Eleven years ago, Bob Sproull, then 80, spoke to the University’s physics department. Bob, president emeritus of the University and an esteemed physicist, spoke in his characteristically modest and matter-of-fact style about lessons he had learned of responsibility, the interconnectedness of science—and luck.
Well into the account, Bob described his role leading the national committee appointed to evaluate the search for a missing U.S. hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain. A B-52 and Air Force tanker had crashed in a refueling accident in the winter of 1966. A failed search could have serious implications for U.S. relations with Spain. The USSR might have found the bomb. Bob’s committee, named three months after the accident, was asked to look at the search processes used—and evaluate whether to give up. Ultimately the mission succeeded when it narrowed to a one-mile area where a fisherman remembered seeing the bomb fall. “The bomb was found, hanging by the parachute shrouds in water nearly as deep as could be explored, at the edge of a much deeper chasm,” Bob recalled. “Again, good luck!”
Bob may credit good luck, but his friends and colleagues know that this, in fact, is a story of hard work, talent, and commitment.
Bob was invited by University President Allen Wallis and Board Chair Joseph Wilson ’31 to become provost in 1968. Bob had earned distinction as a physicist and administrator at his alma mater, Cornell University, where he was the first director of both the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics and the Center for Materials Research. Earlier Bob had served as director of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency, reporting directly to the secretary of defense.
Bob applied his substantial administrative and scientific skills at the University as provost (1968–70) and president (1970–84), navigating a national economy with strong parallels to today’s recession, but exacerbated by double-digit inflation. He was sympathetic to pressures on families and resisted steep tuition increases. Bob supported the humanities and undergraduate education with passion.
“Of all man-made institutions, the university takes the longest view of time,” Bob stated in his 1975 inaugural address. “The primary missions of universities are to help succeeding generations prepare themselves for lives of service and to create new knowledge that will enrich the lives and enlarge the opportunities of succeeding generations. One does not give his life to a university unless he is optimistic about the 21st century.”
David Kearns ’52, the board chair when Bob retired in 1984, credited him with raising $108 million in a capital campaign ending in 1980, $6 million above the goal. Bob oversaw significant renovations to Strong Memorial Hospital and the completion of Wilson Commons and the Zornow Center.
Significantly, Bob pursued the development of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a bold venture in 1970 that placed Rochester in the front of research on fusion technology. He worked determinedly to secure support for the Laser Lab from private sponsors and the state and federal governments. The University’s early $10.4 million investment has generated nearly $1.4 billion in research dollars for the University and the regional economy.
Bob’s continued involvement with the University after he retired as president has been remarkable. He remained an active member of the Board of Trustees committee overseeing the Laser Lab until last year. He and his wife, Mary, in 1999 donated $2 million toward faculty research and study in the arts, sciences, and engineering. Bob also has contributed his expertise to many corporate boards; after his retirement from the University he chaired a committee of the National Academy of Sciences to reorganize the Institute of Medicine; performed advisory work for the departments of Energy and Defense; and served on missions to Kazakhstan and to the Republic of Georgia for the International Executive Service.
There are few pleasures quite equal to spending time with Bob and Mary. He is incredibly wise, courteous, and empathetic. He has played a pivotal role in the University’s history.