Feature / Winter 1999
An Inspired Appointment

Robert Birgeneau, alumnus and internationally acclaimed physicist, chosen U of T’s 14th president


Robert Birgeneau is coming home after more than 30 years away. A native of Toronto, U of T’s president-designate graduated from St. Michael’s College in 1963, the year after his wife, Mary Catherine, earned her undergraduate degree at St. Mike’s.

The two have fond memories of their Alma Mater – they had study dates in the library – and are excited at returning to Toronto, he told a news conference at University College Nov. 30, held to announce his appointment. In fact, they have remained Canadian citizens because, as he explained with a big smile, “I felt so Canadian and hoped that some day someone would offer me a job in Canada.”

The offer of a seven-year term (with an option for a three-year renewal) as head of Canada’s largest university was made by Wendy Cecil-Cockwell, chairman of the presidential search committee and of Governing Council. Birgeneau, currently dean of the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, accepted and will become the University of Toronto’s 14th president July 1, succeeding Robert Prichard, who has led the university since 1990.

Birgeneau received his doctorate from Yale University in 1966. An internationally acclaimed physicist specializing in solid-state physics, he recently led a pioneering study on the status of women faculty members in science at MIT. He has served on numerous boards, professional societies and committees throughout his career; his current memberships include the boards of the Argonne National Labora-tory, Boston Museum of Science and Brookhaven Science Associates. He is co-chair of the Polaroid Science and Technology Board.

“Dean Birgeneau is an outstanding academic. He believes in being the best and wants to advance our mission as a great international research university,” said Cecil-Cockwell. “The search committee unanimously recommended him as best exemplifying the qualities U of T was seeking in its next leader – a sound record of commitment to first-class teaching and re-search, the ability to foster co-operation and teamwork throughout all levels of an institution, a strong belief in diversity, and proven success in facilitating partnerships with government and industry.” Governing Council made “an inspired appointment,” said Prichard.

“There could be no better choice to lead the university into the next century. Dean Birgeneau is a scholar and academic leader of the highest international standing. This is brain gain at its best – one of Canada’s great minds is returning to guide a great university. It’s wonderful news for the university, the province and the nation. It will be a pleasure to work with him over the next seven months to ensure an excellent transition between my administration and his.”

One of Birgeneau’s priorities for U of T is to enhance its international standing as a research university. He also plans to make it a leader in education and, with the help of new technologies, move away from a university education that is a four-year experience to one that is a “life-time experience,” he said. Further, he believes that every qualified student should be able to receive an education and hopes to increase the university’s endowment for needs-based assistance.


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