Feature left bracketright bracket Spring 2022

Many Giant Leaps for WPI

As WPI says goodbye to President Laurie Leshin, community members highlight areas of lasting impact.

President Laurie Leshin

When Laurie Leshin arrived at WPI in 2014 to serve as WPI’s 16th president—a position previously held only by men—she brought with her an esteemed track record as a geochemist and NASA space scientist. Her new assignment was as weighty as it was exciting, even for someone with her formidable academic and leadership experience. With a sharp focus on gender parity in STEM, many eyes were on her.

In eight short years, Leshin’s vision and guidance—historically rooted and future focused—have transformed the look and feel of WPI, enhancing and burnishing the university’s distinguishing qualities until they shined unmistakably brighter and assumed a more prominent spot in the nation’s college landscape.

With the help and support of the WPI community, Leshin purposefully positioned WPI into the orbits of audiences both local and far outside New England. She steadily focused on elevating the essential, immediate foundation of what makes WPI so distinctive: a project-based approach with equal parts teaching and research by devoted faculty and staff. Research funding has more than doubled since 2014, validating the work, caliber, and innovation of ideas pursued here and providing unmatched opportunities for students.

President Leshin and Gompei

She’s also paved the way for others, particularly women, to benefit from opportunities a STEM university provides. Leshin was at the helm when the university achieved a milestone: admitting a class that was close to half women for the first time ever. When she arrived at WPI, 32% of the first-year class were women. Eight years later, that number has grown to nearly 40%, putting WPI among the STEM universities that enroll some of the highest percentages of women. A new and more equitable promotion process has helped more women achieve tenure and/or full professor ranking.

And the university was recognized nationally for its progress in other areas. In 2020 and 2021, WPI received the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, which honors U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.

As a university president, Leshin believes in visibility. Savvy and prolific on social media, she delights in engaging a wide audience to share the pure joy of STEM advances. Whether geeking out over the Mars rover she helped launch, congratulating WPI colleagues for their successes, snapping prez selfies with students, highlighting the growth of the campus infrastructure with the grand openings of new research facilities (Innovation Studio and Unity Hall—and the Seaport District facility in 2018), or throwing in an occasional shot of her beloved Corgi, SpacePup Hudson, Leshin’s ease made her, and WPI, approachable.

And as much as WPI welcomed Leshin in the beginning of her term, the feeling remains mutual. With her self-proclaimed identity as a “space nerd” and her genuine excitement about the very things WPI students love—the potential for space travel, the beautiful symmetry of Lego creations, the giddy joy of interacting with robots—she was easily accepted into the Herd.

Her style fits WPI’s hands-on approach. Known for her laser-sharp attention to detail, she led the university through the completely unknown territory of a global pandemic and a nationwide racial reckoning.

Relying on science and the expertise of her leadership team, Leshin navigated challenges the university community—and she, herself—never could have imagined.

Her unconditional confidence in WPI’s capabilities, her tireless enthusiasm for the university community, and her soul-deep conviction that the work done here will make the world better inspires others. Propelled by that ambitious drive, WPI is looking to the future and is now in the public stages of its largest fundraising campaign ever attempted, with a goal of $500 million from a blend of philanthropy and sponsored research.

As Laurie Leshin readies to leave WPI and become director of the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech (another first female in the role), her imprint will remain.

—Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

A Visible Presence

By Patti Newcomer-Small ’90

Laurie told us that when she first arrived at WPI she was struck by how few women were involved, from leadership at the university to faculty to trustees. She had been a member of a similar organization to the Women’s Impact Network at Arizona State and shared a vision for women as advocates/supporters here. Joan Szkutak ’79, who had recruited me to Procter & Gamble out of college, reached out to me and others and said that we have this new female president who wants to get more women alums involved. Laurie has been an ardent supporter and actively involved in WIN from the beginning.

She prioritized getting more women involved in other areas, too—including recruiting students and senior leadership. To address some of the barriers female faculty face, she changed the way professors are promoted and how they participate in governance. This focus on diversity has made such a big difference in the culture of WPI.

WPI’s profile now versus when she started is crazy amazing. Her leadership during the pandemic and her work on the state level have improved our reputation.

President Leshin and students

I have always lived a flight away from New England and usually nobody in my area has ever heard of WPI. That’s beginning to change because of her efforts.

When I was a student, we knew our professors really well, but we barely knew who the president was or what his vision was for WPI. I only know his name from the signature on my diploma. Laurie participates in WPI traditions and is a visible presence on campus. Students know her. She gets them involved in decision making—and that’s refreshing.

Newcomer-Small is chief marketing officer at FieldRoutes and a member of the Women’s Impact Network.

A Promoter of Equality

By Ama Biney ’18

I started as a student at WPI in the same year that Laurie started as president. As a young woman going to school at a mostly male place, I felt like she promoted equality, and the idea that we’re all on the same level of importance, no matter what your role is on campus.

President Leshin and Ama Biney

I was very involved in athletics—both on the softball and basketball teams—and she would attend our games and tweet about the games or tweet at us directly. It felt great that the president of your college was taking the time to support and understand students.

She is approachable and accessible—our relationship evolved so much so that I asked her for a reference for graduate school and she wrote a great one.

I am a very visual person and I like that I could see myself being represented in President Leshin. I think more people are interested in WPI because they understand there is opportunity for all here.

Biney is a program supplier quality engineer at Raytheon Missiles and Defense. She received her master’s degree in management engineering from The Business School at WPI.

A Focus on Research

By Bogdan Vernescu

When Laurie came to WPI, she realized from the beginning that we had more potential for research than we were actually achieving at that point. One of the first things we did was fully staff the Office of Sponsored Programs to be able to better handle submissions and support growth.

With her previous NASA experience, she suggested we focus on research development to stimulate and support new research. As part of the first strategic plan, she pushed us to set stretch goals for research funding, realizing fully that if we better supported our researchers, those goals would be achievable. She supported the creation of the Research Solutions Institute, our research development group, which is vital for identifying and capturing funding support for new research initiatives. She also suggested and helped fund a seed grant program that created more opportunities for our researchers.

We’ve more than doubled our research funding over the past eight years—and significantly increased the number of patents and licenses—because we provided the right support for faculty and students to be successful, including expanding our research spaces. Laurie was also extremely good at aligning our research goals with the commonwealth’s priorities. Her vision—and her networking—are why we have received millions of dollars from the state of Massachusetts for exciting new facilities such as Practice Point and the Lab for Education and Application Prototypes.

Vernescu is Vice Provost for Research

It’s inspiring for students to come to WPI and see there are successful female faculty here, and it was even better to see a woman running the show.

Suzanne Scarlata

A Place for Women to Advance

Laurie promoted women faculty research efforts at WPI. She considers research at least equal in value to teaching, which I don’t think was the case in the past. She also really made an effort to enhance women’s careers through mechanisms like the Women’s Impact Network, and hosted a reception for female graduating students and women faculty at her house every year. She made WPI feel like a comfortable place for women.

I never had a female teacher in college or graduate school. It’s inspiring for students to come to WPI and see there are successful female faculty here, and it was even better to see a woman running the show.

Scarlata is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry

Expanding and Renovating Campus Infrastructure to Meet Modern Needs

By Francesca Maltese

Laurie oversaw the construction of two important buildings on campus—Innovation Studio/Messenger Hall and Unity Hall—as well as new research facilities, such as 15 Sagamore Road and the Seaport District facility that connects students, faculty, alumni, and business leaders. These spaces reflect new ways of teaching, researching, learning, and living where collaboration and an open exchange of ideas are valued.

Leshin beam signing

Signing Unity Hall’s final beam.

But equally important was her support of renovating and improving many of the older buildings on campus. WPI is an absolute leader in caring for and retrofitting these types of buildings to fit today’s needs while still preserving their history. Keeping these buildings in good shape means keeping the legacy of past generations alive. Laurie has made major contributions to the future of the campus.

Maltese, retired development manager of The O’Connell Development Group, is a member of the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee of the WPI Board of Trustees.

Embracing a Global Focus

WPI has a unique focus on developing leaders in science and engineering who have a more global, humanistic, downstream-looking vision. Before Laurie even started officially, she gathered a few of us who were working on various aspects of our project-based education. We talked about the survey of alumni that showed students working on their required projects had better outcomes when they worked off campus or abroad. Laurie left that meeting committed to making sure more students have these transformational opportunities.

Because of that, she supported expanding the number of project centers globally, and also made sure finances weren’t a barrier for students to participate. Our global scholarships now enable 100 percent of our students the opportunity to take an immersive project term off campus, locally or around the globe.

Bar Harbor selfie with students

With students at the Bar Harbor Project Center

Also with Laurie’s support, we began sharing our expertise in these transformational experiences with other institutions through the Center for Project-Based Learning. Over the past seven years, we’ve worked with more than 150 institutions in the U.S. and around the world to aid other faculty who are interested in using this very powerful pedagogy to help their students have more impactful learning experiences and develop those transferrable skills that employers find so valuable.

And, ultimately, creating The Global School plays a big role in giving this most distinctive aspect of a WPI education the visibility it deserves. It also allowed us to recruit a dean like Mimi Sheller, whose credentials and vision are stellar, and to integrate our global infrastructure into our graduate programs in innovative and creative ways.

Wobbe is director of the Center for Project-Based Learning

Raising Millions for the Next 150 Years

By George Oliver ’82

I couldn’t be more excited about our campaign, Beyond These Towers. It’s about how we take all the success we’ve had as a university and enable even more success. Laurie’s leadership over the last eight years has been the foundation for our recent successes and it’s why we were so well positioned to launch the largest fundraising campaign in WPI history.

The reason I’m chairing the campaign is because I want others to experience what my wife, Karen, and I have experienced and why we’re so passionate about giving to WPI. We have an incredible alumni community doing great things around the world. Laurie has inspired more passion among more alumni to come together around their alma mater, to support WPI, and to see what we can accomplish over the next 150 years.

Oliver is chairman and CEO of Johnson Controls, a WPI trustee, and national chair of the $500 million Beyond These Towers campaign.

Beyond the Towers kickoff

President Leshin, George Oliver, and Jack Mollen

A Critical Partner for the Commonwealth

By Karyn Polito

It has been my honor and pleasure to get to know President Leshin and have the ability to work with her over the past eight years. Her vision and thoughtful leadership have made a positive impact at WPI, and also across Massachusetts.

From expanding STEM opportunities, especially for women and underrepresented communities, to her commitment to accelerating innovation and workforce development, the commonwealth is fortunate to have had her as a great partner.

Laurie Leshin and Karyn Polito

President Leshin and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito

Governor Baker and I will also always be truly grateful for her unprecedented service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her expertise and guidance were critical in helping us navigate our response to the crisis as well as the safe reopening of our colleges and universities.

We wish her all the best and know she will soar in her new position at the Jet Propulsion Lab, but she will always have a home in Massachusetts.

Polito is the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

The Interim and the Search

Wole Soboyejo

Winston “Wole” Soboyejo

Provost and Senior Vice President Winston Oluwole “Wole” Soboyejo will serve as interim president upon President Laurie Leshin’s departure in May. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, he is a renowned materials scientist and engineer with more than 30 years in academia and research institutes. Prior to becoming provost in 2019, he served as the Bernard M. Gordon Dean of the School of Engineering at WPI.

“A wonderful theme emerged during our conversations with Wole: he sees his upcoming period of leadership as a moment of service,” says Jack Mollen, chair of the Board of Trustees.

“A highly accomplished academic and administrative leader, Wole is known for being a collaborator with a great respect for the knowledge and experience of those around him. This and other qualities make him the ideal leader to help the university in the months ahead.”

Previously, Soboyejo served as president and provost of the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria, a Pan-African university founded by the Nelson Mandela Institutions.

“We expect Wole will be able to step in and lead WPI seamlessly, not only because of his experience and capabilities, but because he has full knowledge of the university’s most important and pressing issues and opportunities and because he knows and embraces this community and our values and priorities,” says Mollen.

The Presidential Search Committee is chaired by Trustee David LePre ’74, with support from Lauren Turner, senior vice president for talent & inclusion. In the first months of the process, the committee has been hosting listening sessions with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees to engage the WPI community in the process. For the latest updates, visit: wpi.edu/presidential-search.

Send your own stories of how President Leshin has impacted WPI and we may add them to this story: wpijournal@wpi.edu.

A Look Back with Fondness and Gratitude President Leshin

A Look Back with Fondness and Gratitude

President Laurie Leshin reflects on her upcoming move to become director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and how WPI will never leave her.

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