Imagining More

Installation of Laurie Leshin as 16th president brings praise, a surprise, and a vision for the future

November 10, 2014
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Laurie A. Leshin, WPI’s 16th president

Laurie A. Leshin was formally installed as the 16th president of WPI Saturday in a two-hour inaugural ceremony in the Sports and Recreation Center that drew an audience of 1,500 who heard praise for the university from academic, political, and business leaders, in addition to hearing Leshin’s vision for the future.

The space-inspired program was kicked off by a procession from the Rubin Campus Center led by faculty marshal and WPI provost Eric Overström and the ROTC Color Guard. They were followed by President Leshin, the six Presidential Medal recipients, delegates from more than 70 colleges, universities, and learned societies, as well as WPI faculty and academic department heads. The brick walkways of the Quad were lined by faculty, students, and friends as the procession wound its way into the Sports and Recreation Center.

Philip B. Ryan, former interim president and chairman of the Board of Trustees, acted as master of ceremonies, introducing those to be honored, musical performances the program’s speakers. Among the speakers was U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, who recalled visiting the campus during his senate campaign last year to receive the endorsement of former president Bill Clinton.

“President Leshin, I am thrilled that you are leading this wonderful institution,” he said. “Next year WPI will celebrate its 150th year. What a message this sends to all our promising young women, to see this engineering and technology powerhouse led by a brilliant woman.”

Markey said that only a couple of weeks ago he visited WPI and toured the robotics lab with fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. James McGovern, where they learned of the potential for using robots to work in Ebola hotspots in Africa, as well as other potentially useful applications of WPI technologies.

“At President Leshin’s request, I have asked the Obama Administration to establish a Center of Excellence for first responder technology within the Department of Homeland Security, and to name WPI as the lead institution in the United States of America,” he said, to rousing applause.

During a video in which students at several of WPI’s project centers voiced their best wishes to the new president, the scene shifted to outer space, where NASA Astronaut Reid Wiseman sent congratulations from his post aboard the International Space Station, concluding with a “Woo hoo!” and turning a slow, weightless backflip. President Leshin is both a former NASA administrator and a self-proclaimed “space nerd.”

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey

During her stint at the podium, Leshin presented the WPI Presidential Medal to Barbara Barrett, chairman of the Aerospace Corp. and former U.S. Ambassador to Finland; Tarek Al-Shawaf ‘55, founder and chairman of Saudconsult, the largest private engineering and architectural company in Saudi Arabia; Mariko Silver, president of Bennington College; Subra Suresh, former director of the National Science Foundation and president of Carnegie Mellon University; Wanda Austin, president and CEO of the Aerospace Corp.; and Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel.

In addition to receiving her medal, Barrett offered her own comments, saying that solutions developed by WPI will help determine the future of the planet.

From curing disease to protecting the environment to securing our national defense to alleviating poverty – the world looks to universities like WPI for ideas and leadership, for intellect matched by character, theory matched by practice, and for both the microscope and the telescope,” she said.

“Just over a hundred years ago, these halls were walked by Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry. One hundred years from now, people will remark that WPI was the home of President Laurie Leshin.”

In turn, Leshin lauded the women pioneers who have joined WPI over the last decades.

“If you visit the president’s office webpage, you will see images of all of WPI’s presidents beginning with Charles O. Thompson in 1865,” she said. “Fifteen presidents later, it ends with a picture that looks a little different from all the others—and it’s not just because I don’t have muttonchops. I will admit that it is striking to see my portrait next to the other WPI Presidents for many reasons, but I am deeply honored to join their ranks, and to be the first woman to serve as president of WPI.”

WPI’s women pioneers

The president singled out Lesley Small Zorabedian, the first woman to earn an undergraduate degree from WPI in 1972; Barbara Murphy, the first woman faculty member at WPI; Maryann Bagdis, now Mary Ann Goebel, WPI’s first female student; Jo Ann Manfra, a historian and the first female faculty member to earn tenure at WPI; and Judy Nitsch, the first WPI alumna elected to the board of trustees.

One hundred years from now, people will remark that WPI was the home of President Laurie Leshin.
Barbara Barrett
Presidential Medal Recipient

“I am so proud to stand on the shoulders of these remarkable women who lived moments of courage and refused to accept the status quo,” she said.

And looking to the future, Leshin recounted President John F. Kennedy’s seemingly audacious goal in 1961 of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within the decade.

“Reflecting on his declaration, I am inspired to ask: Can we be just as bold, and just as audacious as we imagine more for the future of WPI? Can we? I believe we can, and we should.”

She said that WPI should set for itself the goal of becoming the premier global polytechnic, not by focusing only on the number of well-educated STEM graduates it produces, nor the number of research grants it receives, but by the positive impact that its students and faculty have around the world. Impact, she said, could be viewed as the university’s “third tower,” along with theory and practice.

“If we ask ourselves today, what the world needs from higher education, what the world needs from STEM professionals, what the world needs from WPI – today, the world needs us to focus on impact and outcomes, now more than ever.”

When WPI students and faculty set out to solve real world problems—whether improving living conditions in Namibia, or alleviating poverty in Paraguay, or preserving the endangered canals of Venice—they start by asking themselves how they can create a solution that is truly responsive to the goals of the project and, most important, to the needs of the community they are trying to serve, she said. This project-centered approach can be applied to the university itself, and in the coming week the university will launch six project teams – or “ignite teams”—that will help illuminate the future path, taking on several strategic areas for planning and advancement.

“First, I believe we must commit ourselves to make it possible for all undergraduates to have the opportunity to pursue at least one of their projects off-campus,” Leshin said. “By making this possible for every student, WPI will lead a new movement in STEM education, one that makes deep global engagement the way we teach and learn STEM, not just a single option among many, or an opportunity only for those who can afford it.”

A second strategic area is to strive for more integration across disciplines and exploring innovative ways to enable students to achieve more during their time here, and incorporating technology into the teaching and learning experience.

A third area is to make the research enterprise and PhD programs larger, of higher quality, and more distinctively WPI. This will entail making some strategic choices about scholarly areas focusing on world class impact, including robotics and cyber-physical systems, medical devices and bioengineering, transformational materials, fire protection engineering and data science.

“The idea that our students only need to spend a few years with us and then are set for their careers, frankly, is an outdated way of thinking. The premier global polytechnic recognizes that technological education continues for a lifetime.”

Enhancing opportunities

Another area she outlined involves expanding and enhancing graduate and professional education opportunities, leveraging technology, introducing innovations in teaching and learning, and combining new research and knowledge across disciplines. “This year we will engage 1,500 students through our online and blended program offerings,” she said. “If we want to enable learners everywhere to increase their impact in technological fields, we must live our value of lifelong learning.”

Leshin called for what she termed a “thriving engine of innovation and entrepreneurship,” focused on translating WPI’s scholarship and creativity, research and projects, into impact.

“Many of the ideas I have just shared will come together in a splendid new place, right in the heart of our campus, when we transform the iconic Alumni Gym into the Robert A. Foisie Innovation Studio,” she said. “This marvelous facility will give our students and faculty the tools they need to pursue their ideas to the fullest, tools like a robotics laboratory, project team collaboration spaces, and a makerspace for prototype development. The Innovation Studio will also house a business development accelerator, which students, faculty, and alumni can use to bring their ideas to fruition.

“By providing a new home for innovators right in the center of our campus, I see the Studio as being the physical embodiment of our third tower: of impact.”

President Leshin in the processional crossing the Quad

The Innovation Studio is named for one of WPI’s greatest supporters, Robert A. Foisie ’56. But Leshin announced that The Alden Trust has recently committed $3 million toward the creation of the Innovation Studio. The gift comes in the form of a challenge – in order to receive the $3 million, the WPI community needs to raise $9 million.

“So, creating greater opportunity for our students to pursue projects off campus, elevating our undergraduate programs, making strategic choices about research focus areas, putting innovation at the heart of what we do, and making WPI a great place to live, learn, and innovate—all in the quest to become the premier global polytechnic: no big deal, right?

“Actually, this is a big, challenging, exciting deal. It will take great imagination and creativity to go through this process of reflection on our past, to assess the opportunities of the present, and to achieve our goals for the future of this great university.”

In her concluding remarks, Leshin said that students will graduate and leave WPI, but their experiences will always remain a part of them. “But here’s what I have already learned — WPI never leaves you. This place. This commitment. These people. We will always be here to support you, and whenever you leave us to go do good in the world, we will eagerly await your return. And if you are anything like our alumni, you will return. Because WPI is home.”