Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau this week announced that he will leave his position at the end of the school year to head up a science and tech-focused university in Saudi Arabia.
Chameau, who will be leading the newly formed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, said in a statement Tuesday that he was proud of the students and faculty he will leave behind in Pasadena.
“The discoveries, recognition and impact of the Caltech faculty in a typical year are the envy of our peers,” he said. “The opportunity to interact with such a special group, and to support their endeavors, is a reward in itself.”
Chameau declined an interview regarding his departure, but said in a letter to the community that the unexpected opportunity was too great to turn down. His wife, Carol Carmichael, will apparently join him in Saudi Arabia. Carmichael has been involved in numerous sustainability projects and works as a faculty associate at the campus.
“Until recently, Carol and I believed we would complete our careers at Caltech and retire in Pasadena,” he said. “We did not expect, however, to be presented with a unique and life-changing opportunity: to lead the recently created King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).”
He added that “KAUST is positioned to have a dramatic impact on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and the world.”
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is a graduate-level school that was formed in 2009. Classes are taught in English and the school admits both men and women. The university has a $10-billion endowment.
Caltech’s endowment is $1.7 billion.
Meanwhile, Caltech officials said they have started the process of searching for a new leader.
Unlike many public agencies, the university does not use an outside recruitment firm. Instead, a president is chosen based on facility recommendations. A committee of faculty members puts together a list of the best candidates, which is then taken to the Board of Trustees, which makes the final selection.
The board has never chosen a president who was already working at the university.
Chameau became Caltech's eighth president in 2006, succeeding David Baltimore, who is currently a biology professor at the university.
During Chameau’s tenure, Caltech was named the top university in the world twice in the British publication Times Higher Education. Caltech manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA, where a number of professors and students are currently working on the Curiosity rover mission.
The director of JPL, Charles Elachi, also serves as vice president of Caltech.
In a nod to Chameau's leadership, Caltech board Chairman David Lee said in a statement that the university “is in a much stronger position now compared to a few years ago.”
Professors said they were surprised Chameau was stepping down and described him as an active president on campus.
“We’re going to miss him and Carol a lot,” said Caltech professor Harry Gray. “I really can’t say enough about the influence they’ve had on life on our campus.”
Students also described Chameau as an active and engaged president, recalling his appearances at basketball games and how he cooked omelets for them during finals week.
“We see him quite a bit, it’s surprising,” said Pushpa Neppala, a 20-year-old undergraduate biology student. “It was really nice to see his general interest in student life.”
Frances Arnold — a chemical engineer and biochemist at Caltech who won the National Medal for Technology and Innovation — said Chameau made difficult situations more palatable.
Arnold sits with Chameau and Elachi on an international advisory council for the current president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. She said that given the goal of the Saudi campus, the move makes sense.
“This is a dream in a very challenging environment and they’re lucky to have him,” Arnold said. “They want to be like Caltech, so to have the Caltech president leading them on their next phase is superb.”
-- Tiffany Kelly, Times Community NewsCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times