Sheila Widnall Interview with MIT Students and Dean Bob Randolf

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INTERVIEWER: Let you meet these young people. This is my freshmen class. This is a good group. My associate advisor, Charlene. You can go ahead and tell her, and then just go around, folks, and then tell her what you're doing and--

WIDNALL: Where you're from. I'm interested in that.

STUDENT: My name is Charlene [INAUDIBLE], and I'm a junior here. I'm majoring in brain and cognitive sciences, biology, and philosophy of science. I'm from Chicago--

INTERVIEWER: She didn't have enough to do, so she thought three majors would do.

WIDNALL: Yeah. Uh huh.

STUDENT: And I'm from Chicago.

WIDNALL: Mm hmm.

STUDENT: And I'm Stephanie Duran, from Framingham, Massachusetts. And I'm majoring in either bio or brain and cognitive science, I think.

WIDNALL: And you are a freshman?


WIDNALL: So you don't have to really decide at this point?

STUDENT: Not at the moment.

STUDENT: My name is Todd Winning, and I'm from Northeast Alabama. And--

WIDNALL: How did I know that?

STUDENT: I plan to major in Course 6.

WIDNALL: Mm hmm.

STUDENT: My name is Judith Star. I'm from Longmeadow, Massachusetts.


STUDENT: Longmeadow, Mass.

WIDNALL: I don't know where that is.

STUDENT: Right next to Springfield.


STUDENT: And I am planning on majoring in anything from seven to nine to 10 to 15.


STUDENT: My name is Riyaz. I'm from Kenya. I plan to major in Classics [INAUDIBLE].

WIDNALL: Very good. What part of Kenya?

STUDENT: Mombasa.

WIDNALL: Mm hmm. Question

STUDENT: Hi, my name is Fernando Sabaiyo. I'm from Los Angeles, California. And I plan to major in [INAUDIBLE].

WIDNALL: Mm hmm.

STUDENT: I'm Joanna Bonmentry. I'm from Wayland, Mass. And I have no idea.

WIDNALL: Doesn't matter. I think, really, one of the hidden treasures of MIT is the freshman curriculum. You may not feel about now, but, you know, I think other universities would really give their eye teeth to have all the freshmen studying the same thing, more or less. But you can talk to one another and don't have this feeling of, kind of, centrifugal forces. Which-- they don't understand. You do. But no, that's good. I mean, it gives you a whole year to decide what you want to do. And at the same time, you're making important academic progress. So, you know, I think that's fine.

INTERVIEWER: What they just want--

WIDNALL: What can I do?

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, they've just watched a distillation of a couple of our interview with those ladies, whom you know all.

WIDNALL: Yeah, sure. Been there, done that.

INTERVIEWER: That's right. What I'd like you to do is reflect upon your experience here as a woman at MIT-- what it's been like. For all of the whole group. You know, I'm interested in you talking, and they're asking you questions.

WIDNALL: Mm hmm. OK.

INTERVIEWER: And getting a sense of this place from that particular perspective. The one thing you heard a little bit is, would your perception be the same if they were talking about the experience?




INTERVIEWER: --they went over how the numbers, after the bimodal distribution, after they got to a certain critical mass, had disappeared. And that performance, just for women, went straight up.

WIDNALL: Well I was-- I co-taught that seminar, "What is Engineering?" with Milly Dresselhaus. I think that was an exciting experiment. It was interesting. My good friend, Norm Augustine, who recently retired as the CEO of Lockheed Martin, went to Princeton to teach. And I asked him, I said, what are you going to teach? He said, well-- he said I think I'll offer a freshman seminar called "What is Engineering?" I said, great idea. Let me give you some advice. But, you know, it was a lot of fun. We really enjoyed it, and, you know, I think it did have a big impact on MIT.

But let me back up just a little bit, because I can do this kind of personal retrospective, because I was there. I came to MIT as a freshman in 1956. I'm from Tacoma, Washington. And I only began to realize how strong those influences were. Two things about coming from Tacoma, I think, were important. One, is that my family's home was on the final approach to McChord Air Force base. So the sky was, literally, always full of planes. The second thing is that the largest employer in the Northwest is Boeing Aircraft. And so, I think it didn't take me too long to figure out that-- although I didn't commit myself when I was a freshman-- but by the end of my freshman year, I knew I wanted to major in aeronautical engineering. And I think that a lot of that had to do with coming from Tacoma, and having every anticipation of returning to the Northwest, and working for Boeing, designing airplanes.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you come here? What was the attraction at MIT?

WIDNALL: Well I had been involved in the local science fair. I'd won the local science fair. I was recruited by a very active MIT educational counselor. I have to say, I was more actively recruited by MIT than any other school. University of Chicago said, well, why should we give you a scholarship? You'll just get married and it won't work. Well, I was absolutely insulted by that remark. And, you know, Stanford-- Caltech didn't take women. Stanford, you know, I just non-committal in the sense, you send in your application, they'll let you know. MIT was fiercely aggressive at recruiting.

We had a whole bunch of freshmen coming from Seattle. I think we had a total group of 20. We had a meeting in Seattle with all the incoming students and the alumni from Seattle, and they picked me, as a result of this very energetic guy from Tacoma, to give their, sort of, central scholarship to. So I was very well treated by MIT. I was very well treated by the Seattle alum. And, you know, I really felt that I was coming to a place that was really anxious to have me, and, you know, that's always a turn on. So that's why I came to MIT. I really didn't know anything about the east. I didn't particularly like it. And vowed never to stay here. Well, so much for-- two out of three ain't bad.

But the thing that surprised me when I arrived at MIT was sitting around the freshmen, or the women's dorm, in those days, there were only 20 of us who had made this decision out of all the women in the United States. There were only 20 women who decided to come to MIT. I found that a little startling. I hadn't thought much about it, but I hadn't realized the numbers would be so small. I guess I made a fundamental decision at that point that if I was going to worry about that, that I was not going to graduate. So I basically just sort of plowed through without asking myself the question, you know, was this a good place for women? Why aren't there more women? Why was I here? You know, which people used to ask me all the time. I said, I'll get back to you later.

So I didn't worry about it. I just sort of plowed right through and was very successful academically. I did take a little while to spin up. I mean, my first semester at MIT-- we had grades in those days. First semester at MIT were, by most measures, was successful, but I basically got a B in everything. So I got a B average and that put me on what was then the dean's list. But it was not a spectacular performance. But then it sort of going up after that, and I actually had a couple of semesters where I got the coveted five oh.

But I had a marvelous time. I mean the air department was a great department. It's very faculty-student oriented. I mean, you know, I had faculty who just were tremendously supportive. Holt Ashley was my advisor, and Holt took the place of the guy from Tacoma, who you know, was my champion, my mentor, was always putting me forward for awards, and everything like that. And as I think about it, throughout my life, I think I have accumulated about 10 or 12 what I would view as mentors-- people who have really taken it upon themselves to be my sponsor. And I guess I'd draw an important lesson from that-- that all of you will have people like that. And you will also be people like that. You, having been sponsored and mentored by somebody, will then have a responsibility to do the same for other people.

But needless to say, I never did leave MIT. I stayed here, and I am part of this whole history that's referred to on the videotape. I saw MIT and didn't sit by and watch, but was an active participant in MIT going from, basically, 1% women to 43% women. There are a lot of watersheds in that activity-- the building of women's dorm; the, sort of, changing from admissions being limited by housing to, more or less, open admissions; the extremely important studies that Art Smith did during-- I don't remember when that was, in middle 70s, or late 70s, or middle 80s, or whatever it was-- that basically showed, statistically, that the math SAT scores under-predict the performance of women relative to their senior accomplishments.

And so, if your goal is to graduate a class of seniors rather than admit a class of freshmen, then you should use that information, and MIT began to do that. And in one year, went from 26% to 38% women. And it was a success. The women's grade point average-- which is not the only measure of greatness-- but great point average, general success, basically remained equal, or better than that of the man. So this bold experiment worked. And I don't think any other university in the nation is as conscious of what that really means. I mean, first of all, I don't think MIT has publicized it. We've kept it-- we haven't even told the students, which, of course, has created no end of problem. But we haven't-- we've been kind of quiet about it. We know something that other universities don't really know, and we just haven't, you know, I think, been as forthcoming in sharing--

INTERVIEWER: Characteristically Mike's.

WIDNALL: Well, it is. And I actually am a good friend of the president of Caltech and his wife, Alice, and she's a major figure in biology. And actually, we spent the weekend together about a month ago, more or less. And they would really like to understand how they can reshape their admissions process to have the kind of achievement that MIT has had. So I promised to send her the data. And I promised to give her Mary's email address so that she could figure out. Because I think MIT really understands what it's doing with respect to admissions. I think we see the result of that all around us, in the character of freshman class, the character of the senior class, and the accomplishments of male and female students across the Institute.

It's a very different place, even going down, leaving the place for four years, and coming back, it's a very different place as I come back. Even my own department is different. My own department. When I left, I was the only woman on faculty, in the aero department-- roughly speaking. I think Dava Newman was just coming in at that point. Now, at this point, I can't even count the number of women in the faculty. And certainly, if I include the senior research staff, sort of, principal scientists, people who teach, and do research, it's probably 10. Probably 10 people in my department. And it's not unusual to go to a meeting of our project and find virtually the entire room full of women.

I happen to be working on a project called the Lean Aerospace Initiative, which deals with the streamlining and downsizing of the defense industry, and industrial efficiency, and acquisition reform, and getting equipment faster, better, cheaper, and using more commercial practices. So as I said, we've got an exciting project, and a substantial fraction of our team are senior women scientists-- as well as women graduates. There is a lot of women graduate students in the project.

So MIT is a very different place. And ultimately, I think MIT's-- and Milly said it on the tape-- MIT's big contribution will be in its students. In students that it trains-- give our students the tools, and the attitudes, and the technique they need for success, not only in a technical sense, but in leadership sense. So this can be a good place for me--

INTERVIEWER: This means that you all are here because you can do it, and because-- and you are gonna do it. See, right?


INTERVIEWER: Reaffirmed in all of that. What was it like, though, going through that undergraduate program at that point in time? Now, looking back, you can see all the progress, but what was the sense at that point?

WIDNALL: Well, first of all, you know, I've got a freshman seminar too, so I tell them this. First of all, MIT is a big intellectual jump. Maybe not as much--

INTERVIEWER: You know so.

WIDNALL: It really is. I mean, I know that the high schools have improved, so for many students, it's not as much of an intellectual jump as it was for me when I came. I came from a parochial high school, all girls school, Catholic school. We didn't have physics. I had to get on the bus every afternoon and go down to the public high school to take physics. You recall that the faculty passed what I term Widnall's revenge. When I was chairman of the faculty, we passed a rule that says physics is not an absolute requirement for admission to MIT. Although--

INTERVIEWER: There's one person here, took advantage of that.

WIDNALL: Yeah. Right. Well, you owe that to me, because in my daily bus trips down to take physics at the local high school. Anyway, I know most people do take physics, but-- and I came with physics, but, you know, obviously, in those days, I think the quality of the high schools for a place like MIT, it was just, you know, it was a whole different thing. And so I think the initial shock was really like taking a bath in ice water. And I failed my first physics test. I got a 30. Many people also fail their first physics test.

But that for me was a kind of a wake up, kind of one of these defining moments, because that certainly-- the experience of sitting in that test and realizing that I didn't-- that I was not on the same wavelength as the faculty. And then reflecting on that after, which I had about two hours to do, made me realize what MIT was really expecting. That it wasn't a matter of feeding back what you heard-- it was a matter of creating something new. You know, solving a problem you had never seen before. And somehow, I understood that, and I said, OK. So I understand. I understand what is expected. And from then on, I think I had a completely different appreciation of what MIT was and what the expectation was. And having figured it out, proceeded to, kind of, charge ahead.

I had a fairly disciplined approach to MIT. I never pulled an all nighter. I never stayed up all night. I never did. Being a fluid dynamicist, I know that time is incompressible. And what you want to do is put yourself in a position where you're maximizing total system efficiency. Which means the physical, the mental, you know, the psychological-- all of that. You've got, you know, you gotta get yourself in a situation where you're maximizing total system efficiency. And I don't-- you know, I mean, maybe, if you get an emergency once in a while, but I mean not as a regular basis. You've got to take care of yourself. You've just got to keep yourself so that you can perform. And there are various ways to do that.

STUDENT: How did your female peers cope at the same time? You had 19 other females.

WIDNALL: Not well. I would say, in general, not well. We had some very unfortunate things happen. First of all, we had more women come, than MIT had planned for. So they put the-- fortunately I was not one of the women-- but they put half of the women in a temporary living situation, over on, I think it was Marlborough Street. They rented a brownstone. They put them over there. And they put me and a bunch of others in the women's dorm.

In about November. I think the landlady decided that the girls weren't keeping their rooms clean. And she, literally, threw them out on the street. She took their belongings, and put them out on the street. Well, MIT had to do a little catch up all, and it put-- it found temporary accommodations for many of those women students in the BU dorms. But the study conditions are not adequate. I mean, the BU women students and MIT women students don't have that much in common.


You know, a lot of those women students flunked out. I mean, it was-- including my very best friend. I mean, I had a friend who was put in that situation, and she flunked out.

So, you know, it's not a happy story. I think it was probably that incident, as much as any, that convinced MIT that if it was going to have women students, it had to do it right. And I think that was one of the motivations for, basically, going over. There's a famous story-- Jillian Stratton get in a cab, and go over to see Mrs. McCormick, and talk her into building a women's dorm. Of course, little did we know that co-ed dorms would soon become--


WIDNALL: --you know proper. You know, we didn't see that. We didn't know that was coming. So, you know, the housing problem have ultimately solved itself in lots of different ways. But the initial step in that was the women's dorm. So no, MIT was a very demanding place. And a lot of people, you know, had difficulty with it.

INTERVIEWER: So you took your degree here and then--

WIDNALL: I stayed.

INTERVIEWER: You stayed.

WIDNALL: And I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed.


WIDNALL: I've only been away from MIT for two periods in Washington. I went down in 1974, where I served as the director of university research for the Department of Transportation. And that was another one of these mentor things. I had acquired a mentor along the way. Just even was a touch and go mentor. I didn't really, you know, because he was actually the-- he was Bob Cannon, actually. He used to be in our mechanical engineering department. Met him several times. He was then the Assistant Secretary at the Department of Transportation. And he asked me to come down and run this program. And just before I got there, he left to become dean of engineering at Caltech. And he called me from his cellular phone on the way out of Washington, saying, well, have a good time. I just want you to know that I won't be here.

It's probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because then I was totally independent. I didn't have somebody to take care of me. I had to do everything myself. So it was a real learning experience. And of course, obviously, the other time was going down to Washington and being Secretary of the Air Force, which was a truly incredible experience. Really incredible experience.

INTERVIEWER: Let's get to that.

WIDNALL: Another mentor--

INTERVIEWER: Like yeah, I want to talk--

WIDNALL: --relationship.

INTERVIEWER: --about that. Right, but you did. You know, you married, and your life was beyond MIT and--

WIDNALL: Yeah, well that's right. I have--

INTERVIEWER: How does that happen--

WIDNALL: --two children.

INTERVIEWER: --in this-- that's right-- in this kind of time?

WIDNALL: Have to work very hard. You know, I would never, you know, minimize the difficulty of, basically, having it all. I mean, I think it takes a lot of work, takes a lot of organization, and it's taking on a lot of responsibilities. But I see more and more people doing it. I think the world has changed in rather dramatic ways. I think I see many more dual career couples making things happen.

It even affects us in the Air Force. I mean, one of the reasons I think the Air Force is having a pilot retention problem is that the expectations have changed. It is no longer the expectation that the guy will go off and fly in Saudi Arabia, and that the rest of the family will just sit there and wait. They're not content to sit there and wait. And he's not content to do that either. He wants to be with his family.

So I think that what I see happening all over the country is that there is a real change. That there's a sharing. There's more of an equal partnership. And the Air Force has got some major challenges figuring out how to accommodate these really new realities, and families, and the way people want to have a family, want to be together, want to share responsibilities. That's not just an issue for people at MIT. It's an issue for everybody, all over the country. And it's a major change in the way we think about our responsibilities. And so, I think it'll get easier. I think it'll get easier because it's just, you know, much more the expectation that people will have fuller, richer lives, and there'll be a lot more sharing.

INTERVIEWER: Milly talks about it in other conversations we've had, about how this place was not very sensitive to the needs of women with children, and schedule, and how she had to-- and how, in fact, she tells some stories in our conversations about another woman who came on the faculty, or came as research faculty, at the same time she did, and like your friend, just simply couldn't make it in trying to do what she had to do. How did that work for you? How did you--

WIDNALL: I never had any-- I never had any special favors. I mean-- I don't know how to say this exactly. I mean, I was always a tomboy. I mean, you come into my office, and you see my picture with me and my flight suit, and everything like that. I only stayed away for two weeks when I had my children. I just was full steam ahead. I didn't, you know, expect any accommodation. And I never asked for it. Bill, of course, my husband, Bill, was enormously helpful. I mean, we are, you know, probably more like today's young people are than our contemporaries.

Although I have to say, you know, that I really noticed a big change between the class of '60 and the class of '59 at MIT. I go to both reunions, because my husband is in '59, and I'm in '60. And '60-- the class of '60-- is much more-- I don't know how to say it-- committed to equality. They accept women as full and equal participants in their lives, in their work, in whatever they do. Class of '59 is just a little conservative. I find them just a little-- because they were, you know, the number of women in that class was very, very different. They weren't as mainstream, I think, as the women in the class '60.

And then I think from then on, I think there was a change. I think there was a change. And I think I see that reflected in the Alumni Association-- people who went to MIT at these different times. So I really believe there was a watershed between '59 and '60 in what was going on at MIT. And it wasn't just me. I mean, we had Linda Greiner. Linda Greiner was editor of The Tech. So we had many women students who-- in very substantial leadership positions. So the whole climate, I think, for women students at MIT changed during those times.

INTERVIEWER: Questions, folks. Here's your chance.

WIDNALL: Mm hmm.

STUDENT: You didn't say anything if families are hesitant about sending your daughters to-- away to college. How did your family and the families of your peers feel about sending their daughters away to college?

WIDNALL: Well, these are cultural issues. There's no question about it. But I had a very unusual family. First of all, I was the oldest girl of a family of girls. And I think if you look back, statistically, at families like that, you will find that the oldest girl is often the surrogate son. I mean, that just happens. So I was absolutely encouraged in everything I did.

Also, my mother was another real pioneer. My mother worked. She worked all the time I was growing up. She quit work to be at home with me when I was starting the school. And she drove me crazy. And I said, mother, for heaven's sakes, go back to work. So my mother was a social worker during the Depression. She managed cases of people who were on welfare. And then after she went back to work, when I sort of threw her out of the house, she became a juvenile probation officer. So she-- you know, a very active career and she worked with families that were disintegrating, kids that were in trouble, either because their families were disintegrating, or because they'd become delinquent. So she worked the whole time that I was-- so my models-- my models were of women who, basically, combine career and family.

And my father was, you know, very interesting. He did all sorts of interesting things. But he was a rodeo cowboy when he met my mother. So just strong family, very strong family. Very supportive.

INTERVIEWER: A rodeo cowboy.

WIDNALL: Yes. Yes.

INTERVIEWER: That's unusual.

WIDNALL: Yes, it is unusual. It is unusual. Great guy. I miss him so much. Passed away just before I became secretary of the Air Force. So he never knew.

WIDNALL: That hurts.

WIDNALL: Yeah, I love that guy. He was just my first mentor. Wonderful man. Very supportive. We built things together. That's really why I'm an engineer. Daddy and I built things. I was 21 years old before I realized you could hire people to come to your house to fix things. No, it never occurred to me. I mean, we always-- we not only fixed things at our house, we fixed things in the neighbor's house. One of the new neighbors came over, knocked on the door, and said, can Roland come over and fix my sink? And my mother was taken aback, says, he doesn't do things like that. He said, well, Mr. Braman said that he was the guy who fixed everything in the neighborhood. So anyway, that's why I'm an engineer, probably as much as anything, is that hands-on-- hands-on experience.

INTERVIEWER: All right, Stephanie, you got-- Here, let me see what's going on here. No, that's fine, go ahead and-- you guys, don't lose this moment.

WIDNALL: Yeah, come on. Questions. Don't be shy. Women should speak up.

STUDENT: What about the families of your peers?

WIDNALL: Aww, pffft. Well, first of all, I went to a girls' school. So I think I think women who go to girls' schools are often more independent than women that go to, sort of, co-educational high schools. I think that's statistically true. I think that I-- my friends were a very independent bunch of girls. And, you know, I think most of them did go to college someplace. Most of them stayed pretty close to Washington. I was clearly the outlier, but I think people were very supportive of their daughters.

STUDENT: When you got to MIT-- I know here, now, it's really principally [INAUDIBLE]. There's lots of opportunities. But was there, when you first came, is there any resentment with women students as far as, like, [INAUDIBLE]?

WIDNALL: Well, you know, MIT is very layered. I mean there's the faculty, there's your fellow students, there's upperclassmen. I mean, it's probably impossible to generalize. I think my department was very supportive. So if I could make it through my freshman year and get to my sophomore year, I found a group of faculty who were extremely supportive, very anxious to have me here.

I think in my freshman year-- well actually, there were some faculty members who really went out of their way to be supportive. I remember in particularly, my math professor, Professor Douglas, whose name is one of those hallowed names around MIT, who really was very supportive. I mean, I still remember taking a quiz in 1801 and having him-- he was this great old grandfatherly guy. He came up to me, says, can I go out and get you a Coke or something? You know I thought that was terrific. You know, he just-- you know, I didn't really need a Coke, but I just thought that he was just tremendously supportive. So he was really good. And that's a good feeling to have about an instructor, because, you know, they can be a little terrifying. But you know, when they're approachable like that. So yeah, I would say that there were a few people who were, you know, really approachable.

And incidentally, I took 1802 from Professor Matic, who I understand is still teaching 1802. But no, I found the faculty either didn't pay any attention to me at all, or were supportive. And I think it was particularly true in the aero department. I had some really strong supporters. And you know, that-- So I guess that's it-- it was either being ignored, which was not bad for a student, or being supported. So that's that. And with my classmates, they come in all shapes and sizes. I think I was asked a lot, you know, what are you doing here? I chose not to worry about that issue. But I used to go out a lot too. So I mean, you know, it's one of the advantage of being only 1%.

INTERVIEWER: Hmm. More dates.

WIDNALL: More dates. And my husband's still kidding me about all the guys I flunked out. Because, you know, I could handle the extracurricular stuff better they could, typically.

INTERVIEWER: So this was for you, the home you needed to find, yeah?

WIDNALL: I think so. I think of MIT as my home. I mean, I've been here more of my life than I've been in Tacoma. And I think I've really made contributions to this community. I was chairman the faculty, I was chairman of the admissions committee, I was chair of the discipline committee. I served in a lot of important roles on the faculty. I certainly served as a policymaker in issues having to do with women students-- the admission of women students. So.

INTERVIEWER: There are people who think that you might even someday be the first women president of this place.

WIDNALL: I think I'm a little too old to think about that.

INTERVIEWER: Well, maybe, but that's for you to worry about. Others, I still hear tossing that around [INAUDIBLE] occasionally. What about the Air Force? How did you find that experience? I mean, was that just MIT writ large, or was that a different--


INTERVIEWER: Very different.

WIDNALL: Yeah, no I think it was different. Let's see, it's hard to describe how I got there. I mean, that was basically another relationship, another mentor relationship. I had been on the board of the Carnegie Corporation, and David Hamburg is the president of the Carnegie Corporation, and he was one of my really important mentors. And Warren Christopher, who became Secretary of State, was the chairman of that board, and Warren Chris was doing a lot to construct the administration.

And I was sitting in the office, over in the provost's office there, where I was, and David Hamburg called me up, and he said, Sheila. He said, I've got an absolutely great idea, and I called up Senator Nunn and Mr. Aspin, who is about to become Secretary of Defense, and they think it's a great idea too. He said, I think you should be Secretary of the Air Force. And I said, David. I said, that is absolutely super idea. So you know, after that it just all kind of fell into place. You know, in terms--

INTERVIEWER: You were taken with the idea immediate?

WIDNALL: Oh, I'd always wanted to be Secretary of the Air Force.


WIDNALL: Yeah. Yeah. Really.

INTERVIEWER: Had they known that? Or was this--

WIDNALL: Well, no, I never mentioned it to anybody. But, you know, I had-- I mean, I had known at least half of the previous secretaries of the Air Force. They had been aeronautical engineers. Bob Seamans was even a member of our department. But I'd served on the Aerospace Board, where Pete Aldridge was a former Secretary. I knew John McLucas and Joe [INAUDIBLE] and just Don Rice. And you know, I'd known a lot of the previous secretaries of the Air Force. And they had backgrounds that were not unlike mine. And so-- it's actually a job I've always wanted. So I thought it was a terrific job, and I really liked it.

It's a very complicated organization, with a budget of, you know, roughly $60 billion. And you know, 400,000 active duty and another 200,000 reserve. And you know, roughly 175,000 civilian full-time employees. Plus, you know, the Pentagon, which is like no place that I've ever been. And you know, the relationships between the political side and the military side, and policymaking, and it's just a very complicated environment. It's not unlike MIT, in the sense that, in order to get something done, you have to build consensus. I think that people from industry going into that situation often had-- have a hard time. Because people from industry often think that all you have to do is give an order, and something happens. That's not the way Washington works.

So I do think, actually, academics do very well in that environment. Because there's lot of consultation. There's a lot of, sort of, building consensus. I think the intellectual issues are very important. And you have to be able to work with large groups of people and, kind of, get all the ideas, and get it, sort of, framed, and get it, sort of, down to some consensus. And so, a lot of the tools that I learned at MIT were extremely useful. And I think in dealing with the people, I actually think my background as an educator was more useful than my background as an engineer. Because I mean, in the end it really is about people. And I think people who are in education focus on people. You focus on career development.

One of the big things I did in the Air Force that I'm probably the most proud of is core values. You know, we basically articulated and stressed the core values of the Air Force, and an institution like MIT has got core values too. In fact, they're almost the same core values. Although the core values of the Air Force are integrity, service above self, and excellence. I think the only one that MIT doesn't have is a service above self. Because service above self really implies, perhaps, putting your life on the line for your country. And unless you join the military, I think that that's probably not an expectation that you would have. But your kind of service goes in a different way. It is service to country, service to community. It's service to the nation, service to your family. So I mean, there is a service component. It's not quite as sharply drawn as it would be for somebody in the military.

INTERVIEWER: What about being a woman? I mean, was that a--

WIDNALL: Well you know, there's some interesting psychological things associated with that, which I took full advantage of. There's a book that I would recommend. It's called Women Warriors. And basically, what it points out is that throughout history, there have been a few women who have served in roles like this. And that for the people involved, it can be a time of renewal, that there is something inherently exciting about a woman leader in a military situation. And that you can get the kind of energy in that situation that is an order of magnitude larger than the kind of conventional setting. And you know, Joan of Arc is the obvious example. But in the British myths, there's somebody called Rhodesia, who also played that role. And in our own time, we had Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi, and we had Margaret Thatcher.

And so basically, what I saw is that there was an opportunity to energize the organization, and that I was about to take full advantage of it, on their behalf, to make them better. So I emphasized, you know, being a woman. I mean, I wore, you know, flight suits all the time. I wore BDUs. Because that brings this energy forward in the organization. And I think it worked. I think it worked. I think we had a very, very high powered, intense organization that was totally focused on the mission, that was totally focused on the core values. I think we just absolutely improved the organization. And I was very conscious of that. I mean, I was conscious of that opportunity and those possibilities. And I think for the most part, we were able to accomplish that. So I think that there's some real advantages to doing that.

INTERVIEWER: Anything you would have done differently, looking back on that?


INTERVIEWER: Stay longer?

WIDNALL: No. No, no. Nuh uh.

INTERVIEWER: You were read to come back?

WIDNALL: No, no. I mean, I think they say in Washington that if you're not going to stay for eight years, you should only stay for four. I think there is an expectation that when you get to the second four-year term that the people who have positions like mine will basically retire so that the president can kind of put in a whole new team. And I think for me, it was fine. And I think MIT was extraordinarily generous to give me four years leave of absence. There were people down there from Harvard and Kennedy School, who basically had to resign their positions in order field stay for four years. And I think most of them successfully went back, but there are a lot of examples of universities not taking people back after.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, with Reich. I mean--

WIDNALL: Well, there's Reich and-- what's that guy's name during the Vietnam War? Rostow. Rostow. Walt Rostow did not get back to Harvard after four years. So I think MIT was extraordinarily generous. So I think four years was the right amount of time.


STUDENT: Does it-- this may sound weird, but does it ever get you, to be thought of as like a woman in this, a woman in that. And ever do you say, like, well, why can't I just be, you known, an engineer? Why can't I--

WIDNALL: No. No. It really doesn't, because I always see it as a net plus. I always see it as a net plus. I really believe that, because I am a woman, that I have, typically, been pointed to things at a younger age than might have otherwise been the case. You know, I've been able to, in others-- I've, you know, I have a lot more visibility in my field because I'm a woman. Now obviously, the visibility has to be backed up with competence. But I think visibility is a good thing to have. So no, I've-- it's never been an issue for me. I've you know, I-- am who I am, and, you know, I get asked to do things. And I accept some, and don't accept others. And I just try to do the best job. So no, that's never been an issue. But we just may come from a different time. Different time. But I've never been self-conscious about it.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think, Drew?

STUDENT: You mean, what questions do I have? When you went down to Air Force, and you came back to Cambridge, was there a period of readjustment for you?

WIDNALL: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. In fact, I'm still readjusting. The Air Force is tremendously well-organized, and I had a staff of, roughly, 12 to 15 people, whose entire job it was to see that I got to where I needed to go with what I needed to have. And so, I had tremendous staff support. And they were wonderful people. I mean, I thought of them as graduate students, because they were so smart. And they were so productive. And they were always writing papers, and writing speeches, and doing very, very useful things. I miss them all terribly. I mean, I just-- as I said, they really were more like my graduate students.

So coming back, you know, I'm setting my own schedule. I'm involved with other organizations that are not as well-organized as the Air Force. I'm vice president of National Academy of Engineering. I'm on the governing board of the National Research Council and on several organizations down there. And I sent an email down there the other day, and I said, you know I'm really having a hard time linking in to my responsibilities in your organization. I said, you never give me the agenda until about two weeks before the meeting. I said, I never know what's going on. I said, you never-- I said, you got to let me know six weeks-- six months in advance when you're having meetings. I said, because my calendar fills up.

You know, I just can't-- It's very hard for me to deal with an organization that is not as well-organized as the Air Force. You now, in the Air Force, you know, I always knew exactly what I was doing, where I was going, why I was doing it. And we all had everything all lined up. And now, I'm just kind of floating around, trying to fulfill my responsibilities to a lot of organizations that are not terribly well-organized. And that's difficult. That's difficult for me.

STUDENT: What are the intensity levels compared to MIT?

WIDNALL: Pardon?

STUDENT: The intensity level-- compared--

WIDNALL: Oh, so I think it's much, much higher. Because basically, it's the difference between one person trying to work her way through a complex organization, and being at the pointy end of a sphere that's like, you know, a couple thousand people, all pushing in the same direction. So you know, I had four people, whose job it was just to make sure that I use my time efficiently. And I hardly know the things that didn't happen, because these guys took care of those issues. So I was just-- you know, my time was used a lot more effectively, so that every day was, you know, had the kind of intensity that goes along with using your time efficiently.

STUDENT: Do you feel more relaxed since you came back to MIT, or--

WIDNALL: No, I thought it was more chaotic. It was more chaotic. I was perfectly relaxed. I mean, I can give you a little example. When I was in the Air Force, I bicycled 3,000 miles a year.