In Memoriam: Judith Liebman, MechSE's first female tenured professor


Prof. Emerita Judith Liebman passed away July 8. Distinguished by her research, service and love of teaching, she also served as Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate College

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Judith S. Liebman, Professor Emerita in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering whose work was in the field of operations research, died on Saturday, July 8 in Urbana. She was 87. 

Judith LiebmanThe daughter of Raymond O. Stenzel and Mary Galloup Stenzel, Judith was born in Denver on July 2, 1936. Raised mostly in Kansas City, she returned to her beloved Colorado mountains every summer, and it was natural that she would attend college at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she majored in Physics. Interviewing for a student committee assignment in her freshman year, she met her future husband Jon. As she delighted in telling people throughout their lives together, “Jon was the only man I ever met whose eyes lit up when I said my major was Physics.”

Following her graduation in 1958, Judith and Jon were married in San Diego, where Jon was serving on a U.S. Navy destroyer and Judith was writing computer programs for Convair Astronautics. Shortly thereafter, the Navy assigned Jon to the NROTC unit at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. At Cornell, the couple decided that Jon would leave the Navy and pursue a PhD in Environmental Engineering. Judith supported them by continuing to pioneer as a computer programmer, first for a General Electric research laboratory and then for the Cornell Department of Chemistry. In her spare time, she gave birth to, and began raising, their three children.

When Jon accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Judith began her doctoral studies in Operations Research. On completion of her degree in 1971, she joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in the Departments of Public Health Administration and Operations Research. Just one year later the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at the University of Illinois offered faculty appointments to both the Liebmans, with Judith accepting a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (now MechSE).

Judith Liebman teaching at the University of Illinois.
An undated photo showing Professor Liebman in her element -- teaching. 

When Jon was selected to be department head of CEE, Judith moved her faculty appointment entirely into MechSE. Her promotion to associate professor in 1977 made her the first woman to earn tenure in MechSE—and only the second female to earn tenure in the College of Engineering. In 1984 she was promoted to full professor. 

Her research areas were in the applications of operations research in engineering optimization, health systems, and military and civil infrastructure investment. She also had a deep interest in studying how to improve engineering education.

In 1986, she became Acting Vice Chancellor for Research and Acting Dean of the Graduate College. She continued to serve both positions in non-acting capacity from 1987 until 1992. Judith and Jon both retired in 1996, though they continued to teach part-time for several years.

Judith was the first woman president of her professional society, the Operations Research Society of America (now INFORMS). She served on the Committee for Engineering Education of the National Academy of Engineering and chaired the Advisory Committee to the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She was also a member of the Board of the University of Colorado Foundation. She served on the U.S. Army Science Board and on its Executive Committee and chaired the Advisory Committee for the National Science Foundation Engineering Directorate.

Among her many awards, Judith was proudest of her selection by engineering students to be an Honorary Knight of St. Patrick and a two-time winner of the College of Engineering Everitt Award for Teaching Excellence. She was selected as a Distinguished Engineering Alumna in 2012 by the University of Colorado and received the 1996 George E. Kimball Medal from INFORMS as well as a 2002 Fellow of the society for her distinguished service to the profession of operations research.

In 2018, she was recognized in Illinois’s “150 for 150: Celebrating the Accomplishments of Women.” As part of the sesquicentennial celebration, the university’s Gender Equity Council awarded this honor to 150 women who have made significant contributions to Illinois throughout its history in research, service, teaching, and other areas. At the time, looking back on her ambitious career, Liebman had some useful advice for current students. “Find that branch of engineering that interests you most and seek out appropriate courses,” she said. “Look for opportunities to acquire more depth in both the theory and applications—and believe in yourself.”

Judith was also the first woman member of the Urbana Rotary Club and served on their Board of Directors. Along with Jon, she built a world-class collection of contemporary glass sculpture, and she served for many years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass, an international charitable organization promoting art made from glass.

An outstanding gourmet cook, Judith loved experimenting with new recipes and delighted in preparing meals for the whole family or for entertaining friends. She was an accomplished pianist, a Master Gardener, and an avid and competent bridge player. Even before retirement she and Jon began to travel widely, and in the last 25 years they visited all seven continents and covered most of the world, with her favorite trips being a cruise in the Antarctic and an 11-day trip from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg on the Trans-Siberia Express. She was an incessant reader, a swimmer, and a golfer. Judith loved animals, fed birds (and squirrels) wherever she lived, enjoyed horseback riding, and doted on Basset Hounds.

Overshadowing all of the above accomplishments, Judith will be remembered for her ever-sunny smile, her always-cheerful demeanor, her iron will, and her unflappable approach to every difficulty. Her absence dims the world, but her memory brightens it.

She is survived by her husband of almost 65 years; brother John Stenzel of Red Feather Lakes, Colorado; children Christopher of Sunland, California, Michael of Denver, Colorado and Becky (Knight) of San Antonio; and by eight grandchildren and six great grandchildren.


Read a 2018 Q&A with Liebman and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering >>

Watch this video produced by the Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering >>

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This story was published July 14, 2023.