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Sheila E. Widnall, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics, has been named Institute Professor, the highest honor awarded by the faculty and administration at MIT.
According to MIT's Policies and Procedures, the title is reserved for those few individuals who have "demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment and service in the scholarly, educational and general intellectual life of the Institute or wider academic community."
In addition to the prestige associated with the title, an Institute Professor enjoys a distinctive measure of freedom. Reporting directly to the provost, she defines the scope and extent of her responsibilities at MIT.
"This is a high honor indeed, and we all congratulate Sheila and wish her the best in her new role at the Institute," said Edward F. Crawley, head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Usually, no more than 12 faculty members hold the title at any given time. Individuals are nominated for Institute Professorships by members of the faculty, after which an ad hoc faculty committee appointed by the chair of the faculty and the president prepares a full case for consideration by the Academic Council.
"Sheila personifies the essence of MIT: breakthrough science combined with extraordinary leadership to the Institute and in the service of the nation," said Lotte Bailyn, chair of the faculty and the T. Wilson (Class of 1953) Professor of Management.
Professor Widnall has been widely recognized as a woman of rare and pioneering accomplishments. After receiving the SB from MIT in 1960, she received the SM in 1961 and the ScD in 1964, all in aeronautics and astronautics. In 1964 she became the first woman appointed to the engineering faculty at MIT and in 1979 she became the first woman to chair the MIT faculty. She was appointed Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics in 1986.
In 1992 and 1993, she served as associate provost with special responsibility for issues affecting the quality of life for faculty. At several points during her career at MIT, she has been called upon to deal with highly complex and difficult institutional issues. In the late 1980s, she chaired a committee that developed a set of policies and procedures to be followed when major changes in the academic organization of the Institute are made -- recommendations that were adopted by the faculty in toto and that continue to be used today.
Professor Widnall served as Secretary of the Air Force from 1993-97. During that time, her accomplishments in the areas of acquisition reform, strategic planning and leadership were cited as having an enduring influence on the Air Force and as models for other services to emulate. She stepped down from that position of national leadership to return to her faculty position at MIT in October 1997.
She was the first woman president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is currently the vice president of the National Academy of Engineering.
Commenting on the appointment, Provost Robert A. Brown said, "Sheila Widnall's career and her impact on MIT, the academic community and the nation represent the best that the golden age of engineering science has to offer. Her career spans fundamental contributions to scholarship and engineering science research, includes important roles in the leadership and governance of MIT, and important service to the nation."
Professor Widnall is internationally recognized for her pathbreaking contributions to the field of fluid mechanics, specifically her work on the stability and dynamics of vortices and free shear layers. This work has made major contributions to the understanding and prediction of helicopter rotor blade aerodynamics and noise generation, unsteady loads on high-speed trains, and breakup and decay of aircraft wave vortices.
"Sheila Widnall represents the best of MIT in all its dimensions," said President Charles M. Vest. "She has made fundamental contributions to her field of fluid mechanics, has led our faculty, has dealt adroitly with some of the most difficult problems we have faced, has provided an almost unparalleled level of service to her profession through the National Academy of Engineering and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has performed remarkable service to the nation as Secretary of the Air Force."
Current Institute Professors include Noam Chomsky, linguistics; John M. Deutch, chemistry; Mildred S. Dresselhaus, electrical engineering and physics; Jerome I. Friedman, physics; John H. Harbison, music; John D.C. Little, management; Isadore M. Singer, mathematics, and Daniel I.C. Wang, chemical engineering.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 25, 1998.