from Westminster minoring in Data Analytics, Business Analytics, and Economics, was impressed by Dr. Klawe. “I like her, she’s definitely qualified, and very personable,” says Simon. Simon is looking for a president who supports diversity and makes students feel heard and respected, and believes that Dr. Klawe fits the bill. “I think Dr. Klawe is going to make an effort to improve Western and put students and faculty first,” says Simon.
When Simon first came to Western, she felt that there was a consistent high stress and nerve-racking vibe on campus. Simon thinks Dr. Klawe can address these issues and acknowledge them, rather than pushing them under the rug. “We’ll know we made a good choice in choosing the president by the general vibe on campus,” says Simon.
Simon is concerned about a possible rift between Rady School students and students in other programs and departments, and wants the next president to bring unity to Western, and so she asked Dr. Klawe how she would bridge that gap. Dr. Klawe responded by saying she would implement a program to give students a dual major option that would include both STEM and music components.
Simon, who also plays euphonium in the symphonic band, was pleased with Dr. Klawe’s answer. “It’s important to have the opportunity to take more art classes as a non-arts major, it makes a student more balanced,” says Simon.
Several students asked questions in a similar vein. They wanted to know where Dr. Klawe’s priorities would lie if selected, and how she would seek to unite Western and fend against biases towards certain sects of campus, a frequent complaint against former President Dr. Greg Salsbury.
While Simon was unable to attend the first student input session for candidate Brad Baca, she says she will research the other candidates to formulate a more informed opinion. However, Simon believes any of the three candidates would be a good option, and is pleased that all three have backgrounds in education.
“I think the education background is the most important thing for me,” says Simon. Simon’s only concern with Dr. Klawe is that she is new to Western’s community, but believes she could overcome that disadvantage by learning quickly on the job. “Dr. Klawe is new [here] and doesn’t know the school, but it seems like she is willing to learn and listen to other people.”
Rosalinda Van Dyke, a Communications major from Colorado Springs minoring in Spanish and Public Relations, was less impressed with Dr. Klawe. “I don’t know if she’s the right fit for what we’re looking for at Western,” says Van Dyke.
Dr. Klawe has worked at several different schools and Van Dyke says that is a good attribute that probably helps her better understand students, but felt that Dr. Klawe didn’t stress a commitment to making students feel heard. “I think she lacked enthusiasm. There could have been more enthusiasm with the role and speaking about Western,” she adds.
Van Dyke wants the next president to be different from former President Salsbury. She thinks Dr. Klawe may not be the right fit for Western because she is quiet and reserved, similar to former President Salsbury. “I don’t know if she’s what we’re looking for, especially coming off our last president, [former President Salsbury]. We need someone with a lot more enthusiasm and excitement.”
She was also frustrated by Dr. Klawe’s responses to questions and her non-verbal communication. “I don’t think she was giving us real answers about what she could do to improve Western,” says Van Dyke. Van Dyke feels Dr. Klawe’s non-verbal communication could have been stronger and that she circled around the questions. “She could have been more engaging. It felt like she didn’t want to talk to us,” adds Van Dyke.
There are three primary priorities Van Dyke wants to see in the next president: supporting diversity on campus, being involved in student events, and being enthusiastic about the duties of President. Van Dyke, who is Latina and an active member of the Multicultural Center’s Amigos Club on campus, wants the next president to care about students who aren’t represented well at Western and make concrete plans to diversify the school.
“Our next president needs to see their privilege and know that’s okay, but do something to help people who aren’t privileged,” says Van Dyke. She also wants to see the new president around campus. “Their face needs to be seen at events on campus, even for just a few minutes to say hi. It’s important to make it known that you care about students and want to come to our events.”
Van Dyke also participated in the first session for Brad Baca and thinks Dr. Klawe fell short in comparison to Baca. She acknowledges that Baca has been at Western for many years, but wishes Dr. Klawe would have done more research about Western to answer the questions more completely. Overall, Van Dyke felt Dr. Klawe left something to be desired. “I think there could have been more. She could have been doing more to make us excited and happy to hire her,” says Van Dyke.
Student questions: Diversity, student experience, and programming
Dr. Klawe fielded a series of questions over the remainder of the hour, on topics ranging from personal values, the balance of science and technology with liberal arts, diversity and inclusivity, and her ideal vision for Western’s future.
When prompted to define student success, Dr. Klawe stressed the importance of students feeling a sense of belonging on campus, and cited HMC’s diverse student body as a testament to her leadership, and the strength of that institution.
According to information on the college provided by Data USA, Harvey Mudd’s 900-person student body is roughly 30 percent White, 19 percent Asian, 19 percent Hispanic or Latino, 10 percent identifying as two or more races, and four percent Black.
Dr. Klawe says that improving the school’s diversity profile in the last 16 years has been one of her strongest accomplishments. She notes that over her tenure, while the number of diverse students has grown substantially, the school’s acceptance rate has gone from the mid-30s to its current rate in the low teens.
HMC and Dr. Klawe, however, have not been exempt from recent controversy. The Claremont College’s paper, The Student Life, reported on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, ongoing struggles for equal rights, and perceived shortfalls of Dr. Klawe and the college as a whole on racial matters in July 2020:
“Black Lives at Mudd, HMC Take a Stand, the Living-Learning Community and ASHMC criticized Mudd President Maria Klawe’s first statement released on June 1, which did not mention Black Lives Matter, use the words “Black” or “police” or reference any of the names of Black people killed by police,” reported The Student Life.
The piece went on to articulate students’ desire to see the school hire a Black Studies faculty member, hold additional workshops and training about race, and take other direct measures to advance equity on campus.
The Student Life also reported that Dr. Klawe was open to discussions on racial issues, and noted her success in achieving diversity across different facets of campus, including boosting the school’s female student population, from 29 percent upon her arrival to 50 percent by 2020.
Referencing her efforts to diversify Harvey Mudd at the student session, Dr. Klawe says that she placed an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training for the entire community, including students, faculty and staff, administration, and the school’s Board of Trustees.
She added that she oversaw the creation and expansion of specific programs that engage underrepresented students in science and engineering conferences and mentorships, and worked hard to hire diverse faculty. Speaking frankly, Dr. Klawe says that “every country is racist,” and that in order to achieve both equity and diversity, institutions must be willing to undergo self-examination and change their culture and operations.
Dr. Klawe told the gathered Western students at the session that while important, academic success is not the only consideration for everyone: “I do want students to succeed academically, but I don’t want them to feel like a failure if this is not the time or place for them to succeed.” Dr. Klawe admits that her current school is not for everyone, but that she believes that meeting students’ needs is the most important function of a university.
But Reporting by The Student Life in 2017 brought light to a particularly rough year for the college, in the wake of multiple student deaths, including by suicide. Dr. Klawe said that she experienced nightmares every night for a month after the conclusion of the 2016-17 academic year.
From the article:
“The meme was that the Claremont Colleges are so hostile to students of color that they have to commit suicide to get attention,” Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College’s president, told NPR Thursday.
In an interview about the college’s past academic year, which she called “horrible” and “definitely the hardest” in her career, Klawe traced the reaction of her administration to student deaths, political unrest, and “a list of 60 students” bordering on mental breakdown or suicide.
In March, an external report of the college’s workload and academic climate was obtained and published by TSL. In the report, anonymous students described a culture of insecurity and overwork that strained their ability to eat, sleep, or shower.”The Student Life, August 3, 2017
Asked about ensuring a quality student experience at Western, Dr. Klawe cited her work at HMC more than quadrupling the Student Affairs staff, expanding student mentorship programs in residences, and dramatically overhauling the school’s orientation program with the aid of student input, stamping out what she believes was previously a program that encouraged hazing of new students.
Dr. Klawe says that one of her strongest assets is her will to experiment with problems and issues, changing programs to suit student, staff, and faculty needs, receiving critical feedback, and working through stubborn problems over time.
Posed with a student question about retaining Western’s high acceptance rate and openness to admit a wide variety of students, Dr. Klawe wouldn’t promise to keep the school’s admittance rate steady (it sits at right around 88 percent currently, per US News). She noted that if the school is operating at a 97 percent acceptance rate, the statistic initially referenced by the student, it leaves little room for institutional growth and flexibility in making admittance decisions.
That question dovetailed into a follow-up on Dr. Klawe’s vision for Western in the next five to ten years. Dr. Klawe was upfront about her visions for growth at Western, offering that the school needs to grow to attain long-term financial viability, and ultimately to best serve students.
After examining the school’s finances, Dr. Klawe would hit the ground running on fundraising for more faculty and staff, investing in facilities and buildings, and the pressing issue of student and faculty housing. Dr. Klawe envisions a Western that grows its student population by five percent per year, adding more than 100 students annually.
Housing was top of mind for Dr. Klawe and for the assembled students. In the previous 50 years, Western’s student enrollment has not trended upward over time (in fact, full-time undergraduate enrollment is down slightly in recent years), and yet, Gunnison faces a housing shortage that has been exacerbated in recent times, increasing the cost of living within the county and straining Western’s community.
This has made it difficult to attract students, faculty, and staff, especially those from diverse backgrounds. Various options for building more student and faculty housing are being explored, but have run into a slew of financial, legal, and logistical barriers in recent times.
When discussing programmatic decisions, and especially the arts, Dr. Klawe noted repeatedly that she is a big proponent of joint major programs, which would pair up liberal arts and humanities majors like art, psychology, and music with more technical disciplines like computer science, math, physics, and engineering to create well-rounded students.
Dr. Klawe noted that half of HMC’s students are musicians. “Everyone can benefit from playing music, and singing, and writing music,” she said, adding that successfully marketing these dual-focus programs is the key to success.
Addressing questions about her campus vision and the current state of Western’s discourse and campus climate, Dr. Klawe said that if selected as President, she would promptly launch a strategic planning process that would engage all aspects of Western’s community: alumni and donors, the Gunnison community, faculty and staff, and of course, the students.
She believes that trust-building measures are sorely needed before real progress can begin with larger initiatives, adding that Western’s campus is currently in the process of healing after a period of prolonged administrative turbulence and shaken faith. Her vision includes a publicly available planning document, with annual, transparent reports on the school’s progress.
Dr. Klawe’s student session concluded with her promising a high degree of visibility on campus, and offering to host office hours in the UC, with the addition that she wants to hear from students about the best methods to engage with campus.
She also said that if selected, her first six months of her tenure would be marked by a high level of campus engagement, before later embarking on the kind of travel necessary to fundraise, liaise with state leaders, and serve the university’s broader vision.
Dr. Michelle Rogers’ student session was held on Thursday, March 10 in the Savage Library. After spring break, Western’s Board of Trustees will be on campus Thursday, March 24 to hear final considerations and reports from AGB Search, and announce Western’s new President.