Computer scientist Jennifer Widom named dean of Stanford School of Engineering
Widom, an innovator in engineering education, taught one of Stanford’s first MOOCs.
Jennifer Widom, a professor of computer science and of electrical engineering at Stanford University for 24 years, has been named dean of the School of Engineering, Provost Persis Drell announced Monday.
A distinguished researcher in data and information management, Widom, 56, is also an innovator in engineering education. Widom taught one of Stanford’s first massive open online courses (MOOCs) and over the past year has been traveling the world teaching computer science in developing countries. Most recently she served as senior associate dean, where she co-led a long-range planning effort with colleague Arun Majumdar to map the future trajectory of one of the world’s leading engineering schools. She will assume her new post March 13.
“Jennifer understands the bottom-up nature of Stanford and how that drives innovation here, and her work leading the SOE-Future initiative was stellar,” said Drell, who stepped down from the dean position Jan. 31 to become provost. “Jennifer can bring out the best in the people she works with. She embraces a bold vision of the future and a strong desire to support our faculty, staff and students.”
Widom, the Fletcher Jones Professor in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, served as Computer Science Department chair from 2009 to 2014 and senior associate dean from 2014 to 2016.
Widom’s interest in helping the world adopt knowledge of computer science led her to create one of the first three Stanford MOOCs in the fall of 2011, a course called Introduction to Databases that continues to attract thousands of students in an online self-study version. Widom chose to spend her sabbatical this academic year teaching short-form courses on big data and design-thinking workshops in 15 countries around the globe, including Peru, Tanzania and Bangladesh. She will curtail her spring travel plans to assume her new role as dean.
“This is an amazing time to be taking the reins of the School of Engineering, just as the university is embarking on its own long-range planning under a new administration,” Widom said. “While Persis was dean, a number of exciting initiatives were launched as a result of the SOE-Future planning process, and I’m extremely excited to see them through: the Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions, new initiatives in improving diversity at all levels, and support for our non-tenure-line educators are a few examples that I feel very passionate about.”
Search committee co-chair, Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Richard Luthy, said of Widom: “Jennifer has outstanding leadership skills and a broad and worldly vision of the future of engineering research and education. We are so fortunate that she will be the next dean.”
As dean, Widom will oversee a school that enrolls about 5,300 students and has more than 240 faculty members, including 130 national and international academy and society members. All nine of the school’s departments are ranked in the top five nationally. Stanford Engineering has been at the forefront of innovation for nearly a century, creating pivotal technologies that have transformed the worlds of information technology, communications, health care, energy, business and more.
Widom said that one of her primary objectives will be to further integrate the school with the rest of the university.
“It has become evident to me that there are many opportunities for the School of Engineering to become better integrated across the university,” Widom said. “I’ve set a long-term end goal: I’d like every faculty member in the university, regardless of field, to feel fortunate that they are in a university with a top engineering school, just as engineering faculty benefit tremendously from Stanford’s strengths across the whole range of disciplines.”
Widom will also seek to expand opportunities for engineering undergraduates to explore a wide curriculum.
“Stanford undergraduates have a broad range of interests and talents, and I don’t like to see them getting pigeon-holed or bogged down,” she said. “College is a time for exploration. I hope we can take a close look at the curriculum and find a way for students who are interested in engineering to also have significant opportunities for experiencing the breadth of the university.”
Widom’s own undergraduate major was music. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 1982 and her computer science doctorate from Cornell University in 1987.
Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1993, Widom was a researcher at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose.
Widom’s research has always been focused on data management. Her group pioneered foundations and software systems for many nontraditional types and applications of data, including active databases, semi-structured data, data streams, uncertain data and data provenance. By placing all of her group’s prototype software in the public domain, and providing technical advice to companies both big and small, she has influenced a wide swath of commercial data management and analysis tools over the years.
Her research long predates the term “big data” and the recognition that data collection and analysis are critical to many aspects of scholarship and society. The increasing relevance of her own research area makes Widom particularly attuned to ways in which scholars of engineering and computer science can partner with others in a wide variety of fields.
Widom is an Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She received the ACM-W Athena Lecturer Award in 2015, the ACM SIGMOD Edgar F. Codd Innovations Award in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000.
Work-family balance has been important throughout Widom’s career. She took a year off in 2007 to travel the world with her family when her children were young. Her son is now a senior at Stanford; her daughter is a sophomore at Harvard. Her husband, Professor Alex Aiken, is currently the chair of the computer science department at Stanford, having succeeded Widom in that role in 2014.