The legacy of a WiSE woman

When she began teaching in the College of Engineering and Computer science at CSUN some 33 years ago, Dr. Bonita J. Campbell was the only female faculty member. When she retired in the spring of 2008, she left behind a legacy and illustrious career at CSUN as the first female tenured professor and dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

In those 33 years, Campbell devoted her time and energy to working to improve the department for students and faculty, as well as advocating for the inclusion and support of female students in a predominantly male dominated area of work and study.

About 150 family, friends and faculty gathered at the north portico outside of the Oviatt library on Feb. 26th. The view from the portico looked out at the department of engineering and computer science building, a fitting location to honor Campbell and her life’s work.

The event marked the official announcement of her gift to CSUN, the ‘Dr. Bonita J. Campbell Endowment for Women in Science and Engineering (W.I.S.E),’ that will be used to create a special study room in the Oviatt Library for students.

‘The fact that she was the first female chair of the department is a real testament to her unparalleled intelligence and incredible will. She’s not a person who is easily intimated, in fact that isn’t even remotely possible,’ said Dr. Harry Hellenbrand, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

Hellenbrand recalls meeting Campbell about five years ago when he began working at CSUN. What has always been evident, says Hellenbrand, is the amount of respect there is on campus for Campbell.

‘What was always striking is that when I would sit through graduation she knew virtually all the students by name and they would come and hug her,’ said Hellenbrand. ‘That is because of her devotion to students and being a mentor. Even though she is analytical and has the mind of an engineer she is also very people orientated and intent on helping people.’

Campbell established the department of Manufacturing Systems Engineering and Management. She also supervised graduate students and funded two endowments through the department to help the program and provide undergraduate student scholarships.

‘We didn’t have enough women when I first started to even start a society of women engineers so we decided to recruit women and started it. Then we had a governing board. We started having events and had help from faculty and had workshops to help the students. Slowly you make change,’ said Campbell.

‘During the years women have made great strides of success. Here at CSUN we thought we conquered the problem of the low numbers of female students in the department ten years ago. But no, we were wrong the statistics are the same as ten years ago, we still have work to do’ said Campbell.

One way to solve the problem is to continue visibility and provide this library room to focus on the needs of women engineers, centering activity there, said Campbell.

‘Facilitate moving forward on a situation that isn’t resolved, we can’t have a population that is half female but have a department and industry that doesn’t represent that, so my energy is devoted to that now,’ said Campbell.

‘Some words that can be used to describe Bonnie are determination, foresight and passion. Bonnie is someone who was passionate about what she did and was a real catalyst for change,’ said Dr. S.K. Ramesh, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. ‘Bonnie established five degree programs and has brought enormous pride and recognition to CSUN.’

Dr. Wanda Austin, CEO and president of the Aerospace Corporation, also spoke at the event. She worked with Campbell at the Aerospace Corporation from 1979 to 1986, at a time when women working in the field were rare.

‘Bonnie was always a leader and always a supporter of women standing up for themselves and being recognized as contributors and valuable members of the team. She is someone who while soft-spoken, is also very forceful,’ said Austin.

The industry has experienced significant progress and the number of women working at the Aerospace Corporation have dramatically increased, said Austin.

‘When Bonnie was there, there were very few women and now we have 500 women engineers and scientists, 20 percent of our general managers and 25 percent of our board of trustees are women,’ said Austin.

Obstacles still exist and engineering remains a field that men and not women are encouraged to enter, said Austin. Thirty years ago it was unusual for women to be in the engineering field and now having the choice and encouragement to pursue it as a career is what Campbell spent her life focusing on, said Austin.

Jackie Wollner, one of several former students in attendance at the event, recalled what an impact Campbell had on her experience at CSUN.

‘I was accepted in 1980 into the career facilitation program and Dr. Campbell was the sponsor. At that time there were not a lot of female students in the department and only about three female faculty members,’ said Wollner.

The support system that Campbell made available to the students was always constant and provided a great deal of strength, said Wollner.

‘I remember being one of the few female students in the masters program and I remember graduating and going into the professional field at that time. It was very challenging but I have seen the industry evolve and Dr. Campbell was always an advocate for that,’ said Wollner.

Even in retirement, Campbell continues to work hard to improve the conditions for students and advocates to increase the number of female students in the Engineering and Computer Science department, as well as the industry in general.

‘I am so honored by all the people who are here today. Just remember to pay it forward so someone else can be successful,’ said Campbell.