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Air Force Secretary Widnall Leaves Post, Returns to MIT


Courtesy of the MIT News Office
Secretary of the Air Force Shelia E. Widnall '60 announced her plans last week to return to MIT from a four year leave of absence.

By Katharyn Jeffreys and Douglas E. Heimburger

Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall '60, a former associate provost, announced last week that she plans to leave her post and return to MITas a professor of aeronautics and astronautics on October 31.

"As Ihave planned all along, Iwill return to MIT,"Widnall wrote in a letter to President Clinton. "Iam proud to have served you and our nation, and Isincerely thank you for this opportunity you've given me."

Widnall took a leave of absence from MITto become Secretary of the Air Force in August 1993.

Widnall served as leader of the Air Force during a period marked by problematic incidents. Among these were the adultery case of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn and the fallout from the bombing of a facility housing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia during 1996.

"Four years is quite a long leave of absence at any institution. MIThas been more than generous," Widnall said in an interview.

The White House has so far made no announcements regarding who will be nominated to succeed Widnall.

Widnall's role at MIT undecided

While Widnall's return to campus is anticipated by the administration, her full role at the Institute has not yet been determined.

Widnall resigned from her administrative duties at MIT to become Secretary of the Air Force. However, her leave of absence allows her to return to her position as a professor of aeronautics andastronautics, Widnall said.

Widnall is "looking forward to coming back" and being able to "interact with students," she said.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Widnall said she was departing to teach and to perform "duties in the senior administration of MIT."

"We are expecting Dr. Widnall to return to theMITfaculty and have discussed a variety of possible leadership roles with her,"said President Charles M. Vest in a statement. "No firm plans have been made at this time."

Widnall said she is prepared to assume any administrative position that Vest deems appropriate. However, because a conflict of interest exists due to her role in the military, Widnall will not be able to work to implement the modified Reserve Officer Training Corps program. The ROTChas come under fire recently for procedures barring openly homosexual individuals from full participation in the program. This conflicts with the Institute's policy of non-discrimination.

Love for academia applauded

Government officials and MIT community members alike say they respect Widnall's decision to leave her government post.

"I can appreciate your desire to return to the challenging world of academia at MIT," Cohen said in his response to Widnall's letter of resignation.

"She decided to come back to MIT, which shows she has a real love for academic life and the Institute," said Edward F. Crawley, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and head of the department.

While Widnall could have taken a senior position in government or industry, she instead decided to return to MIT, a reflection of her enthusiasm, Crawley said. "I think [her return] will be fabulous for the Institute."

Widnall is vocal about her commitment to academia, and specifically the Institute. "I've enjoyed my time at MIT and my opportunity to make contributions," she said. "MITis my home."

Recognized for achievements

After receiving her doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT, Widnall held many positions, most recently serving as a professor ofaeronautics andastronautics and as an associate provost. In her own words, Widnall has spent her "entire adult life at MIT."

Widnall was involved heavily in student affairs and academic integrity at the Institute. After serving as the chair of the Committee on Discipline during the Introduction to Computers andEngineeringProblem Solving (1.00) cheating scandal of 1990 ["COD Rules on 1.00 Students," Feb. 5, 1991], she called for an honor code for students.

Internationally, Widnall is well-known for her expertise in fluid dynamics, specifically in the areas of aircraft turbulence and vortices created by helicopters. She also holds two patents, one of which is on an aerodynamic device for either water or air vehicles.

Widnall was the first female to serve as the chair of the faculty at MIT and the first female secretary of the Air Force.