APS News

From Researching the Universe to Running the University: The Physicist as President

By Alaina G. Levine and Ernie Tretkoff

Robert Dynes
Robert Dynes
Allan Lee Sessoms
Allen Lee Sessoms
Robert Shelton
Robert N. Shelton
Shirley Ann Jackson
Shirley Ann Jackson
Frank Franz
Frank Franz
Editor’s Note: The interviews for this article were conducted earlier this year, when all those interviewed were serving as university presidents. Since that time, Frank Franz has retired as president of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and Robert Dynes has announced his intention to step down as President of the University of California system.

Rare are the physicists who will swap their passion for solving the most fundamental of scientific problems for any other occupation, let alone one in higher education administration. But there exist a few physicists who heard the call of leadership and not only answered, but excelled in doing so.

Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with five university presidents whose backgrounds are in physics. We had conversations with Robert Dynes of the University of California, Frank Franz of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Allen Lee Sessoms of Delaware State University and Robert N. Shelton of the University of Arizona.

What would compel someone to wean themselves off of a habitual regimen of research, writing, and regular attendance at APS meetings? Our subjects provided unique insight into their choices and why and how physics paved the way for their successes.

A president has to solve complicated, detail-oriented problems every single day. He or she must be able to tackle each situation from a holistic point of view and work with diverse teams of people. Just as most physicists enjoy interaction with their colleagues, so too do the presidents we interviewed.

“I love meeting with the students, hearing their aspirations and worries,” said Shelton. He also appreciates “the stimulation you get from having serious conversations with faculty.”

Sessoms agreed. He derives “satisfaction in watching the students grow into adults, and watching faculty who can thrive through the bureaucracy with the help you give them.”

In his tenure as President, Dynes realized that “I can have more impact as President than as a professor.”

“The ability to effect change” was the most rewarding aspect of the job for Franz. “It’s very satisfying to be able to look back and see that you have contributed to helping the university move many steps forward,” he said.

Each of these physicists took a different path to their presidency. Franz began his career as a faculty member at Indiana University. His first experience with administration came during a time of student unrest in the late 1960s, when he was asked to serve as a mediator between students and faculty and administration. After that, he served as an associate dean, then as dean of the faculty, while continuing his physics research part-time. Franz then went on to become provost at West Virginia University, and from there assumed the presidency of the University of Alabama, Huntsville.

Jackson, a theoretical physicist, held high level positions in government, including Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and in industry at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories. She also was a professor at Rutgers University.

Dynes worked for 22 years at Bell Labs before becoming a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego in 1990. At UC San Diego, he served in various administration positions, including chancellor of the UC San Diego campus. In 2003, Dynes became President of the University of California. Dynes is also a professor of physics at UC Berkeley.

Shelton’s career involved stints as department chair and Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California, Davis, Vice Provost for Research at the University of California President’s Office, and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Sessoms went from a faculty position at Harvard to serving as the director of the Department of State’s Office of Nuclear Technology and Safeguards, where he oversaw nuclear nonproliferation and arms control negotiations, to positions in the US Embassies in France and Mexico. While serving as the deputy ambassador to Mexico, where he helped negotiate NAFTA, he was invited to assist in the construction of a strong state system of higher education in Massachusetts. This ultimately led to his first presidency at Queens College.

However diverse their career trajectories, it is clear that these professionals were well-suited to succeed in their presidencies because of the foundations that physics gave them.

“The key thing you learn as a physicist is to approach problems from a comprehensive perspective,” said Sessoms, “Take a look at all the issues you are trying to solve and understand the whole picture.”

Franz also maintained that he approached many problems in administration the way he would approach a physics problem, by getting to the fundamentals and figuring out how things work. “It really is creating a model. In physics we’re always creating models of how things work,” he said.

Jackson added that “as a physicist, one naturally develops the ability to analyze complex questions in situations [and] to synthesize information from multiple sources to come up with what the core of an issue may be.”

Dynes agreed: “It certainly allows you to look at multi-dimensional problems… and [determine] which are the critical variables and focus on those critical variables,” he said.

Other physics-derived skills which allow these presidents to lead effectively include an understanding of causality and a quantitative outlook, which is “not normal from many peoples’ perspectives, but totally normal for a physicist,” said Sessoms.

Problem-solving ability and facility with numbers came in handy for Franz when he was faced with a budget problem at the University of Alabama. His creative solution to the puzzle ended up becoming an accounting textbook example. “I sometimes tell people, that the one thing if you’re a physicist that people can’t accuse you of is being unfamiliar with numbers,” he said.

Shelton, an experimentalist, draws strength from his experience managing his research laboratories. His list of valuable skills he learned includes “organizing large, diverse groups of people…in order to set priorities for the group,” he said. In addition, “you get a lot of experience in the people side, the human side, and how to get the best out of folks when you have a larger, global target goal that you’re seeking.”

Both Jackson and Shelton see physics as a means to learn how to operate in a multi-cultural environment, and Sessoms thinks physics is especially perfect for university administration because “physics forces you to confront reality no matter how brutal that reality is to your psyche,” he said. “Mother Nature will make a fool out of you no matter how smart you are. There is no physicist who has not been made a fool of. This is very humbling…it forces transparency on the president.” 

The challenge to balance a career in research and administration is real and is confronted by these leaders regularly. The presidential post “is full time and then some,” said Shelton. “This job is all consuming. That’s the great joy of it.”

But then again, so is the career of a physicist. As Sessoms described it, “physics is a discipline where you can’t dabble…Being a physicist is a game for people with very few outside pursuits.”

Each president has brokered a virtual deal with themselves that allows them to reach some sort of balance between their scientific and leadership engagements.

They all keep abreast of their respective fields as much as possible. Dynes, who still has a lab, relies on postdoctoral associates and literature reviews to keep him aware of research activities, and spends about 10-15 hours a week thinking about physics problems, meeting with students, and reading papers.

Jackson feels that it is important to keep up in some way in science, especially in a Research 1 university. She stays connected by attending professional meetings, reading, and speaking with faculty. Although she admits it is “hard to do the level of focus one might wish,” she said.

In some university administration positions, it is possible to balance both research and administrative duties, said Franz, and he thinks it is “best to have people in administrative roles who maintain a connection to their disciplines.” But once one has reached the level of university president, it’s extremely difficult to keep running a research lab. “It’s an exceptional person who is truly able to carry on both responsibilities,” he said.

It is clear in speaking with these commanders-in-chief that the university president is a multi-dimensional position that requires high energy and tenacity. A university president is the CEO of a multi-million dollar (often billion dollar) business, a lobbyist and a politician, a fundraiser, a public relations pro, a community leader, and often even an international emissary as well. When asked how our subjects view themselves, there were several surprising answers.

“All of the above,” said Jackson, as well as “the chief motivator for those in the university.”

“As the primary visible representation of the university,” said Shelton.

“As a choir leader,” said Dynes. “You can’t do all these things without an enormous amount of help from a lot of people…Everyone has to sing from the same song sheet and that’s your song sheet.”

“As the mayor of a small town,” said Sessoms. “You have got to be everything to everybody and no matter what happens you are blamed for it, whether you were directly involved or not.”

He also joked that the president is the “local beggar, and local profiteer, taking advantage of the faculty who are doing amazing things” as well as the peacemaker within the institution and bridge-builder between the university and community, he said.

Our panel expressed an excitement for leading their institutions and making a positive impact on their constituents. Several recommended physics for a career in university administration.

However, for those physicists out there ready to launch a career in higher education leadership, there were some very specific and strategic quarks of advice offered.

“I would certainly encourage it,” said Franz. He suggests starting out as he did, in a temporary or part-time position in administration that allows one to keep up some research activity.

Yet, stresses Shelton, “in the early stage of your career, please, please focus on being a world class scholar.” As a student in physics, “this is not the time to be thinking about becoming a university president. You should be thinking about moving the frontiers of science in your own personal way and to be the best scholar you can be.” He added that by concentrating on your scientific craft early on in your career, you will ultimately gain valuable “insight into what a university’s about” which will benefit a person when they do elect to pursue the presidency.

When (and if) these administrators retire, will they go back to the lab? The answer for many is an unknown variable. Franz said he isn’t sure exactly what he’ll do next, but “I absolutely want to maintain a connection with physics and with the University.”

Just as physics helped them be better presidents, so too has the presidency aided them in becoming better physicists.

As President, Jackson has learned the importance of intellectual agility, she said, and “to see connections between and among disciplines and subdisciplines. This ability is needed when one is doing pure research.”

Dynes discovered how to be a better communicator, to be open and transparent, and perhaps most importantly, to know how to say “I don’t know”.

“The successful presidency requires an ability to sleuth out connections between seemingly unrelated information and then use these connections to create new opportunities,” said Shelton. “The successful physicist operates similarly as he/she strives to discover underlying principles from seemingly unrelated research outcomes.”

© 2007, Alaina G. Levine and Ernie Tretkoff

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff