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Willmore recalls past 40 years at MIT

Kathryn Willmore
Kathryn Willmore
Photo � 2006 Rick Friedman Photography

Kathryn Willmore, vice president and secretary of the Corporation, will retire at the end of June, after more than 40 years at MIT. Born in Idaho and raised in a small town outside St. Louis, Willmore and her family moved to the Boston area when she was a teenager. After high school in Wellesley, she attended Mount Holyoke College. Upon graduation, she found a job at MIT, where she has been ever since.

Willmore has worked closely with every MIT president from Howard Johnson to Susan Hockfield and has been the public face of communications at the Institute for more than two decades. She recently reflected on her time at MIT with Patti Richards, senior communications officer in the MIT News Office.

You came to MIT right after graduation from Mount Holyoke. What were your own college years like?

I really wanted to go to a women's college, and Holyoke was a great choice for me. I started college in 1961, which was a very different time. We still had parietal hours and dating parlors in the dorms. And yet, ideas of student voice, if not power, were beginning to emerge across the country and even on our campus in western Massachusetts. One of my fondest and funniest memories of that time was when -- believing that we should have something to say about the curriculum -- some of us decided to invite all the faculty to a meeting to discuss this. Of course, we didn't really know how to go about it; no one had done such a thing before. But in our best 'gracious living' manner, we sent them engraved invitations to tea! They were so shocked that they actually came, and I think we had a pretty good discussion about the kinds of things we wanted to have a voice in.

And when you graduated you came directly to MIT?

Yes. I got married immediately upon graduation to an Amherst grad, who had already started in graduate school at MIT, and this seemed a good place to work. What did I know? I had lined up a job relating to my major --philosophy of religion -- in the Technology and Culture Forum, but that didn't start until the fall, so I took a summer job in the dean's office of the Sloan School, in the Fellows in Africa program. This was a program in which master's graduates from Sloan were placed in the ministries of governments in newly independent African countries. Every summer all the fellows would come together from whatever posts they were in, in the different countries. My job was to help organize that summer conference.

At the end of the summer, my boss -- an assistant dean named Constantine Simonides -- asked if I would stay on at Sloan. There was no job description, but I had great projects, including working with the writer John McPhee, who was doing a major article for the New Yorker on the Fellows in Africa program, and coordinating the move of half the economics faculty into the newly completed Hermann building. (No one had told me about space wars!) At the end of that year, Howard Johnson, dean of the Sloan School, was named president of MIT, and he brought three of us over with him to help form his new administration. That was the beginning of four decades in the central administration, either in or close to the President's Office.

I've stayed here because the times and the issues have always been interesting, and the people have been the best. MIT is always changing; there is tremendous energy here and I learn something new every day; and I can't imagine having a better group of colleagues -- staff, faculty and students -- to work with. And there's the sense of being part of an institution that really makes a difference in the world. That's been extraordinarily fulfilling to me.

Who were your early mentors?

Constantine Simonides was a terrific mentor for me all along. He gave me opportunities that helped me learn and grow in countless ways. Sometimes I wasn't so sure I could take on the next challenge, but he had the confidence that I could, and that confidence made all the difference. It still does.

And then there was Walter Rosenblith, who was provost during Jerry Wiesner's presidency. For some reason he took it upon himself to educate me in the history and culture of MIT. We would have sessions where he would talk about, for example, the Rad Lab, how it evolved into RLE, and how that was one of the first models of truly interdisciplinary work, something that has been a hallmark of MIT. To have people like Walter and Constantine -- to say nothing of Paul Gray and Chuck Vest -- share so much of their knowledge, as well as their visions for the future, was an extraordinary experience.

Is there a particular period of time that you remember fondly?

In the late '60s and early '70s I worked with the Commission on MIT Education. Howard Johnson had charged this group of faculty and students to consider what role MIT should play in and for the world -- not only in terms of education, but in research and its governance as well. That was just the most fascinating time; one of the best times, really. Campuses everywhere were in turmoil because of the Vietnam War. At MIT, everyone -- faculty, students, staff and alumni -- was deeply concerned about the Institute's place in this. At the same time that you had demonstrations in the streets, you found many of the same people sitting down with the commission talking about their visions for MIT. So even though people were arguing and fighting with each other, it was because they were so passionate about this place. There was an extraordinary sense of community at that time. And I have to say, Howard Johnson did an amazing job holding MIT together at a time when so many other campuses simply broke apart.

What are some of the changes to the MIT culture that you've noticed in your time here?

Well, the demographics are really different, for one thing. When I came to MIT maybe 3 percent of the students were women, and 2 percent of the faculty. And there were almost no women on the administrative staff. I remember a report from a faculty committee in the early 1960s that had seriously questioned the advisability of admitting any more women students -- because they would just leave their professions when they got married!

That really shocked me ... especially since I had attended a women's college and had the sense that we could do anything we set our minds to. MIT today is a very different place. We're not where we should be in all respects, but we're a far cry from those days.

Also, at that time, there were even fewer people of color than there were women. We may be somewhat richer in terms of racial and cultural diversity, but this is one of the great challenges before us still.

In terms of our intellectual map, there have been profound changes. I don't think most of us could have imagined the implications of the early developments in molecular biology and computation, for example, on our research and teaching today. Or that 'arts' would be incorporated into the name of one of our schools. Or that the world would look to MIT as the leader in brain sciences as well as linguistics and economics. Or that we would be using the Internet to share our teaching materials for free with the world.

You helped found the feminist publication Sojourner while at MIT.

In the early '70s there was a very strong women's community here -- a reflection of what was going on in the larger society. Sojourner was an outgrowth of the Women's Forum, and was started with a $1,700 grant from Paul Gray, who was chancellor at the time. The idea was to have a place for the voices from MIT's women's community. At first, I thought we shouldn't separate out those voices but find ways to integrate them more fully into our communications -- but then I realized that such a paper would make it much more likely that women would speak for themselves about issues that mattered to us. And so I joined up. After about a year, Sojourner expanded beyond MIT and became an important national forum on feminist issues. For about 10 years I spent countless evenings and weekends as production manager and helping to promote the paper.

Over those years, I increasingly found my center within the women's community. The trick was in trying to hold my center, as I became more involved in feminist and lesbian culture, even as I advanced in my career here. But I've been very lucky to have had the support of a wonderful group of colleagues all along. And as I've said on other occasions, I've found that the more open I am as a person and as a lesbian, the easier it has been to hold the center in myself, to claim my place at MIT, and to make a difference in MIT.

How has communications at MIT changed over the years?

It's faster, it's richer, and a lot more complex. In the old days all the administrative announcements and news were conveyed in a gazillion gray interoffice envelopes mailed around the campus.

Tech Talk began as an eight-and-a-half-by-11 newsletter intended to do away with all the gray envelopes, and eventually evolved into a newspaper. Press releases were typed up and sent to newspapers via snail mail or, if we were in a hurry, by bicycle or cab. Today, MIT news appears daily on the News Office website and there are about 1 million (no kidding) web pages at MIT. Email is ubiquitous. The admissions office uses blogs to reach prospective students. We videocast and podcast all sorts of stuff. We send our course materials all over the world via OCW (OpenCourseWare). These days, there is not a single 'MIT' voice, not that there ever was -- it's just much easier for all those voices to be out there.

I think these changes have made it possible to be more open in our communications. At the same time, there is so much information -- coming at people all the time -- that I wonder if the volume gets in the way of effectiveness.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

It's hard to pinpoint things that I could call 'my' accomplishments, because what I do involves so many other people. So much of my role has been to help foster a better public understanding of MIT, deal with critical institutional issues or problems, and build a stronger sense of community here. You can't do that alone -- you have to work with others. And that has been a source of great fulfillment for me.

One example does stand out, though. I am so proud of how MIT responded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- when people came together to support each other and our students in the most remarkable way. Chuck (Vest) was in the wilds of northwestern Canada and (then-Provost) Bob Brown was in southern California. They were in almost constant communication with campus, but there was no roadmap for how to deal with the situation -- except to bring people together and work with their ideas and their compassion to try to make this as safe and supportive a place as we could. And I have to say, people stepped up to the plate no matter what we asked. I have never been more proud of MIT.

What do you think is the secret to being successful at MIT?

First of all, I would say, be prepared; do your homework on whatever issue you're working on so you can really make the best possible contribution. And be prepared to take on new responsibilities -- recognize and seize the opportunities that are presented to you.

Also, learn the culture. One way to do this -- and to discover new opportunities -- is to participate in committees or task forces that cut across different areas of the Institute. In my early years at MIT, I learned a tremendous amount by serving on or staffing committees on everything from educational policy to job classification systems!

Another thing I feel strongly about is building teams, or just taking part in team projects. You learn so much from people who can bring different talents and different perspectives to whatever problem you're working on. Don't think you have to do it all yourself.

And always bring in the best people. Most of the people who have worked for me have been better than me in their areas of expertise. You really just need to hire the best. And always try to learn from the best, whether they work for you or you work for them.

What are your hopes for MIT going forward?

This country and this world are going to depend more and more on a deep understanding of science and technology and their implications. We have to make sure that we draw the best students to MIT -- including students who may not be born thinking they're going to be chemists or bioengineers. Or who have the interest and the talent but may not have seen MIT as a place for them. In the same vein, we also need to bring and keep the best faculty. That's how we'll have our best impact on the world.

And I hope MIT will play an even greater role in helping the larger society to understand the importance of science, technology and related fields to our collective future. In the '60s and '70s and even the '80s, I don't think that there was such a strong sense that we needed to educate the world about these things. But it's really critical that we do, and that -- as communicators -- we continue to work with the faculty so that not only their accomplishments but also their passion for what they do comes through.

We'll always be a leader in defining new fields. I hope that in five or 10 years MIT will be synonymous with the most important discoveries and approaches in energy, bioengineering and related fields. And I hope we will be synonymous with discoveries and fields that we don't yet imagine.

Finally, I hope that we will continue to find ways to support a better balance between work and family life. MIT is one of the most intense places on earth and finding that balance has always been a huge challenge for us. We keep making steps to recognize changing patterns and expectations, and I think we just have to keep working at that.

What are your plans for the future?

I'm going to do a great deal of traveling during this next year, but I'm also going to spend some time getting the planning started for MIT's 150th anniversary -- our sesquicentennial -- in 2011. We have a great history to celebrate, and we will. But this is also a wonderful occasion to come together to envision our future.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 14, 2006 (download PDF).

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