Jayathi Murthy had never been on a plane before she flew to Pullman from her native India to further her studies in mechanical engineering. It was a bumpy ride. “Almost everything went wrong,” she recalls. “I missed every connection all the way.”
Murthy (’81 MS Mech. Eng.) ended up late at night at the Spokane airport, where a custodian let her sleep on an office couch. She completed the last leg of her long journey the next morning.
“It was really quite amazing,” she says more than 40 years later, still marveling at the warmth of the community she encountered in the Inland Northwest and at Washington State University—from the airport employee to fellow students and WSU professors who “took me seriously, which is something that I don’t know that anybody else had up to the point as a student and as a researcher. I used to look forward to getting up and going to class at 8 o’clock in the morning.”
Murthy envisioned a future as a researcher in the private sector, not as the top administrator of a public land-grant university in the Pacific Northwest. A national leader in engineering research and advocate of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, she was named president of Oregon State University last June. When she took office at Oregon’s largest university last September, Murthy became the first woman of color and sixteenth person overall to hold the position since OSU was established in 1868.
Being “the first” isn’t new to her. Since her mid-teens, “I have often been the only woman in the room. I’m used to it. You have a lot of eyes on you, so the things you do matter. If you do them well, they make a big impact because people notice.”
During the first half of her career, however, she “had no intention of becoming a department chair or dean or president or administrator or anything like that. I came to [academic leadership] pretty late.”
After earning a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Murthy taught at Arizona State University for four years before leaving for a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software start up. There she helped develop some of the most widely used CFD software in the world.
A decade later, she returned to academia as an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Then it was on to Purdue University and the University of Texas at Austin, where she was department chair. In 2016, she became the first female dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she established the UCLA Women in Engineering program.
Murthy has authored more than 330 technical publications and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a foreign fellow of the Indian National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She has served on the Engineering and Computer Science jury for India’s prestigious Infosys Prize since 2018. Her own research focuses on nanoscale heat transfer, computational fluid dynamics, and more.
Murthy describes her new role at OSU as “a huge opportunity to make a difference.” She aims to grow faculty research, including infrastructure and funding, as well as scholarship, innovation, and outreach—all with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“It’s important to bring in people of all backgrounds and make them successful here,” she says, particularly noting women and students of color. “I hope I can build bigger pathways for them. I think that is a responsibility that I have because of what I’ve been through. I come to the role with a certain kind of understanding, and I think it is incumbent upon me to use that understanding and responsibility to broaden student access and improve the climate for folks who enter academia in a similar position.”
Enrollment, driven by declining birth rates, is predicted to drop nationwide from 2025 onward. “This is a huge threat all across the board,” Murthy says. “We’re also going to be feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic going forward. We’re now feeling the impact of learning loss during COVID. Mental health challenges are also a big issue.”
State funding for public higher education and keeping costs down for students are particular priorities. So is Extension. “I’m really struck by how many boots on the ground we have and how connected we are in communities,” Murthy says. At the same time, “The land-grant mission is evolving. We’re increasingly experiencing issues of climate change and issues of urban growth and development.”
While focused on the future of OSU, Murthy has never forgotten her roots in American scholarship and carries “a deep sense of gratitude” for WSU. “WSU gave me my first shot in this country,” she says. “It was such a positive and encouraging experience. I want to make sure people know.”