NSF director Subra Suresh named next CMU president

Jackson Lane Jun 18, 2013

Carnegie Mellon University announced its selection of Subra Suresh as the university’s ninth president last Tuesday. Suresh will take office at Carnegie Mellon on July 1, succeeding President Jared Cohon after his 16 years of service.

Carnegie Mellon announced its selection to the university community with a campus-wide email from Ray Lane, chairman of Carnegie Mellon’s Board of Trustees. The announcement marks the decision of the university’s presidential search committee, which is comprised of faculty and alumni and was established in 2012 to find a successor to Cohon.

Suresh announced his resignation as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) last Tuesday in a letter to agency staff. The NSF is a $7-billion government agency charged with advancing all fields of fundamental science and engineering research and education. Since his appointment by President Barack Obama in August 2010, Suresh has established a record of accomplishments and support for international and interdisciplinary research and education, including programs like Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) and Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER).

Following Suresh’s announcement of his departure, the White House issued statement thanking Suresh for his service to the country: “We have been very fortunate to have Subra Suresh guiding the National Science Foundation for the last two years.”

Suresh also brings an illustrious background in academia. Prior to leading the NSF, Suresh was dean of the School of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he also holds an advanced degree in materials engineering and is distinguished as the Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering. Suresh has also held faculty appointments at MIT in materials, mechanic, and biological engineering. At MIT, Suresh again developed a reputation for promoting interdisciplinary initiatives and research. Suresh has co-authored more than 240 research articles, and his name appears on 22 national and international patent applications, according to The New York Times.

Suresh marks the third consecutive Carnegie Mellon president with an advanced degree in engineering from MIT, following Cohon and Robert Mehrabian. Although this particular achievement was not part of the search committee’s criteria in evaluating candidates, Cohon states “Given the importance of engineering at Carnegie Mellon, it’s no surprise that people with experience in engineering line up well with Carnegie Mellon’s strengths.”

Cohon also added that Suresh’s experience at a prestigious research university like MIT makes him a better fit for Carnegie Mellon’s decentralized culture. “He is very used to the type of decentralized and interdisciplinary approach that we have, since MIT operates in the same way,” he said.

“I think that CMU got a star, and I am excited to work hard and see what CMU can accomplish with Dr. Suresh at the helm,” said John Mackey, associate department head of mathematical sciences at Carnegie Mellon.

While his announcement to leave his post at the NSF in the middle of what was supposed to be a six-year term has left some of his colleagues puzzled, Suresh has expressed praise and admiration for Carnegie Mellon and describes the presidency as an offer he cannot turn down. “He knows that the university is better than its rankings and reputation implies,” Cohon said.

In an interview published in the Chronicle of Higher Education following Carnegie Mellon’s announcement of their selection, Suresh cites Carnegie Mellon’s interdisciplinary culture in particular. “We are particularly pleased that he has recognized the outstanding achievements of our faculty, students and alumni — many of whom are breaking new ground at the intersection of technology, business, and the arts,” Lane wrote in his email.

Since Suresh’s appointment as director in 2010, the NSF has recognized and supported Carnegie Mellon projects and research in engineering, computer science, and architecture with more than $7 million in grants, awards, and sponsorships.

This type of enthusiasm ties directly into the president’s role of promoting the university and growing its image.

Cohon, who worked during his tenure to increase the university’s prestige and expand its presence, describes the role of the president as “cheerleader-in-chief.” According to Cohon, the announcement of Suresh’s appointment alone has already raised awareness and recognition for Carnegie Mellon.

“The fact that he is international is a very important statement for us as a university and keeps us on a good trajectory to grow our global brand,” commented senior economics and statistics and decision science double major Will Weiner, who also serves as Carnegie Mellon’s student body president. “I think he is the perfect choice to put us on level with the few other top- tier institutions that are considered ‘better’ than CMU.”

Suresh’s departure from the NSF and appointment at Carnegie Mellon comes at a time when both organizations face the effects of possible mandatory 5 percent cuts in federal spending as part of government austerity measures. “His understanding of research universities, including his career at MIT and his directorship of the NSF, will be important to us as we navigate the ever-changing world of federally funded research,” Randal Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science, commented.

“The university needs an advocate who will secure federal research funding and long-term financial resources for Carnegie Mellon, even as the federal budget faces sequestration,” Cohon said. “I can’t think of anyone more qualified than Dr. Suresh.”

Suresh, his wife, and their two daughters will be on campus on Feb. 21 for a welcome celebration, and the family will be relocating to Pittsburgh over the summer. Cohon states that he will spend as much time with Suresh as he needs to get him settled in to his new job.

Cohon will be taking a year of leave after Suresh takes office. After that year, Cohon plans to return to Carnegie Mellon as a professor of civil and environmental engineering.