Meet Dr. Harriet Nembhard, Harvey Mudd College’s Sixth President!

By Shivani Manivasagan

On July 1, 2023, Dr. Harriet Nembhard will officially become Harvey Mudd College’s sixth president. She will succeed President Maria Klawe, who has served as president for 17 years. 

Dr. Nembhard is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, where she took part in the 3-2 Management Engineering program with Arizona State University, and she completed her Ph.D. in Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan. Ever since, Dr. Nembhard has been extensively involved in academic leadership at all levels, as a professor, director, and dean. Her research is widely published and encompasses many fields, from medical manufacturing to co-curricular STEM education.

The Muddraker sat down with Dr. Nembhard to welcome her to Mudd and get to know her better. Read on to learn more about Mudd’s new president!

Q: How would you introduce yourself to the Mudd community?

That’s such a generous question. I appreciate that you are helping me get introduced to the Mudd community. I can start from the top.

My academic discipline is industrial engineering. I’ve been an industrial engineer since I was about eight years old — although I didn’t know that was what it was called at the time. My dad was a pilot; he was a captain in the Air Force, then he flew commercially for Eastern Airlines. And he absolutely loved flying — we would sometimes go to the airport on his days off. But my questions for him weren’t about the planes or about flight. They were things like, “Why are the big planes over there and the little planes all over there?” And, “How does the suitcase get from the sidewalk to the correct plane?” These are essentially systems questions.

I went on to be formally trained in industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan. My husband and I both did our Ph.D.s in this area at the same time, and we have three daughters who are all adults now and had the great fortune of being parented using systems principles. A story that I tell is that when the girls were little, for Easter egg hunts, they each had specific colors of the plastic eggs that they had to find. If they saw an egg with their color, they could put it in their basket. If the egg was not their color, then they were just to keep quiet and move along. The oldest had colors that were well-hidden, the middle daughter had colors that were a little easier to find, and the youngest had colors that were practically just out and open on the lawn. This was a homespun version of capacity planning, which is an industrial engineering and systems concept to match skills for capabilities and capacity. But now that my daughters are older, they can also use that experience to explain the difference between equitable versus equal treatment — if we had hidden all the eggs very hard, then the youngest wouldn’t have had a fair game.

Another story that I often tell is that I’m a fourth-generation educator. My great-grandma started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in 1906, and we’ve had teachers in every generation since. So, being in academia and teaching is a part of my DNA.

Q: How was your undergraduate experience at CMC? What were your thoughts on Mudd when you were a Claremont student?

I’ve said to some colleagues that life rhymes, so to be able to return to Claremont now feels like a welcome home. When I was a student at CMC, I was very focused on my work, and my knowledge of the other schools was pretty limited to walking around the campuses or eating in the other dining halls. Mudd had a reputation as a very distinctive college for STEM that was a little quirky — I do remember walking around Mudd’s campus, captivated by the unicyclists. 

I was pursuing the dual-degree management engineering program at CMC. The ME program was a 3-2 program where you did your first 3 years at Claremont McKenna College focused on your science, math, and liberal arts preparation, and then 2 years studying engineering at a partner institution. My high school science seminar teacher introduced me to this program, and it was a good fit. I really give the program all the credit as my launching pad.

But that said, those years had some highs and lows for me both personally and academically, and some of the struggles that I had are probably familiar to others across the 5Cs. I went from being one of the top students in my high school to feeling like I had to compete with many talented students. And while I’d taken physics in high school, I didn’t seem to have the same background and preparation as some of my fellow ME students. So I had to pursue every tutoring resource that I could. On the personal side, my family did not have a lot of disposable income, so after doing the 3 years at CMC, I had to take time off and plan to save enough money to pay for the 2-year portion of the dual degree at Arizona State University where I had in-state tuition. That was a fitful and scary time for me, because you don’t get either degree until you finish both parts. So I left CMC feeling like I didn’t have a guarantee to continue the other 2 years. But I found a job, and fortunately, my grandmother was able to assist me, so I ended up having to take only one semester off, and I graduated in December 1990.

Q: Why did you choose to work in college administration, as opposed to going into industry or academic research?

At different points in my career, I have done all three. I’ve worked in industry through internships — for example, in graduate school, I worked with American Airlines decision technologies and finally got my chance to do airline modeling and airport simulations. And I learned how to solve that baggage operations question I was curious about as a child. Those experiences in industry ended up shaping how I did my doctoral research, which was about manufacturing transitions and mathematical models that would help reduce waste as you went from one system to another. Over the next 20 years or so, I did academic work on some of the same challenges in manufacturing and healthcare that I understood to be important from when I was in industry. Even as an academic, I would still develop partnerships with companies as a part of my lab’s work. 

As I became more senior in academia, there was a progression of increasing responsibilities. I began to realize that people in the academy needed care, support, and community, and that the procedures and incentives of the way we do things really needed to evolve. I wanted to help to bring about some of that change. Academia has been quite an opportunity for me, and now as an administrator, I’m entrusted with making it better. So, I feel like all of this has worked together; it’s all very integral.

Q: Will you continue to be engaged with teaching at Mudd?

Although I won’t be able to give as many classroom lectures, I’ll still be teaching and learning in different ways. I’m still curious and animated by empowering questions — such as how we can use big data to achieve parity in education outcomes. I did some recent NSF work on co-curricular education and humanizing STEM education. I’m also interested in how we can more positively impact society through our technical advancements and innovation. Although it’s not the same exact way of teaching and learning, I’m still using my skill set to do work that I’m really passionate about — improving higher ed.

Q: What drew you to Mudd?

What drew me to Mudd was its mission. There are so many phenomenal people at Mudd, and the community is amazing. And I realized that this was an opportunity to impact an integrated STEM and liberal arts education  — which was literally what formed me when I did the 3-2 program with ME at Claremont McKenna and engineering at ASU. It started to really sink into my bones, and I felt that maybe this is what all of these 33 years of experience could have been leading up to. I’m really excited to join a college that’s so committed to helping students who care about having a positive impact on society.

Q: How do the job responsibilities of Harvey Mudd’s President differ from those of previous positions that you have held?

I’ve had several experiences across higher ed — as a faculty member at each rank, as a center director, as a department head, and as a dean of engineering. As a dean in a university setting, you have many of the same responsibilities as a college president — strategic planning, fiscal responsibility for the institution, promoting excellence and excitement in teaching and research (and making sure this very centered on the students), serving as the public face of the school, meeting with legislators and donors, institutional fundraising, and more. I’m really excited about the advantage that Harvey Mudd has to adapt and improve its educational offerings and opportunities, and then be a leader to share that with other institutions who very much look toward Mudd in this space.

I do expect, as a president, to have a much deeper role in getting to know the community, having real in-depth conversations around our best ideas and how to use those to advance the college and its mission. So I’m looking forward to doing that work with the community and then raising the money to fund our dreams.

Also, I enjoy getting to know students, and I’m already coming up with a number of ways that I will help to engage students, such as with respect to ASHMC and leadership across the school.

Q: What is your vision for Mudd? What incentives are you personally most excited about? For example, what are your thoughts on student wellbeing at Mudd? Have you read the Wabash Report?

One of the things that I said as I was interviewing is that I think it’s important to work with the Mudd community to create the presidency that Harvey Mudd needs for this moment. The vision for Mudd is something that we will create together. Some empowering questions that we can ask are: With our responsibility in STEM, how can we positively impact a billion people through our research, teaching, and engagement? What is distinctive about Mudd’s ability to help to lead that and remake the world, and how can we build on that? How do we revisit the mission and recommit to it?

As I was getting to know the Mudd community, I learned that one of Mudd’s big open questions is whether or not to grow enrollment. I really want to hear what people have to say about that. This is also related to the issue of dorm space — the residential campus is important.

When I visited Mudd, students did share about the Wabash Report, and I read it. Across the country, we’ve seen issues of mental health just become more prominent, especially given the isolation and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward, I really want to hear more from students across Harvey Mudd to see how we can build layers of wellness into our community. What’s resonating with students around wellness and well-being, and what support systems are needed? And as we have those conversations and think about our strategic priorities, it’s important to remember that STEM is people-focused — it’s people-driven, and it’s people who are going to advance the priorities for the college, so we need to support them.

Q: Now for some lighter questions before we wrap up! What are your hobbies?

I enjoy traveling! So far, I’ve visited 41 of the U.S. states, several Caribbean islands, and about 10 other countries. You might see me taking walks around Claremont on weekends. I love classic R&B and jazz music, especially live. Also, I’ve enjoyed many forms of dancing over the years, from ballet (I took a class at Scripps in undergrad) to tap, ballroom, and African dance — if it’s a dance, I’m interested to learn it!

Q: What’s a fun fact about you?

I enjoy making paper airplanes and helicopters with my five-year-old grandson! We have a few designs that we’ve made hundreds of times — the Mighty Eagle is our favorite.

Q: What advice or life lessons would you like to share with Mudders?

Show up for yourself, and show up for your neighbor.

Showing up for yourself means you need to prioritize doing the work to achieve your goals and also your wellbeing. It means you honor your values and celebrate your victories.

Showing up for your neighbor means you take time to inquire how people in your community are really doing, and you advocate for other people’s success. Listen with an open heart and a curious mind — especially when you may disagree.

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