Eleanor K. Baum
This year Miriam’s Cup honors Eleanor K. Baum, the daughter of Holocaust survivors and the first woman dean of an engineering school.
Named after Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor was born in 1940 to Salamon and Niuta Kiszelewicz in Vilnius at the outbreak of World War II. Her parents fled in the middle of the night with forged documents and hidden jewelry, traveling first to Japan, where they arranged passage on the last refugee ship to leave. They lived in Canada, but eventually settled in New York.
When Eleanor was in high school in the 1950s, it was a simple world with definitive society expectations for a woman’s role. Women became secretaries, or, if they went to college, a teacher or a nurse. But Eleanor liked science and math classes and realized one day that many guys in her classes wanted to study engineering. She had no idea what engineers did, but one day when her mother was annoying her she rebelled and announced that she was going to major in engineering. “You can’t do that,” said her mother. “People will think you’re weird and no one will marry you!” Likewise, when she told her high school guidance counselor that she was thinking about studying engineering, she got a similar negative response.
But Eleanor persevered and applied to engineering schools. One of them didn’t even bother to send her a rejection letter; they called her on the phone to explain that they could not accept her because they did not have a ladies’ restroom! She did go to engineering school at City College in New York, where she was the only woman in the class. The biggest challenge was that, to her professors, she represented all women. If she didn’t know the answer or she had difficulty with a task, they would make comments about how ill-suited women were to become engineers.
After college, Eleanor first worked in the aeronautical industry, but was bored and returned to graduate school at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. While in graduate school, Eleanor married physicist Paul Baum. They have two daughters: Elizabeth and Jennifer. She received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1964, with applause as the very pregnant Eleanor walked across the stage to accept her diploma.
Baum joined the faculty of the engineering department at the Pratt Institute, becoming the chair of the department, then its dean in 1984, the first woman dean of a U.S. engineering school. In 1989, she has been the dean of the Cooper Union College of Engineering. She had held leadership roles in numerous professional associations; for example, she is the first female president of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), has served as president of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and has sat on the National Science Foundation's Engineering Advisory Board. She also serves on the board of directors for many corporations, including Avnet and Allegheny Energy.
Eleanor Baum has received many awards from universities and professional societies, and has been awarded honorary doctorates by 4 colleges. She was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1966 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
Throughout her career, Eleanor has had a passionate commitment to bring more women into the engineering profession. She spends a lot of time talking to high school groups, parents, and guidance counselors to give them a clear picture of the engineering profession and to project a positive role model for women. In her first 12 years at Cooper Union Engineering School, she has increased the female engineering enrollment from 5% to 38%.
Eleanor believes that women must have the both the vision as well as the opportunity to maximize their potential and to find their life’s work. “The trick is not to lose sight of your dream,” says Eleanor. “Hard work and dedication will help you overcome any obstacle. But remember, you are your own best judge of what you can do.”
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