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Willmore reflects on changes at MIT over 34-year period

When Kathryn Willmore, vice president and secretary of the Corporation, came to MIT in 1965, fewer than 2 percent of the faculty and only 4 percent of the student body were women.

She also noted that a faculty report penned just a few years earlier had questioned the desirability of enrolling more women because the women would just leave their professions to get married and have children--they were taking up slots that could be allotted to male students. "That really shocked me," said Ms. Willmore, who had attended a women's college where, she said, "if something needed doing, you just did it."

The "just do it" attitude has carried her a long way at MIT as well as in her personal life, said Ms. Willmore, who spoke March 24 at the Women's League's fifth "power breakfast" series of informal get-togethers exploring the role of women in the academy.

Ms. Willmore is responsible for coordinating activities and communication about major issues among the senior leadership of the faculty, administration, staff and trustees of the Institute, as well as advising MIT's president, senior officers and others on matters of policy and public communication. She started out as a technical assistant at the Sloan School of Management.

One of her first positions was working for the late Constantine B. Simonides, then an assistant dean at Sloan and later vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation. That working relationship and mentorship spanned decades. Another mentor was Mary L. Morrissey, director of the Information and Special Events Center, who retired in 1997 after 45 years at MIT, she said.

Mr. Simonides, she said, taught her that institutions are people first and "you don't ask more of others than you ask of yourself." Miss Morrissey taught her about the importance of reading the significance below the surface--in people and situations--and of letting people run with good ideas.

Today's MIT is a different place, where 47 percent of the admission offers for next year's class are to women, Ms. Willmore said, adding how gratifying it has been to be part of that change. Among the vehicles of change was a small journal she helped found in the mid-1970s as a newspaper for MIT women. It evolved into the feminist newspaper Sojourner, which now has a national distribution with a monthly circulation of more than 40,000.

Despite her overwhelmingly positive attitude about MIT as a largely pretension-free community where "people take people as they are," she has finessed her way through her share of sticky situations. She said that while scuba diving in the Indian Ocean recently, her entire scuba party plunged into a group of sharks. Backing against a rock, she asked herself, "Why does this feel familiar?"

A version of this article appeared in the April 7, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 25).

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