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Robert L. Sproull, president emeritus, dies

October 10, 2014
archival photo of Robert Sproull

photo from University Libraries Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

Robert Lamb Sproull, internationally known physicist, professor and the seventh president of the University of Rochester, died Oct. 9 at the age of 96. Sproull joined the University as provost in 1968 and was president from 1970 to 1984.

Sproull was credited with maintaining major advancements in University programs and facilities as president, including providing critical fundraising leadership. He also led the creation of the University’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics.

“The University of Rochester has lost a giant, one of its treasures.  Bob Sproull was president of the University when the nation suffered through double-digit inflation and recession,” said University President Joel Seligman. “Such obstacles might have diverted less committed leaders, but not Bob Sproull. The University of Rochester benefited from his wisdom and counsel.”

“Bob was very committed to the University’s academic advancement during his presidency,” said Ed Hajim, chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees.  “His leadership helped facilitate Rochester’s transition from a liberal arts institution to a research university. He gave thoughtful attention to the investments that would make Rochester a destination for talented faculty and students.”

“It has been a tremendous honor to hold the deanship bearing the Sproull name,” said Peter Lennie, provost and the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Sciences and Engineering. “Both Bob and his wife, Mary, were visionary in providing support for academic leadership focused on strengthening the faculty.”

Born and raised in Illinois, Robert Sproull attended Deep Springs College, a work-study junior college on a cattle ranch in California—he could not afford to accept a fellowship offered by Harvard College. There was no physics instructor at Deep Springs, but he became intrigued by reading about it and transferred to Cornell University after three years of part-time study. He received a bachelor’s degree in English (1940) and Ph.D. in physics (1943) from Cornell.

As World War II approached, Sproull developed an experimental thesis at Cornell, which became classified because of its application to microwave magnetrons. He then went to RCA Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., to work on Navy radar. He worked at RCA during the day; in the evenings he taught physics to Navy and Marine students at Princeton University, and microwave theory and technique to Navy and industrial engineers at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1946, Sproull accepted an assistant professorship in physics at Cornell, where he advanced through the faculty ranks of its growing physics program. He organized and was the first director of both the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics and the Center for Materials Research at Cornell.

From 1963 to 1965, he served as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., reporting to the U.S. Secretary of Defense and supporting a range of programs from nuclear test detection to computer networking. He would also serve as chairman of the Defense Science Board from1968-1970.

He returned to Cornell in 1965 to become the university’s vice president for academic affairs.

In 1966, because of his defense experience and scientific expertise, he was picked to lead a national committee evaluating the search for a missing U.S. hydrogen bomb after a B-52 and an Air Force tanker crashed off the coast of Spain. His committee rescued the unpromising mission and located the bomb, helping to avert negative consequences for international relations.

Sproull arrived at the University of Rochester from Cornell in 1968 as vice president and provost under President Allen Wallis and immediately helped manage campus unrest resulting from the Vietnam War. He was named president in 1970, and continued to work hand-in-hand with Wallis, who became chancellor. In 1975, Sproull assumed full executive responsibility.  Bob also served on the board of the George C. Marshall Institute and was a member of the Roundtable Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sproull’s presidency was distinguished by strong support for the humanities and the sciences, especially within undergraduate education, as well as a commitment to maintain the University’s affordability, resisting steep tuition increases.  He led a capital campaign that ended in 1980 and exceeded the $102 million goal set in 1975.

He also championed the creation of the University’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, putting the University in the forefront of research on commercially feasible fusion technology in 1970.

“Bob was essential to the development and survival of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Starting from his first year at Rochester, he expended extraordinary time and effort in support of the development of the laboratory,” said Robert McCrory, University vice president and vice provost, and Laser Lab director and CEO. “Most significantly, his dedication to the project resulted in the University’s international reputation in the field of high-power lasers and laser fusion with a facility that provides education and training to hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral scholars.”

In 2008, the University dedicated the Omega EP (Extended Performance) laser facility at its new home at the Laser Lab that was designated the Robert L. Sproull Center for Ultra High Intensity Laser Research in 2005.

Sproull retired from the University in 1984, becoming president emeritus, professor emeritus of physics, and life trustee. After retiring, he continued to lend his expertise to many corporate boards, 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.

Robert and Mary were married for 70 years before she died in 2012 at age 93. Mary was a talented painter, and the Sproulls were generous supporters of both the arts and education, including the Memorial Art Gallery. It was in 1999 that they provided a major gift to the University to endow the position of dean of the faculty of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering, held by Lennie.

Predeceased by Mary, Robert is survived by his children, Robert F. of Leeds, Mass., and Nancy Highbarger of Los Gatos, Calif.; three grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be directed to the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Endowed Fund at the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester.

The University flag will be lowered on Thursday, Oct. 16—the first day of the next Board meeting—in memory of Robert L. Sproull.

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