The president of Caltech, Jean-Lou Chameau, announced Tuesday that he would step down from the leadership of the prestigious science- and math-oriented campus in Pasadena at the end of the current school year and become head of a new and well-endowed university in Saudi Arabia.
Chameau, a French-born civil engineer, has been president of Caltech since 2006 and helped the school maintain its high international academic rankings and achieve greater financial stability during a recessionary period of retrenchment at many other colleges, education experts said.
In statements released Tuesday, Chameau did not cite any reason for leaving Caltech other than the opportunity to become president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. The graduate-level school enrolled its first students in 2009 and, in English, educates men and women together, to the dismay of some Islamic fundamentalists. It was founded with a $10-billion endowment from the oil-rich Saudi royal family.
"Until recently, I believed I would complete my career at Caltech and retire in Pasadena. I did not expect, however, to be presented with a unique and life-changing opportunity to lead KAUST," said Chameau, 59, in a statement. He said he was drawn to that campus' plans for "a 21st century university that serves as a beacon for learning and research and for contributions that both make to human welfare."
Chameau declined requests to be interviewed Tuesday, Caltech staff said.
His seven-year term at Caltech, considered a typical tenure in American academia, coincided with a recession and stock market dip that rattled many schools. He helped lead a campaign that raised about $900 million in donations; Caltech's current $1.9-billion endowment significantly tops its pre-recession high, according to the school.
In 2011, Caltech beat Harvard for the ranking of best research university in the world by the Britain-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings, a position it held again last year largely because of the faculty's high level of published research projects and funding.
"He has been a very steady leader during a very tough time in higher education because of all the funding problems all universities have faced. He has handled the Caltech budget very adroitly, so they are in very good financial shape," said Hunter Rawlings III, who is president of the Assn. of American Universities. That Washington-based organization represents the 62 top U.S. and Canadian research universities, of which Caltech — with 978 undergraduates and 1,253 graduate students — has the smallest enrollment.
Rawlings, who is the former president of Cornell University, and other education leaders said it is not surprising that the Saudi university recruited Chameau. The school wants to build up its prestige and has deep pockets in its efforts to create an American-style research university on the Red Sea about 50 miles north of Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, Jidda.
Heading that university "is a really big job.... The resources are great, but the tradition isn't there," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based higher education advocacy group. Chameau has a reputation as both a strong fundraiser and someone who encourages cross-disciplinary research, such as Caltech's work bridging computer technology, medicine and the environment, Broad said.
Chameau's total Caltech compensation in 2010-11 was $827,800, according to the school's most recent federal tax form. KAUST officials could not be reached for comment on his new salary there, but it is thought to be much higher. Chameau, who has an undergraduate degree from a French university and a doctorate from Stanford University, had been provost at Georgia Tech before landing the Caltech presidency.
A low-key administrator who retains a heavy French accent, Chameau was more approachable than some of the school's past leaders, students said. He sometimes prepared French meals for students, such as the dinner of rabbit stew and onion tarte for winners of a contest to produce olive oil from campus olive trees. He joined in the February 2011 celebration when the Caltech men's basketball team composed of future physicists and doctors defeated Occidental College to end a 310-game conference losing streak that dated to 1985.
On a more serious matter, he reportedly moved to bolster mental health services at the academically pressured campus after the suicides of two students within weeks of each other in 2009.
"We're gonna miss him a lot. He's been a real community builder here," said Frances H. Arnold, a chemical engineering and biochemistry professor who has been at Caltech for 28 years. "He's been trying to improve the quality of interactions [among students and faculty]. It's an important thing to have a community. This is a very small and special place, and I think he's really put a lot of effort into that."
"He made the students feel like they were heard, and they were heard," Arnold said.
Caltech has five Nobel laureates on its faculty, including its last president, biologist David Baltimore. However, it is probably known more for its management of the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the space exploration projects there. The federal government owns JPL's facilities, but its 5,000 workers are Caltech employees under a contract. In August, the arrangement was renewed for another five years.
David Lee, chairman of Caltech's board of trustees, said in a statement that the school would soon launch a search for a new president. "Caltech is in a much stronger position now compared to a few years ago," Lee said.
Chameau's wife, Carol Carmichael, a former Georgia Tech researcher, also worked at Caltech as a lecturer in environmental science and engineering and helped on projects of energy sustainability. She reportedly will go to Saudi Arabia with him, but a Caltech spokesman said he did not know whether she would teach there.
Caltech's announcement marks another in a string of recent leadership changes at prominent California colleges and universities. Also on Tuesday, Daniel LaVista said he would resign his post as chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. Last month, UC system President Mark G. Yudof said he would leave that post. In December, Cal State University head Charles B. Reed left that job, and, California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott left in October.