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CMU names former MIT dean to replace Cohon as president

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 1:26 p.m.
Subra Suresh, Carnegie Mellon University's ninth president. NSF/Sandy Schaeffer Photography

Carnegie Mellon University chose an internationally known scholar as its ninth president to raise the university's profile and compete with larger schools, the chairman of its board of trustees said on Tuesday.

Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, will replace Jared L. Cohon when he steps down on June 30, having led the university for 16 years.

“What really stood out about Dr. Suresh was that we saw CMU having come from its roots as a Western Pennsylvania-based school to national prominence and now global prominence,” said board Chairman Ray Lane. “The next step is competing with MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Tech.

“We have to step up the game that much more to compete with schools that have bigger endowments. His track record, he's been to the big show.”

Suresh, 56, who was born in Mumbai, India, and lives in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, said he wants to expand the reach of Carnegie Mellon programs, including science, engineering, fine arts and business, that have “a major impact on a national and global scale.”

“It's a university with a very long, rich and distinguished history,” Suresh said.

President Obama in 2010 appointed Suresh, and the Senate confirmed him, as head of the science foundation, a $7 billion independent government agency charged with advancing fundamental science, engineering research and education.

Previously, Suresh was dean of the engineering school for Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A U.S. citizen, he becomes the university's first multinational president, spokesman Ken Walters said.

More than 4,400 international students, undergraduate and graduate, make up 35 percent of Carnegie Mellon's enrollment. Of those, 1,034 are from India, records show.

Suresh reflects diversity that developed at the university during the past 15 years, said Cohon, 65, who will become a professor of engineering there.

“We've intentionally developed the strategy of becoming a global university and all that that means, including the makeup of the faculty, the makeup of the student body, what they study and where they study,” Cohon said. “We have programs and campuses in many different countries.”

Lane said Chuck Vest, former MIT president, described Suresh as “one of the best leaders in Washington over the past couple of years.” Despite ongoing federal budget woes, the science foundation's funding grew from $6.8 billion in 2011 to $7.033 billion in 2012. Its 2013 budget request is $7.373 billion.

Though some colleges at the university are ranked among the best, such as computer sciences and engineering, the university as a whole has a lower ranking, Lane said. He said Suresh can help Carnegie Mellon combine disciplines such as fine arts and computer sciences to elevate the university.

“All of the great research universities of the country are his clients,” Lane said. “He's had to go to Congress. He's had to defend his budgets and work with both sides of the (political) aisle to agree. He's developed a great network and has great negotiating skills.”

University officials declined to say what Suresh's compensation will be. He will get a five-year contract.

Suresh said he's no stranger to the Oakland campus. His relationships with staff members reach back three decades to his time as an assistant professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“I think he's been a very energetic leader,” said Samuel Rankin, chair of the Coalition for National Science Funding, a Washington-based advocacy group. “He's done reasonably well. The initiatives he's developed and put into place seem to be gathering strength.”

Suresh said he intends to spend the first few months of his presidency talking with faculty, staff and students.

“At this point, I've known Carnegie Mellon quite well from the outside,” he said. “I want to talk to stakeholders, to get a fuller picture of the issues from the inside, before deciding on any activities. There are lots of strengths in so many different areas. I want to see how to capitalize on those strengths and take them to the next level.”

The university is scheduled to welcome Suresh and his family on campus Feb. 21. His wife, Mary, is former director of public health for Wellesley, Mass.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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