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New CMU President Suresh a 'big-picture person'

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Subra Suresh, Carnegie Mellon University's ninth president.  NSF/Sandy Schaeffer Photography
Subra Suresh, Carnegie Mellon University's ninth president. NSF/Sandy Schaeffer Photography

The changing of the guard at Carnegie Mellon University is scheduled to begin quietly on Monday when former National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh will take office as the school's ninth president.

No formal ceremony will mark the passing of the baton from longtime President Jared Cohon, a high-profile figure who leaves after 16 years at the helm of the school, CMU spokesman Ken Walters said. Suresh did not respond to requests for an interview.

Those who know Suresh, who was dean of MIT's school of engineering before heading to Washington in 2010 to oversee the National Science Foundation's $7 billion annual budget, said his reticence is not surprising. Suresh, 57, a native of India, is a listener.

“He feels other people have things to say that are more important than he does,” said Kelvin K. Droegenmeier, vice president of research at the University of Oklahoma, who sits on the National Science Board, the oversight panel for National Science Foundation.

Suresh, who came to the United States as a young man to attend graduate school at Iowa State University and later earned a doctorate at MIT, also taught at Brown University. His resumé includes his election to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and national academies in Spain, Germany, Sweden and India.

“I think Subra Suresh is one of the extraordinary leaders of science of our time. He is quiet but a formidable intellect. He has an amazing mind. He takes a problem, analyzes it and comes to conclusions you couldn't have come to in 100 years,” said Droegenmeier.

Sam Rankin, chair of the Coalition for National Science Funding, describes Suresh as “a big-picture person,” whose priorities would fit well with CMU's mission of commercializing innovative research.

“He is very interested in interdisciplinary research and using research to develop new technologies and products,” Rankin said.

“He is a relationship builder,” said Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and chairman of the National Science Board.

“He does a lot of work behind the scenes. Before an important announcement, he gets all of the ducks in a row in a fashion such that his decisions are usually embraced by all,” Arvizu said.

At the National Science Foundation, colleagues said Suresh took the lead in starting and convening a Global Research Council, a meeting of national science executives to weigh key research issues.

He also was key in the creation of I-Corps, an enterprise that leverages small amounts of National Science Foundation money to attract private donations to “get things out of the lab and into use.”

Although Suresh's career has been in science and technology, Droegenmeier said, he appreciates the arts and should be a good fit for a university known for a combination of fine arts and science programs.

“No one should be afraid of Subra. With his intellect and his appreciation for the arts and humanities, he is a rock star. Everyone who is watching him go thinks CMU got a rock star,” he said.

An investiture ceremony is planned for autumn, Walters said.

During a visit to Pittsburgh last winter, Suresh said he would spend his first months on the job at the university conducting open forums and a “listening tour” to gather input from CMU faculty, students and staffers.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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