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March 5, 2018 Business leaders of the year

Leshin has taken WPI to new heights

Photo | Nathan Fiske Laurie Leshin, Ph.D.

If a girl in high school wants to see an example of how a woman can be successful in science, she can look to Laurie Leshin. If anyone wants to feel like being a science nerd is a badge to wear proudly, the WPI president can help there, too.

Leshin didn’t become the head of Worcester Polytechnic Institute to show off the benefits of a STEM education, or to be something of a social media star, with nearly 6,000 Twitter followers and a handle – @LaurieofMars – to show off her love of outer space.

But she has. Besides, how many college presidents have an asteroid named after them?

Four years have passed since Leshin became WPI’s first female president, and in the past year Leshin has raised the engineering school’s profile significantly: starting a new global studies program, opening a new location in Boston’s Seaport District, standing up for her international students against President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and reaching record levels of female students and staff at the 153-year-old school.

“She’s looked to as a leader among her peers,” said Jeanine Went, the executive director of the Higher Education Consortium of Central Massachusetts.

Growing WPI’s presence

Under Leshin, WPI has made an aggressive push into Boston’s hotbed of tech companies, innovation and young talent. It is WPI, not Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that has a classroom and collaboration space in the Seaport.

“We’re not going to out-MIT MIT in Cambridge, but there’s no other university in the Seaport,” Leshin said.

Starting with the the Class of 2022, WPI is giving each student $5,000 to complete a project at one of the more than 40 WPI project centers on six continents. This program, Global Projects for All, is meant to encourage more students to conduct their work out in the field and understand the world at large.

Phil Ryan, who chaired the school’s board of trustees in Leshin's first two years as president, said school officials were struck by Leshin’s desire to take advantage of the potential impact of the student projects.

“It clearly puts us on the map in a very profound way,” Ryan said.

Leshin is working to ensure foreign students can still study in the United States amid a federal proposal to tighten travel restrictions from Muslim-majority countries. WPI, which has roughly 1,400 international students, was among dozens of colleges signing on to a legal challenge to Trump’s travel ban last year.

“Students should be allowed to study here if that is their wish,” Leshin said.

A more inclusive WPI

Since Leshin took over as president, funding once set aside for merit-appeal financial aid now goes toward attracting more women to study science, technology, engineering and math. Last fall, 44 percent of WPI’s freshmen class was female, an all-time high.

Leshin said WPI can become a national leader among tech schools when it comes to gender diversity.

“That would be a the goal,” she said. “We’re not the very best in the country, but we’re getting up there.”

Ryan called Leshin a great ambassador for the school, and an effective communicator who carefully considers every decision.

Leshin has had a broader role beyond WPI in her time as president, said Went. “Her presence has really made a difference in attracting females to STEM fields and to applying to WPI,” Went said. “That’s something that can be felt in our community.”

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