Q&A with CEE's first woman faculty member: Judith Liebman

Judith Liebman, from her time on the CEE faculty.Judith Liebman became the first woman on the CEE faculty in 1972, at a time when there was only one other woman faculty member in the College of Engineering. Liebman's original appointment was split between CEE and Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (which is now Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, or ISE). Liebman participated in a Q&A for the Winter 2018 issue of CEE Magazine, and her answers are reprinted below.

Were you interested in science/engineering as a child, and was that interest encouraged by your family and teachers?

My mother noticed my interest in science when I was in elementary school. My Christmas and birthday presents were often science kits. When I was about twelve years old she gave me a book, the biography of Marie Curie, written by her daughter.  That gave me the perspective that it was possible to have a scientific career and a family life also. 

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Colorado in Boulder, majoring in Physics. What had attracted me to Physics was the use of mathematics to model physical processes, particularly processes that were observable such as balls rolling down inclined planes. By the time I graduated, however,  physics research was more focused on less easily observed processes. 

My first job out of college was in 1958 at Convair Astronautics using an electric calculator to do the computations needed analyzing data from the early Atlas missile flights. After a few weeks I got the chance to move the calculations to an IBM 650 and became a computer programmer.

Continuing that theme, how/why did you get into Engineering, and what brought you to Illinois?

When my husband Jon was doing his PhD at Cornell in Environmental  Engineering, he minored in Operations Research and thought I might be interested in that. At that point, as a computer programmer for the General Electric Research Lab in Ithaca, my job enabled me to take a course a semester at Cornell. I fell in love with operations research because I could apply mathematical models to human decision processes to improve the outcomes. Jon’s first job teaching environmental engineering was at the Johns Hopkins University where I then got my doctorate in the Operations Research and Industrial  Engineering department.

We were extremely fortunate that the Civil Engineering Department wanted both of us on the faculty. At that time, 1972, it was against the University of Illinois rules to have both husband and wife on the faculty and it took the signature of the President of the university system to make an exception.

My original appointment was 60% in Civil Engineering and 40% in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE).

Were there many women faculty members in the College of Engineering when you joined? Women students?

In 1972 there was, I believe, a woman faculty member in the Physics Department but no other tenure track woman faculty member in the engineering departments. There were a few women engineering students, the exact percentage I don’t know. I think around 2%.

For how long were you the sole woman faculty member at CEE, and what kind of challenges did you face? 

I moved over full time to the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department in 1978 when Jon became the Head of CEE. One of the reasons for my original appointment in CEE was that Professor Newmark wanted an Operations Research (OR) faculty member and I was interested in learning more about Civil Engineering applications of OR. Once I had good friends and a research “foot” in CEE  I was happy to move over to MIE with other OR faculty full time. There were still not other women in MIE, but that never fazed me. 

What was a typical day like?

Impossible to describe briefly, because I was involved in many aspects of campus and professional life.  Professors’ lives are much more than teaching and research. As a citizen of the campus I participated in campus government and program review. As a citizen of the community I got involved with health planning. I was actively involved in the Operations Research Society of America and eventually served as its President.

What did you find most rewarding about teaching? Most frustrating?

Most rewarding was seeking and developing strategies for helping students learn the techniques of operations research. Most frustrating was assigning numerical grades to tests and assignments.      

Were you conducting research during this time? If so, what was the topic?

Many topics, ranging from health planning to transportation systems and building design.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share about your experiences in CEE at Illinois?

The CEE department and the university gave me the resources (excellent students, computers, support and time) I needed. For that I will be forever grateful. 


ISE has also published an interview with Liebman, which can be viewed here. A short video produced to accompany the article is available below.