Leading the Way: A Conversation with Ilene Busch-Vishniac
By Josa Hanzlik and Peggy Layne
Enough studies! Ilene Busch-Vishniac wishes people would stop doing study after study on increasing women in STEM and "simply start moving faster to implement." She also believes that "as long as the issues of women in STEM remain primarily issues that receive attention from women, we will never make enough progress. We need many, many more men actively engaged and working hard to support equity." In the meantime, Busch-Vishniac keeps working to increase diversity and equity.
The Road to Saskatchewan
Dr. Ilene Busch-Vishniac is currently president and vice-chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan. She began her college career studying piano at the Eastman Conservatory, but a freshman physics class at the University of Rochester caught her interest. She graduated with degrees in physics and math, with a focus on acoustics. After obtaining graduate degrees in mechanical engineering at MIT, Busch-Vishniac worked as a postdoctoral fellow and member of the technical staff at Bell Labs before joining the faculty at the University of Texas, where she rose through the faculty ranks. She became one of the first female engineering deans in the United States in 1998 when she moved to Johns Hopkins University. From Hopkins, Busch-Vishniac was recruited to become provost at McMaster University in Ontario, where she spent five years before accepting her current position.
Support and "Real Life" Decisions
Ilene and her husband, astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, have two daughters and one grandchild. They married when she finished her undergraduate years. Busch-Vishniac says "My husband and I compromised on Boston - he was at Harvard and I was at MIT. I had thought that we might go off to California but it didn't work out that way." After graduate school, Busch-Vishniac was offered an opportunity to join a faculty, however the couple instead decided to move to New Jersey where Busch-Vishniac did a post-doc at Bell Labs while her husband was a post-doc at Princeton. Accepting positions at the University of Texas at Austin for Busch-Vishniac and her husband turned out to be the best next step for the couple, so they started at UT Austin in 1981.
Busch-Vishniac had a wonderful career at UT Austin, beginning as a lowly assistant professor with "fabulous students and wonderful collaborators." She considers herself very lucky and believes she was in the right place at the right time, however, she points out that she was only the third woman hired in a college with close to 300 faculty members. "I found out that I was promoted with tenure three days before my first child was born, which was great," says Busch-Vishniac. "I was promoted early and they didn't worry about the fact that I was pregnant and about to have a family. In fact, I was told by several people that they figured since I was having children it meant I was putting down roots and would stay."
Busch-Vishniac's first foray into academic leadership was at the University of Texas where she became the associate chair for academic affairs. She reports "The department decided it was time to look for a new chair, but in spite of the fact that I had been the number two for quite some time, there was not even a nod made to my potential to serve as the department chair." Deciding it was time to move on, she searched for the right opportunity and ultimately moved, this time for Busch-Vishniac's career and not her husband's. They moved to Johns Hopkins where she became Dean of Engineering. After serving as dean for five years, Busch-Vishniac felt it was time for someone else to step in because she had accomplished what she could. The next step was accepting a position as Provost at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. That was a fabulous experience, giving her the chance to learn a new system in a new university, a new country, and a new city. Busch-Vishniac says "The president who hired me retired after three years, and after working with the new president for a year I started looking for alternatives." She felt she was ready to be a president at that point, which led to Saskatchewan.
Most satisfying contribution to women in STEM
Busch-Vishniac's most satisfying contribution has been mentoring others who have gone on to be incredibly successful, particularly faculty. She says "When I was at Texas and they were interviewing women, they would typically have the women meet with me or another woman faculty member." Rebecca Richards-Kortum was one of the faculty members hired while she was in Texas. Busch-Vishniac recalls "I was pregnant at the time and we had a long conversation about having a family and children and still doing well. Later, when Rebecca was pregnant with her first child, she came to see me and told me she would never have considered doing that had she not had that conversation with me and seen me as a role model." That positive moment, affirming the work Busch-Vishniac had done in mentoring new women faculty members, was very gratifying. Busch-Vishniac relates "Rebecca went on to grow a large family and is now a department head at Rice University."
"As President, I don't get to choose my successor," says Busch-Vishniac. She continues, "as Provost, I didn't get to choose my successor, nor did I as a dean. As a mentor you help shape the next generation." If you want to ask how you leave a lasting legacy, Busch-Vishniac believes "you leave a lasting legacy through people." Throughout her career as a pioneering woman leader in engineering, she has advocated for increased diversity and equity, by mentoring other women and by advocating for curriculum changes in engineering to attract more diverse students. While the programming is important, she doesn't think you leave a lasting legacy through programs. "I think it's great to start new programs that help you find and retain and mentor and maintain the success of people. Those programs are important, but I think it's the people that form the legacy-not the program itself."
Leadership can be lonely
According to Busch-Vishniac, "Academic administration, in particular for women, can be very isolating. It is very hard to find peers and you need to have people you can talk to that don't have a vested interest in seeing you fail or succeed." She says you need people who will be brutally honest with you. She shared "when you become a department head, suddenly all of the people who were your friends don't want to talk to you. When you become a dean, no one wants to talk to you in the college. When you become a provost, it's hard to find friends who don't use social engagements to ask you for more money. " She says "there are days when I just talk to my husband and the dog!"
To combat the isolation, Busch-Vishniac stayed in touch with other women. The first woman who was an engineering dean was Eleanor Baum (Pratt Institute and Cooper Union), and then Denice Denton (University of Washington), followed by Busch-Vishniac (Johns Hopkins), Janie Fouke (Michigan State), and Linda Katehi (Purdue). Those women, along with Kris Johnson (Duke), became a close group. "When one of us had a problem or questions or personal issues," says Busch-Vishniac, "we might call up one of the others. That way we could talk to someone undergoing the same experience without the news getting all over the campus in a way that might have a negative backlash."
What does Ilene recommend for women who want an academic administration career? Find support. "The key is that I have had a very supportive spouse. Early on we moved for his career and then later to further my career. The advice I give to those who are thinking about academic administration is this. Firstly, choose your partner wisely because if you are going to become an academic administrator, you will have to move on a fairly regular basis. It is very unusual at the best schools for them to advance people internally, and that means you will have to move. That means that you have to have a cooperative family."
A broader perspective
In just her second year as president of the University of Saskatchewan, Busch-Vishniac has a mandate that includes women in STEM issues but also includes a much broader focus. She views one of her key issues as equity, which is related more broadly to culture than specifically women. "Saskatchewan has a million people, and our fastest growing demographic is people who self-identify as Aboriginal," according to Busch-Vishniac. "They are First Nations, which in the States is termed Native American, but in Canada we don't say native Canadian, we say Aboriginal." The population is currently about 15% self-identified Aboriginal in the province, but it is predicted that within ten years kindergartens will be for the first time majority Aboriginal. Busch-Vishniac states "the fraction of Aboriginal learners who come from families with a tradition of going to college or university is very low, so that very much flavors what we as an institution feel is a compelling mandate in order to improve diversity and equity in our colleges." Among the Aboriginal students who come to university, they are heavily weighted in favor of females, which creates a very complex issue. Busch-Vishniac is spending a lot of time on the issues of diversity and equity broadly defined. We look forward to following her progress!