Leadership & Governance

When the President's Presence Sends a Message  

Laurie A. Leshin, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

April 08, 2015

Video produced by Julia Schmalz and Lisa Philip

Laurie A. Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is a space scientist and the first woman to lead WPI. She visited The Chronicle to talk about her nontraditional path to the presidency, the importance of female leaders in higher education, and what makes the high-pressure job of college president worth it.“Evidence shows that we need role models, we need critical mass, we need people to see what's possible,” Ms. Leshin said of female presidents as mentors." 


AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: Today we have with us Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Laurie, thank you so much for coming today.

LAURIE LESHIN: It's a pleasure to be here.

About This Series

The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 

AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: Many presidents work their way up the academic ladder, all the way up to provost and then they become president, but that traditional career path is not a part of your story. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how your background, which includes working inside and outside of higher education, affects the way you view the presidency and the way that you approach getting things done.

LAURIE LESHIN: Thanks for the question, I do have a bit of a different background. I was not a provost. My last academic job was as a dean, but I did have a lot of leadership experience during my time in government. Before I left academia to join the government I actually did have a very traditional academic path though. I actually started answering phones at the local university in the registrar's office when I was 16 years old.

So, I didn't work in fast food, I worked on university campuses. I've really grown up with them. But had the opportunity to get some great experience as a federal employee at NASA for six years leading large and complex scientific organizations, working at the very top of the human spaceflight program. And so really got to work on very complex problems, got to work on very complex budgets, got to work in highly political environments, and on discoveries and activities that are really at the forefront of innovation.

So in some ways there's a lot of commonality with leading a technological university but the best part is that the students are added back in. And that's the part I really missed about being in the government. So, being back in academia is great. I get to use the skills I learned in leading large, complex organizations but get to do so in a way that really benefits the future innovators of our country.

AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: And what was the learning curve like when you first started as president? And what kind of things did you do to get up to speed quickly?

LAURIE LESHIN: So, I am just coming to the end of my first year, so I'm really feeling like I'm still on that learning curve. I'm someone who loves drinking from the fire hose though. One of the things I love about my job and many of the jobs that I've had is that you do get to learn all the time about things you don't know about. Whether it's faculty research in an area that you're not familiar with, or in the presidency I would say for me the biggest learning curve is the non-academic side of the activities. Because as a dean-- I was formerly a dean at Rensselaer-- got very close to the academic programs, but as president you get calls in the middle of the night about student life, activities, things that might have been happening.

It's like being a mayor of a small town, I have 2000 people living on the campus, and a police force, and lots of things that you don't necessarily get that experience with coming up through the academic side. And so that for me has been the biggest learning curve. What I've done to really get familiar with that is just talk to people, just listen a lot. Spent a lot of time with all of our staff and did lots of staff retreats where I heard a lot about what had worked well in the past, maybe where we missed the mark in the past, what do we see as our opportunities for the future. Did those kind of conversations in lots of groups with faculty, and we've used those to set the direction for our strategic planning activity that's going on right now.

AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: So you're the first woman president at WPI, and that's obviously a milestone in and of itself, but even with the progress that we've had in higher education where more and more campuses are hiring women leaders, only one in four college presidents is a woman. And I'm wondering what you think it will take to really move the needle when it comes to women leaders in higher education.

LAURIE LESHIN: I mean, I think we're getting there. I think 25% is making quite a lot of progress. That's really getting better, but there's more work to do. I have to say it's one of the things that surprised me when my appointment as president of WPI was announced-- the fact that there was so much focus on the fact that I am the first woman, because I mean we're a technological university and so at some level that's what makes it more interesting. But Susan Hockfield at MIT, and Shirley Jackson at RPI, and Maria Klawe at Harvey Mudd have all been at this a while so I'm certainly not the first woman president of a technological university.

But I have to say that since starting at WPI and since getting to know our community, especially our women students and women faculty, I can see how special it is to them to have a woman in the leadership role and what it means to them to have great opportunities to watch someone in a higher position really, hopefully, do a great job. And I remembered myself how important mentors were in my own history and past, and so I've sort of embraced that opportunity as the first woman president to try to be that role model.

And I think we need those role models. Evidence shows that we need role models, we need critical mass, we need people to see what's possible. And so I'm happy to be able to provide that opportunity for the women of WPI, but also the men of WPI. I think the idea of our wonderful male students getting to see women in leadership positions in technological organizations can only help with some of the challenges that we all know are out there in the tech industry.

AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: And now that you're president and you're able to see things from a different vantage point, how does that make the advice that you give to men women that you mentor different than what it might have been before?

LAURIE LESHIN: I've always been someone who appreciates the idea of context. Of trying to-- for whoever you're providing advice to-- help them see the bigger picture, help them see the broader context of that advice. From the role of president you get a very big context, both of the entire organization but also of higher education in general, of science and technology in general, and where our fields are going. And so I do think it allows me to give better advice.

But actually that's the thing that drew me to WPI in the first place is that WPI is a place that values that broader context. It's a place that values putting science, and technology, and engineering in real world context. Our students work all over the world. And so part of our whole approach to education is about providing that context. So I'm only one of the context providers at WPI. The work that our students do-- whether it's in Namibia, New Zealand, or Worcester-- is providing them that real world context to use STEM to make a difference.

AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: If someone came to you and said, you know, I'm kind of on the fence about whether or not I should pursue the presidency. Because they're thinking about how this is a job where you're constantly under the microscope and you're responding to constituents externally and internally. It appears to be an around the clock job. What would you say to them, particularly a woman, to get the message across that the good of this job outweighs the bad?

LAURIE LESHIN: It's a great job. I'm pinching myself every day. There are days when it is around the clock and 24/7. And it always has the potential of being that around the clock and 24/7 because again, things happen. In the middle of the night, whether it's-- in our case one night in the middle the night we got a call from a sister college in Worcester saying, we have a bomb threat. Can we bring a thousand students and let them sleep in your gym overnight? And we said, sure, of course you can. And figured out how to accommodate many of their students that needed a place to stay.

And again, that happens in the middle of the night. But the thing that makes it so wonderful and so compelling is the interaction with faculty, students, and alumni. And it's just the love that people have for their college and their institution makes it worth working hard for. That's what I always say, it's a job where it's easy to work hard because the students, faculty, and alumni make it so.

AUDREY WILLIAMS JUNE: Laurie, thank you so much for coming, I've enjoyed the conversation.



Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at audrey.june@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.