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Birgeneau named University of Toronto president

The University of Toronto on November 30 named Robert J. Birgeneau, dean of science at MIT for the past eight years, to be the 14th president of Canada's largest university, starting in July.

The university, founded in 1827, has 42,000 full time students, 10,000 part-time students and 1,500 tenure-track faculty in 17 academic divisions on three campuses. Twenty hospitals are fully or partially affiliated with it.

Professor Birgeneau, 57, a native of Canada and alumnus of the University of Toronto, is a distinguished physicist who recently won the American Physical Society's Julius Edgar Lilienfeld award. He was recognized for his research into solid state physics and "for his ability to convey the excitement of physics to a broad range of audiences." He has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1975 and served as chair of the Department of Physics from 1988 until he became dean of science in 1991.

"The University of Toronto is an outstanding institution on the brink of truly international stature," said Dr. Birgeneau, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics. "At MIT I've had the privilege of working at one of the leading schools of science in the world where there was continuous exposure to outstanding students, faculty and staff. Returning to Toronto and my alma mater, I know U of T also to be an outstanding institution and I look forward to being a part of the transformation that will shape the university for the next 30 years."

"MIT is losing one of its great leaders and citizens, yet I am personally very pleased for Dean Birgeneau as he returns to his native Canada to lead its finest university. He has given 24 years of exceptional service to MIT, and we are much the better for it," said President Charles M. Vest.

"Bob Birgeneau has been an enormously effective dean of MIT's School of Science. He has combined highly effective administrative talents and vision with continuing contributions as a world-class experimental physicist. He has been dedicated to maintaining the absolutely essential core strengths in the scientific disciplines, while moving forward in critical emerging areas at the disciplinary interfaces. He has been unflagging in his insistence that high-quality teaching at all levels is a core value of the School of Science.

"His courage and leadership in supporting the efforts surrounding the report on the status of women faculty in the School had national as well as institutional import," President Vest continued. "A major legacy of his tenure as dean is the integration of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences into the School of Science, and the commitment of the School to neuroscience and brain research as a key component of its future.

"In the MIT tradition, Bob has been a leader of the institute as well as of his own school. He has always focused on the fact that the long-term quality of MIT depends above all else on the quality of each faculty hiring, promotion and tenure decision. As a member of the Academic Council, he has maintained the highest standards and contributed greatly to the full range of Institute decisions and policies," President Vest said.

Lotte Bailyn, the T Wilson (1953) Professor of Management and former chair of the faculty, said, "Working with Bob last year in bringing out the report on women faculty in the School of Science was a wonderful experience, and made me realize not only what a responsive leader he is but what a wonderful human being he is. It was one of the high points of my term as chair of the faculty."

Professor Birgeneau is a 1963 graduate of St. Michael's College at U of T. He received his doctorate in physics from Yale University in 1966 and was on the faculty there for a year before spending a year at Oxford University through the National Research Council of Canada. Prior to joining MIT he was a member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

He has received numerous awards and honors for his research in understanding the fundamental properties of condensed matter using neutron and X-ray spectroscopy. These honors include the Yale Science and Engineering Alumni Achievement Award, the Oliver E. Buckley Prize for Condensed Matter Physics, the IUPAP Magnetism Award and most recently the Lilienfeld Prize. An outstanding educator, his former graduate students and research fellows are now professors at the world's top research universities including Columbia, Cornell, Georgia Tech, MIT, McGill, Princeton, the Universities of Maryland and Pennsylvania, Rutgers, SUNY-Stonybrook and the University of California. He has authored more than 350 journal articles, many of which were written during his term as dean of science.

Dean Birgeneau has served on numerous boards, professional societies and committees throughout his career. His current memberships include the board of the Argonne Laboratory, Boston Museum of Science and Brookhaven Science Associates. He is co-chair of the Polaroid Science and Technology Board.

In 1995, he established a committee to analyze the status of women faculty in the six departments of MIT's School of Science, following on concerns raised by women in the school. Well before completion of the final report, Professor Birgeneau had facilitated collaboration between faculty and administration to begin redressing inequities on issues ranging from work-family conflicts to increasing the number of women faculty in the School of Science. Wide publicity surrounding the study has made School of Science and its dean a focus for advice and counsel throughout North America.


Among Professor Birgeneau's initial priorities for U of T is to ensure its continued progress toward world-class stature. "That would be my highest priority," he said. "I also intend to continuously enhance the quality of education, in part by incorporating the promise of new technologies. Great progress will be made in research and education in the next decade with unprecedented opportunities in a variety of fields including the health and life sciences, brain and cognitive science, information sciences and communications. At the same time, U of T is renowned for its excellence in the humanities and social sciences and these will continue to form the intellectual core of this great university.

"One of my primary goals will be to increase the diversity of the faculty so that it properly reflects the wonderfully heterogeneous community that it serves," Professor Birgeneau added.


"Dr. Birgeneau is an outstanding academic who left Canada a number of years ago and is returning now because of an opportunity to lead his alma mater from greatness in a Canadian context to international acclaim," said Wendy Cecil-Cockwell, chairman of the presidential search committee and U of T's Governing Council. "He believes in being the best and wants to advance our mission as a great international research university. The search committee unanimously recommended him as best exemplifying the qualities the university was seeking in its next leader -- a sound record of commitment to first-class teaching and research, the ability to foster cooperation and teamwork throughout all levels of an institution, a strong belief in diversity, and proven success in facilitating partnerships with government and industry. Dr. Birgeneau brought MIT's physics department, and later the School of Science, right to the top. He sets a course and he does it."

"This is an inspired appointment," said U of T President Robert Prichard. "There could be no better choice to lead U of T into the next century. Dr. Birgeneau is a scholar and academic leader of the highest international standing. This is brain gain at its best -- one of Canada's great minds is returning to guide a great university. It is wonderful news for the university, the province and the nation. It will be a pleasure to work with him over the next seven months to ensure an excellent transition between my administration and his."

Birgeneau and his wife, Mary Catherine (a 1962 U of T graduate in English) have four children: Michael, a financial analyst; Catherine, a clinical psychologist and PhD student at the University of Massachusetts; Patricia, a fourth-year medical student at Yale; and Michelle, an assistant coach for the women's varsity soccer team and master's student in education at Lehigh University.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 8, 1999.

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