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Where we are headed at Stanford Engineering

I can’t think of a greater honor than being named the 10th dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering. The school is in terrific shape, and the 2014-15 SoE-Future strategic planning process, which I co-chaired with Arun Majumdar, gives us an exciting roadmap for years to come. In this, my first letter to you, I’d like to share some details about my background and thoughts about how they relate to where we’re headed.

My experience may be somewhat unusual for an engineering dean. I studied classical trumpet performance at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. In my third year I took a class called “Computer Applications in Music Research,” where we learned to program and do basic automated music analysis. (We used punch cards!) I was inspired to try an introductory computer science course and then a few more math and CS courses while I finished my music degree. I found that the rigor of those fields was as captivating for me as the aesthetics of music, and decided to pursue my MS in CS at Indiana and then my computer science PhD at Cornell.

That experience highlighted for me the complementary importance of humanities and sciences, as well as the unique role liberal arts universities play in helping young people chart the right paths for themselves. I often marvel that had I chosen a traditional music conservatory instead of one embedded within a university I might not be here today. Likewise, our engineering students benefit tremendously from the fact that we are housed within a great liberal arts university. Part of our job as educators is to promote the kind of broad education that widens our students’ horizons and enables their future success.

When I joined the Stanford faculty in 1993, my initial focus was within computer science: I taught classes that were mostly CS majors, and although I had many collaborations, they were mostly inside the CS department. Over time, particularly once I took on administrative roles, I began to more fully appreciate Stanford’s incredible breadth of excellence and unique ability to support and foster true interdisciplinary collaborations. Today’s students and young faculty are part of a generation that recognizes and realizes the potential of these kinds of collaborations more quickly than some of us did in the past. They appreciate that making progress on the world’s most pressing problems requires them to work together and think outside traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Doing my small part to help smooth the way, in 2015 I developed a new computer science course, CS102, that introduces Big Data tools and techniques to non-CS majors. Its first offering attracted students from 18 different majors and programs, from freshmen to MBA and medical students, to PhD candidates. On my recent sabbatical I broadened the reach of CS102 by traveling in the developing world offering free short-courses in Big Data along with workshops in Design Thinking.

In my new role as dean I’m extremely excited about the opportunity to rethink curriculum with broadened interests in mind, and to support programs like the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions and the d.school, designed specifically to bring together faculty, staff and students from all seven schools at Stanford and beyond. Of course we will continue to build on our initiatives to increase diversity within the School of Engineering, which have been showing some early successes in both students and faculty.

As we move ahead on SoE-Future, and as the university-level long-range planning process unfolds, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work again with Stanford Engineering’s ninth dean, Persis Drell, in her new capacity as provost, along with Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and the other Stanford deans. I’m also looking forward to meeting with faculty, staff, alumni and supporters of Stanford Engineering. I plan to send out a note like this one once a quarter or so to cover a range of topics, but as we build the future of SoE I welcome your thoughts at any time.

Jennifer Widom

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean, Stanford School of Engineering 
Fletcher Jones Professor in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering