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University of Chicago physicist to lead Caltech

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, a prominent physicist and provost at the University of Chicago, is named Caltech's new president.

October 25, 2013|By Larry Gordon and Monte Morin
  • Thomas F. Rosenbaum, a prominent University of Chicago physicist, has been named the new president of Caltech.
Thomas F. Rosenbaum, a prominent University of Chicago physicist, has… (Caltech )

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, an expert in condensed matter physics and second in command at the University of Chicago, will become the new president of Caltech, officials announced Thursday.

Rosenbaum, 58, currently is provost at the University of Chicago, where he also holds the position of John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics. On July 1, he will succeed Jean-Lou Chameau, who left Caltech earlier this year to head King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

Before becoming Chicago's provost in 2007, Rosenbaum studied the behavior of closely packed atoms in solids and liquids at the university's Rosenbaum Lab. By experimenting on materials in extreme cold — temperatures that approached absolute zero — Rosenbaum and his colleagues were better able to examine the quantum behavior of substances.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, described Rosenbaum's appointment as "a superb choice" for Caltech.

"This is someone who has the intellectual and academic administrative experience to be a first-class new president," Hartle said.

Jacqueline K. Barton, chairwoman of Caltech's chemistry and chemical engineering department, said she believes Rosenbaum's experience at the University of Chicago prepared him well for the Caltech presidency.

"Caltech is a very special place and we need someone who can recognize that, preserve that and continue to help us excel," said Barton, who received a 2010 National Medal of Science from President Obama.

Like others, Barton said the risk of decreased federal funding for research is the greatest threat and that Caltech leaders may have to pursue private funding more vigorously than in the past.

"The model may be changing," she said. "We have to think about the best ways to continue to preserve this jewel of a place. And so we need smart, creative people to focus on that. I think [Rosenbaum] offers that opportunity."

Hartle agreed, saying that research funding will be one of Rosenbaum's biggest challenges.

"The federal budget uncertainty creates massive problems for all major research universities and Caltech is not alone in this regard," Hartle said. Because Caltech's undergraduate program is relatively small, the importance of high-level research looms larger there than at other high-profile institutions, he said.

Caltech Provost Edward Stolper, a geologist, has been interim president since Chameau left at the end of the last school year and will continue in that role through the end of the school year until Rosenbaum takes over, a campus spokesperson said.

As Chicago's senior academic administrator, Rosenbaum helped establish the Institute for Molecular Engineering, an effort that also involved the Argonne National Laboratory. Caltech officials said his scientific and administrative experience would help him "in furthering" the relationship between Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While the federal government owns JPL's facilities, its 5,000 workers are Caltech employees, who work under government contract.

"The combination of deep management experience and visionary leadership Tom brings will serve Caltech extremely well in the coming years," said David Lee, chairman of the Caltech Board of Trustees. "The board is excited about collaborating closely with Tom to propel the institute to new levels of scientific leadership."

In addition to having five Nobel laureates on its faculty, Caltech was recently ranked as the top research university in the world by the Times Higher Education magazine of Britain.

Harvard University was tied for second with Britain's University of Oxford, followed by Stanford, MIT, Princeton, the University of Cambridge, UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Imperial College London, Yale and UCLA.

Rosenbaum's spouse, Katherine Faber, will also join the Caltech faculty. She is currently the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University.

Rosenbaum received his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University in 1977 and a master's and a doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1979 and 1982, respectively.

His honors include an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, a Presidential Young Investigator Award and the William McMillan Award for "outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics."

Caltech enrolls 978 undergraduate students and 1,253 graduate students; it has about 300 faculty members and more than 600 research scholars.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

monte.morin@latimes.com

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