A Systems Thinker

Harriet Nembhard ’91, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa, couples efficiency with imagination

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Long before she became an industrial engineer, Harriet Nembhard ’91 would ask her father, a pilot, questions like: Why are all the small planes on one side of the airport and the large ones on the other? How does a piece of luggage get to its assigned aircraft?

“I could identify the planes, too,” she said, “but I had systems questions. These types of questions have always intrigued me.”

Fast forward to now, and Nembhard serves as the dean of the University of Iowa College of Engineering and holds the Roy J. Carver Professorship in Engineering. Her career has taken Nembhard from manufacturing to healthcare, from PepsiCo to General Mills, from Pennsylvania State to Oregon State universities. The focus of her work has always been the same: to improve complex systems and make them run more efficiently.

“Claremont McKenna gave me the confidence that I could do more than one thing at a time, that I could pursue multiple good ideas.”

—Harriet Nembhard ’91

As a professor at Penn State from 2004 to 2016, she directed the first center for healthcare transformation and helped create more efficient hospitals and clinics. Working with colleagues in medicine, nursing, health policy, and information technology, Nembhard changed how patients, healthcare workers, and information move through the system, thereby significantly reducing patient wait times and medical errors.

“This kind of transformation takes a lot of work,” she said. “But it is creative, interdisciplinary, and tremendously engaging. I love imagining what’s next, what’s better, what’s possible.”

At UI, Nembhard uses systems questions to frame her work as a dean. A fourth-generation educator—her great-grandmother was a schoolteacher in Georgia—she has long felt a personal responsibility to promote inclusion and equity in higher education.

“Black and brown people are under-supported, under-guided, and under-resourced,” she said. “We have to think about the ways we can dismantle some of the hurdles to diversity and take responsibility for a system of minoritizing.”

The shifts she would like to see include a realignment of university budgets and prioritizing community partnerships.

Nembhard, who serves Claremont McKenna College as an Alumna Trustee, joined the freshman class at age 16 in the 3+2 Engineering Program. She later earned a PhD from the University of Michigan.

For a systems thinker like Nembhard, CMC’s interdisciplinary approach was a good fit. Reflecting on her management-engineering double major, she said, “Claremont gave me the confidence that I could do more than one thing at a time, that I could pursue multiple good ideas.”

—Christina Schweighofer

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