By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
Wanda Austin, Ph.D., former head of a leading national security space program architect, credits an engineer’s thought process with helping prepare her for perhaps the toughest of the many challenges she’s overcome.
Dr. Austin, recognized internationally for her work in aeronautics and business development, was appointed on Aug. 7 as interim president of the University of Southern California as it seeks to overcome a series of scandals, most notably allegations of sexual abuse by a former campus gynecologist. She is the first woman and the first African-American to hold the lead role in the university’s history. Dr. Austin received SWE’s Upward Mobility Award in 2002.
“Engineers tend to do a very good job of taking a problem and breaking it into manageable pieces,” said Dr. Austin, who earned her doctorate in systems engineering at the Los Angeles-based USC, has served on the university’s board since 2010, and received its Presidential Medallion on April 24, 2018. “My training uniquely qualifies me to take on this broad base of an enterprise and be able to work through the systemwide implications.”
Dr. Austin said she sees her new role as a unique, yet daunting opportunity to restore a sense of safety and trust
to one of the world’s leading private research institutions, yet one plagued by leadership scandals. She replaces former university president C.L. Max Nikias, Ph.D., who resigned after hundreds of professors signed a letter demanding
he leave. The university and Dr. Nikias were criticized for failing to report to the state medical board reports that the campus health center’s long-time gynecologist had done inappropriate pelvic exams and made offensive remarks to patients. USC also came under scrutiny after a former medical school dean was reported to be using drugs and consorting with prostitutes, and his successor was forced to leave after the university said it had settled a sexual harassment case with one of his former researchers. The Los Angeles Times broke the stories.
Dr. Austin credited USC’s board for promoting a renewed focus on accountability. In May, the university created an office of professionalism and ethics, and is now putting resources into its leadership. “We’re listening to and engaging everyone in our community,” Dr. Austin said. “When we see an issue, we gather the facts and get to the root cause. We understand what we need to do so we don’t have a repeat.”
The university intends to create a national model for governance, Dr. Austin said, and it can do so from a strong base. Its 2018 incoming first-year class had the largest applicant pool in the university’s history, and ranked No. 15 in the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education survey of more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities, and stood at No. 3 in California behind Caltech and Stanford.
Leveraging a Variety of Experiences
Dr. Austin will draw on her own impressive personal history in rising from a humble background to achieve a remarkable career that included serving on President Barack Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, and Defense Science Board, as well as leading 4,000 employees at The Aerospace Corp., with $850 million in yearly revenues.
“Engineers tend to do a very good job of taking a problem and breaking it into manageable pieces. My training uniquely qualifies me to take on this broad base of an enterprise and be able to work through the systemwide implications.”
– Wanda Austin, Ph.D., Interim President, University of Southern California
She grew up in New York City’s Bronx, the middle of three sisters. Her father, a barber, did not go to high school, but her mother finished high school and later in life earned her college degree.
“I did not have any role models of engineers or scientists. I didn’t have any mentors,” Dr. Austin said of her coming of age in the 1960s. “But my parents wanted us to have an education. Civil rights was a very big issue.” She credits her seventh-grade math teacher, Gary Cohen, with telling her that she was good at math and shouldn’t let anyone tell her otherwise.
“That was critical for me to not shy away but to embrace [my talents],” Dr. Austin said. She attended The Bronx High School of Science and found that she appreciated the fact that “you knew if you had done your work correctly, you’d receive credit for it. Some other fields are very subjective, and there was still a lot of unconscious bias about an appropriate role for a woman.”
Dr. Austin’s next challenge came when the college that offered her the most generous financial aid package was Franklin & Marshall — a school in a small, rural Pennsylvania Dutch town in which she was one of a few African-Americans. Again, a teacher — math professor George Rosenstein, Ph.D., — took an interest in her and encouraged her to attend graduate school. After Dr. Austin earned her bachelor’s degree in math ematics, she attended the University of Pittsburgh, where Dr. Rosenstein, now emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall, had spent a sabbatical.
While at Pittsburgh, where Dr. Austin earned master’s degrees in both systems engineering and mathematics, she discovered the engineering students she tutored in math would make far higher salaries than she would with her degree. “That experience was pivotal,” she said.
Continually Meeting New Challenges
More challenges awaited. Her first job was in the aerospace industry in Southern California, which employed very few women in technical jobs, had very little diversity in the workforce, and was undergoing massive layoffs amid a downturn. “It was a very difficult situation,” Dr. Austin said. “People were clearly not enthusiastic in helping me start my career because they were so concerned about their jobs.”
She took a co-worker’s advice: Don’t assume it’s personal. Maybe there is a misunderstanding or people aren’t aware of your credentials. Dr. Austin also learned that “if you think you’re being treated unfairly, have the courage to speak up and make sure the leadership is aware there’s an imbalance in the way you’re being treated or perceived.” Additionally, Dr. Austin counseled to “first and foremost, be your best,” she said. “Be sure you are focused on putting in the work, so you know your subject matter and are able to contribute to solve problems. I focus on, ‘What can I contribute to making the project a success? The environment more positive?’”
Dr. Austin decided to look for a more welcoming workplace, and found it at The Aerospace Corp., whose clear focus was on embracing women and leveling the playing field so everyone could compete. “The [then-]new president, Eberhardt Rechtin, Ph.D., wanted everyone to have a shot at working on something interesting,” she said. That’s where Dr. Austin was introduced to an active SWE group, and where Dr. Rechtin urged her to earn a Ph.D., despite her responsibilities outside of work as a wife and mother of two young children.
Her decisions to join Aerospace and then take on the added challenge of earning a Ph.D. proved to be pivotal. Dr. Austin’s accolades throughout her career result in large part from these choices. She is internationally recognized for her work in satellite and payload system acquisition, systems engineering, and system simulation.
A member of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Austin is also a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She is a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among her many awards are the National Intelligence Medallion for Meritorious Service, the Air Force Scroll of Achievement, and the National Reconnaissance Office Gold Medal. In 2010, she received the AIAA von Braun Award for Excellence in Space Program Management, and is a recipient of the 2012 Horatio Alger Award, the 2012 NDIA Peter B. Teets Industry Award, and the 2014 USC Viterbi Distinguished Alumni Award.
In her role as interim USC president, Dr. Austin intends to leverage the career lessons she has learned. She points out that success comes from not only one’s expertise, but the ability to connect with mentors, male and female, who can give you advice about opportunities you can pursue and things you can do to make things better, she said.
“Have a network across your field, joining associations, even internationally,” she said. “It’s about finding your voice and feeling empowered when you think something’s not right. It’s about finding the right mechanism to make that known.”
2002 Suzanne Jenniches Upward Mobility Award
October 2002, the year that SWE moved its annual conference to the fall, was also the year that Wanda M. Austin, Ph.D., received SWE’s Upward Mobility Award, as it was called at the time. The award has since been renamed the Suzanne Jenniches Upward Mobility Award, after the SWE president who championed the establishment of the award. It is permanently endowed by Northrop Grumman, Jenniches’ former employer. Accordingly, “The Suzanne Jenniches Upward Mobility Award recognizes a woman with at least twenty (20) years of experience, who has succeeded in rising within her organization to a significant management position such that she is able to influence the decision making process and has created a nurturing environment for other women in the workplace.”
Dr. Austin’s citation read:
“Dr. Wanda Austin is the quintessential role model for all women. Her vision and achievements distinguish her in systems engineering and technical management. She is recognized for her educational outreach to the community and her commitment to encourage and advance women and other minority underrepresented groups in the engineering field.”