OSU President Jayathi Y. Murthy brings life experience to leadership.
The women’s movement for equality was still very new in India when Jayathi Y. Murthy started college in the 1970s. Today, as Oregon State University’s 16th president, she brings a career-long focus on inclusivity and access to her role as the first woman of color to lead the university.
Encouraged by her mother to try new things, Murthy entered the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur at age 16. She was one of two women in an engineering class of 250 men, and one of just 10 women undergraduates at IIT.
“We were extremely early in the game, and we ourselves didn’t understand what it meant to take on this thing,” she said. “That first year was actually quite tough.”
Her first year in college was challenging in several ways. Academics were rigorous, and there was stiff competition among students regardless of gender. Culturally, men and women didn’t mix in India — especially back then — and Murthy said that neither the men nor the women in her cohort were used to talking with each other, much less working together on projects or as lab partners. She had to understand the situation on her own terms, and “it took courage and toughness to navigate,” she said.
Things improved during her second and third years as Murthy found a group of like-minded people. She also recognized that “this was a huge opportunity because I was surrounded by very talented young people and terrifically talented faculty. The world really opened up to me in this place.”
Connections with students go both ways
As president, Murthy wants the world to open up for students at Oregon State. She acknowledges that OSU students of color may not see many people on campus who look like them. “They need to know they matter, their history matters, and their concerns matter,” Murthy said.
She said she wants students and employees to know that Oregon State’s seven cultural centers in Corvallis and other universitywide resources, programs and events are supported by OSU leaders.
In addition, Murthy encourages students to do what she did: find support in their own groups, yes, but also look beyond them to find friendships and make connections.
“I tried to find belonging in the larger community and through relationships with people different for myself,” she said. “I found that exciting, and I found it to be an avenue for growth.”
Despite her full calendar as president, Murthy’s approach to the job is to make sure she’s actively engaged in activities throughout the university, whether it’s handing out snacks during finals week, joining a book discussion in an Honors College class or visiting OSU-Cascades, the Hatfield Marine Science Center, the OSU Portland Center, as well as OSU Extension centers and experiment stations across Oregon.
Connection with students is a two-way process for Murthy. “It’s not just that I want to make myself available to students,” she said. “I want the energy of students to be available to me. It’s the thing that keeps me going.”
Taking concrete steps to promote diversity, student success
Murthy knows that Oregon State is “not where we want to be yet” in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. Nor, she said, is any university. “But as an engineer, I think of concrete things we can do.”
She has taken such steps before. As the first woman dean at UCLA’s engineering school, Murthy led an effort to establish a Women in Engineering program as well as a collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District to build interest in engineering careers among K-12 Black and Latinx students. At the University of Texas at Austin, where only 18% of the incoming class of mechanical engineering students were women, Murthy launched a program — 35 in 5 — to increase the number of women to 35% in five years. The name choice was deliberate.
“Putting a number down made us all jump and gave us a target,” Murthy said. “It said, ‘We’re going to do this.’”
At Oregon State, Murthy is focused on supporting student success and advancing retention and graduation rates.
OSU’s current overall six-year graduation rate is about 68%, which is about average for public universities across the U.S. But that also means more than 30% of students are not graduating, and “that’s not acceptable,” she said. Graduation rates are also much lower for students from some communities of color.
“It’s going to take hard work to make these numbers move,” Murthy said, Oregon State’s next strategic plan will have targets, metrics and reporting structures to make sure there is follow-through. This includes continued action plans through the President and Provost’s Leadership Council for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as presidential commissions on the status of women, Indigenous affairs and the status of Black faculty and staff affairs.
As an engineer, Murthy is used to working with data and numbers, but she knows that the human side of student success is every bit as important. “Students have to feel like they belong and that the campus supports them,” she said. Resources for mental health and opportunities to build professional skills through internships and research experiences are also priorities.
And then there is the need to address the cost of education. “We are an expensive place for students,” Murthy said, pointing out that Oregon ranks 45th in the nation for funding per student at public universities, shifting the burden onto students and families. “Creating financial support pathways for students is going to be another big part of making them successful.”
Dedicated to inclusive excellence
Seven months into her tenure as Oregon State’s 16th president, Murthy has found “there’s an enormous willingness to take these issues head-on, a gut-level commitment to DEI and inclusive excellence. Culturally we are committed,” she said.
Murthy said the Office of Institutional Diversity, colleges, divisions and many OSU units have made significant progress. She said she wants to see more people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and women in STEM fields, both among students and among faculty and staff. “It falls to us to stand in support of these communities, to make sure they understand that they are safe, wanted and cherished on our campus,” Murthy said.
“I am deeply committed to contributing to inclusive excellence and success for all students and learners,” Murthy said when her appointment was announced in 2022. And as president, she is living up to that promise.