Caltech names physicist from University of Chicago as new president

<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below.</i>

Thomas Rosenbaum, an expert in condensed matter physics, will become the new president of the California Institute of Technology, officials announced Thursday.

Rosenbaum, 58, currently serves as provost at the University of Chicago, where he also holds the position of John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor of Physics. He succeeds 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 from Washington, D.C.

[Updated, 2:35 p.m. PDT Oct. 24: Jacqueline K. Barton, who chairs Caltech’s chemistry and chemical engineering department, said she thought that 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 the National Medal of Science from President Obama in 2011.

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

“The model may be changing,” she said of funding. “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.”]

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 until Rosenbaum arrives July 1, a campus spokesperson said.

As Chicago’s senior academic administrator, Rosenbaum helped to establish the Institute for Molecular Engineering, an effort that also involved the Argonne National Lab. 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, chair 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.”

Rosenbaum will face many challenges when he arrives at Caltech. Among the biggest will be maintaining the school’s top reputation at a time when federal funding for scientific research is flat-lining and faces cuts, according to Hartle.

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

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 both 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.

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 Great 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.