Professor Sheila E. Widnall will return to MIT on October 31 after serving as Secretary of the Air Force for more than four years.
Professor Widnall was the first female secretary of a branch of the armed forces. She managed a $62 billion annual budget and 810,000 uniformed and civilian employees.
"We indeed are expecting Dr. Widnall to return to the MIT faculty, and have discussed a variety of possible leadership roles with her," said President Charles M. Vest. "No firm plans have been made at this time."
"I have had numerous experiences where I've been humbled and awed because of the opportunity you have given me to serve as Secretary of the Air Force," Professor Widnall said in her September 8 letter of resignation to President Clinton. "The words 'honor' and 'privilege' fall short of expressing the deeply felt pride and the matchless respect I feel today towards the Air Force.
"It has been a wonderful experience to meet and work alongside the men and women who make countless sacrifices in defense of the greatest nation in the world. The United States Air Force's 50th anniversary has been filled with ceremonies that reflect on past accomplishments -- but rest assured, the future looks just a brilliant as the past!"
During her tenure as secretary, Dr. Widnall directed the rehabilitation of the troubled C-17 cargo program, reformed arms acquisition policies and played a role in modernizing the space program. She will be best remembered for her deft handling of the case of former First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, who faced a court martial for committing adultery, disobeying an order to end the affair and other infractions. Secretary Widnall refused to grant an honorable discharge but avoided a trial by allowing Lieutenant Flinn to resign and receive a general discharge.
In her farewell speech to the Air Force, Professor Widnall said, "We have built a quality Air Force because the opportunities available to all our people have been based strictly on merit. We have sustained a quality Air Force because our standards are enforced fairly and consistently. Favoritism is not an issue; adherence to the rules and rewarding exceptional performers are our watchwords. Clearly, commander involvement at all levels of the chain of command is fundamental to sustaining an environment that fosters human dignity and promotes our Air Force's core values: 'Integrity first; service before self; excellence in all we do.'...
"Women now make up about 17 percent of the force, and recent accessions show women account for 26 percent of new recruits. They work side by side with their male counterparts, performing brilliantly across the broad spectrum of every job imaginable. Likewise, the outstanding contributions of our diverse ethnic team only serve to enhance to our unit cohesion and readiness -- directly contributing to a world-class Air Force that is quota-free, gender-neutral, color-blind and combat-readyï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½
"Moreover, the contentious comparable-worth issue was resolved decades earlier with a one-size-fits-all pay scale, and glass ceilings were shattered long ago. Some would champion diversity because it is the right thing to do; our Air Force champions diversity because it also clearly enhances our morale, our unit cohesion and our readiness."
Professor Widnall, 59, was the first MIT alumna appointed to the faculty in the School of Engineering, and the first woman to serve as chair of the faculty, a post she held in 1979-80. She was associate provost from January 1992 until she left for Washington. Professor Widnall, who grew up in Tacoma, WA, received both the SB and SM degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT in 1961 and the ScD in 1964, the same year she joined the faculty as an assistant professor. She became an associate professor in 1970 and professor in 1974. She headed the Division of Fluid Mechanics from 1975-79 and Fluid Dynamics Research Laboratory from 1979-90.
She was the second MIT faculty member to serve as Secretary of the Air Force. Robert C. Seamans Jr., professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics, senior lecturer and former dean of the School of Engineering, served in that post from 1969-73.
In accepting Professor Widnall's resignation, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen wrote:
"Your performance has been exemplary in the face of enormous challenges in the national security environment. From the hostile skies over Bosnia and the Gulf to the complexities of restructuring the Air Force for the future, I have witnessed the exceptional professionalism and tireless dedication of your team. While you will be missed from our ranks, you have carried out your duties in a manner that sets a firm foundation for the Air Force of the future and your successor.
"Thank you for your patriotism and your commitment to our nation."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 17, 1997.