The changing faces of Carnegie Mellon: A presidential retrospective

Credit: Greg Hanneman/Contributing Editor Credit: Greg Hanneman/Contributing Editor

When it came time to give a title to his final speech before the student body, retiring Carnegie Tech president John C. Warner had a few ideas.

“Old presidents never die, they just lose their faculties,” he joked to his audience in December 1964.

As Jared Cohon, Carnegie Mellon’s eighth president, prepares to step down from the position, The Tartan takes a look back at the history of Carnegie Mellon’s other presidents and the events that marked their terms.

The information for this article was obtained from a combination of The Tartan’s own archives, minutes and notes from the university’s board of trustees, five published books on Carnegie Mellon history, and interviews with people involved in the university’s history and presidential searches.

The resulting 110-year historical picture reflects the Carnegie Mellon of today. The institution’s presidents themselves have embodied the contrasting disciplines, backgrounds, and approaches inherent in the modern multi-faceted university. Each leader faced issues unique to his own time in office, although some debates surfaced repeatedly over the school’s history.

One major undertaking, every 14 years on average, was replacing the president himself due to resignation or retirement.

Contrasting approaches

From the start, the executive heads of Carnegie Mellon and its predecessor institutions have come from a variety of backgrounds.

Arthur A. Hamerschlag, the first president of the Carnegie Technical Schools, was appointed with input from Andrew Carnegie himself. In November 1903 — two years before classes began — a committee from the school visited Carnegie’s home in New York City and mentioned Hamerschlag, already a prominent organizer in multiple New York-area trade schools. Hamerschlag’s background as a trade-school supporter and consulting engineer pleased Carnegie so much, the committee reported, “that he promptly suggested that we secure him at once [and] that he be paid a good salary.” Hamerschlag’s appointment was confirmed the following week at a suggested salary of $8,000 a year, plus a house on the school grounds.

The Carnegie Technical Schools were originally founded to give two- and three-year vocational educations to Pittsburgh’s working class. With his practical background and a developing close relationship to Andrew Carnegie, Hamerschlag focused his tenure on constructing the school’s physical presence and getting periodic infusions of money from its founder.

“Since [campus architect Henry] Hornbostel maintained his offices in New York, day-to-day supervision of the building projects in Pittsburgh often fell to Hamerschlag, who may have devoted half his time to campus construction,” professor emeritus of history Edwin Fenton wrote in his 2000 book Carnegie Mellon 1900–2000: A Centennial History.

School historian Arthur Wilson Tarbell, in his own 1937 history of the institution’s early years, said that the first president was not interested in academic ceremonies so much as solving practical problems as they arose. “He was not college trained; indeed his formal educational preparation had been meagre beyond belief,” Tarbell wrote. “In his fundamental make-up he was more of an engineer than an educator.”

As the Carnegie Technical Schools evolved into the Carnegie Institute of Technology — and control of the institute passed to a New York-based corporation after Andrew Carnegie’s death — Hamerschlag felt increasingly left out, according to biographers. He resigned his presidency at the end of June 1922.

Thomas S. Baker, Hamerschlag’s successor as president, was a music critic, scholar, and teacher of German literature with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He had joined Carnegie Tech three years earlier as the institute’s secretary, equivalent to vice president. Baker began his term officially as “acting president” from July 1922 until being named president in full the following February.

From the beginning, Baker’s education was welcomed by the campus community. “The announcement that Dr. Baker has been appointed president is received with much satisfaction by alumni and students,” wrote The Tartan’s editors in the Feb. 14, 1923 issue. “For he is a man of learning and also a good scholar who has devoted his life to the advancement of teaching; besides he has a great personality which has won him many friends in this country and abroad.”

Baker’s tenure at Carnegie Tech marked a halt in construction and a shift to “spiritual, cultural, and character-building efforts,” Fenton wrote. Projects ranged in scope from the paving of muddy campus walkways to advancing the prowess of Carnegie Tech’s drama program and research capabilities. Baker himself gave lectures in French and German on European speaking tours.

Within these two contrasting frameworks — down-to-earth practicality and scholarly refinement, science and art — the next six presidents of Carnegie Tech and, later, Carnegie Mellon University, set the foundation for the school as it is today.

Issues shared and unique

Some campus issues have troubled a number of the university’s administrations over the years, no matter the background of their presidents.

One such topic that rose to prominence this school year was criticism of Carnegie Mellon’s “stress culture” and accusations of insufficient mental health resources being available to those who seek them. It led to a town-hall meeting hosted by representatives of Student Affairs, the provost’s office, and student government. However, 2013 is not the only time that the student body and administrators have discussed problems with the community’s well-being.

From his first greeting to students, Baker was encouraging students to attend to their physical and mental health, as well as to their education. “Your happiness and success will be increased if you get something more from your college life than that which is secured in the class room and laboratory,” he wrote in the Sept. 20, 1922, issue of The Tartan. “I wish it were possible for every student to take part in some branch of athletics.... I hope also that every student will have a share in some phase of undergraduate social life.”

President Robert Doherty’s annual report for 1937 put the situation more bluntly: “There must be less stress; a reduction must be made in the intensity of scheduled work.”

As he was retiring as Carnegie Tech’s fourth president at the end of 1964, Warner alluded to both the nature and the amount of the university’s coursework as ongoing challenges. “We have, I believe, taken the easy way out of merely increasing our demands upon students without changing significantly what we teach or how we teach it,” he said during a lecture. “The result has been to increase the drudgery of learning without adding appreciably to the excitement of learning.”

Other issues facing Carnegie Mellon’s administrators were more tied to a particular time or place.

H. Guyford Stever, in the president’s office 1965–1972, presided over a particularly tough period as both Carnegie Tech and American society changed rapidly in the late ’60s. Stever’s administration oversaw Carnegie Tech’s complicated merger with the Mellon Institute in 1967, followed by an era of student and faculty unrest for a variety of reasons.

“CMU students may go on record as the first ones ever to throw marshmallows at a U.S. Senator,” read a Tartan article on Jan. 23, 1970, after a small number of students disrupted a speech by Senator Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.). Other acts of Vietnam-era protest included a ransacking of Carnegie Mellon’s ROTC office, blocking access to the Wean Hall construction site in support of minority workers, and a student/faculty mass meeting opposing required courses in the newly organized College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“President Stever walked a fine line, defending the right of students and faculty to free speech while he attempted to explain his stance to the students who did not share the views of the protesters,” Fenton wrote in his Centennial History.

Lincoln Wolfenstein, a professor emeritus of physics who came to Carnegie Tech in 1948, remembered being at odds with President Richard M. Cyert, in office between 1972 and 1990, over the university’s new Software Engineering Institute and projects from the U.S. Department of Defense.

“I had this saying — we like to say the university needs money in order to carry out its function, and then in contrast I said sometimes Cyert seemed to think the function of the university was to get money,” Wolfenstein said. “So [Cyert] set up a committee to discuss this question of freedom on campus. Should there be restricted work going on, so people who did something couldn’t talk to the rest of the campus about it? Was that a bad idea and how to limit that?”

Though the SEI and the Defense Department contracts stayed, Wolfenstein gave Cyert credit for being “forthcoming” and discussing the issues with concerned members of the community.

Seventh president Robert Mehrabian took over in 1990 at a time when Carnegie Mellon’s rapid transformation into a national research university had placed increasing strains on the school’s resources, Fenton wrote. In response, Mehrabian created a structured administration where data and information were empasized — to some extent — over personal interactions.

“Rather than see individual faculty members of the university, he preferred to have them work through their deans or vice presidents,” Fenton wrote. “This administrative style functioned well, but it offended some faculty and staff members who were accustomed to having direct contact with the man in the president’s chair.”

Students expressed similar opinions in The Tartan when commenting in March 1996 on Mehrabian’s suddenly announced resignation. “Maybe we’ll get a president that we’ll actually see around,” one complained, while another rhetorically asked, “How can I miss someone I’ve never seen?”

Replacing the president

From first consideration to final selection, the process of choosing a presidential successor can take a year or more.

Cohon, set to step down from office on June 30, will be replaced by current National Science Foundation Director and former Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering Subra Suresh. Suresh was selected as president in February after a three-part process, beginning in the 2011–12 school year with the formation of a search committee and the hiring of a search firm, followed by a series of meetings to gather input. Formal proceedings of the committee — made up of eight faculty members, eight university trustees, and one trustee chair — began in July 2012.

A.D. “Tony” Rollett, a professor of materials science and engineering, was the search committee’s co-chair and 2011–12 chair of the Faculty Senate. The overall presidential search process, he said, was a combination of what was done here previously and “what we thought was a good idea anyway.”

Rollett said that the committee’s early action included drawing up a white-paper report on the desired qualities of the university’s next president — a step that was also carried out in Carnegie Mellon’s two previous presidential searches in 1989 and 1996. The use of a single 17-member search committee, however, varied from previous practices that sometimes used multiple bodies divided into faculty, trustees, students, or other groups.

Despite the difference, Rollett said the single committee worked well together under leader Jim Rohr, executive chairman of the PNC Financial Services Group. “Faculty and trustees don’t normally mix very much,” Rollett said. “There’s a certain element of ... getting used to each other.”

A new step this time around, gathering input from all of Carnegie Mellon’s department heads, was well received and produced remarkably consistent results across campus. “That was really interesting,” Rollett said. “There was a very coherent view of the university and a pretty coherent view of what the issues were.”

Successfully finding and selecting the right new president is not always a seamless transfer.

Cohon’s retirement date of June 30, 2013 — a one-year extension beyond his previous term — was formally set in August 2010, giving university administrators almost three years of advance planning time. Even with significant lead time, transitions have not always been as smooth as hoped.

Warner, who served a year as Carnegie Tech’s vice president in 1949 before being elevated to the presidency in 1950, hoped for a similar handoff on his own retirement in the 1960s, according to biographer Ludwig F. Schaefer.

In 1961, at the age of 64 — four years before a mandatory retirement age — Warner sent a memo to the board of trustees outlining desired characteristics for his replacement.

Search committees were set up in 1962 and had drafted desired criteria for candidates by 1963, but no presidential successor had been chosen before Warner’s preferred retirement date of June 1964.
Foreshadowing Cohon’s 2012 term extension, Warner agreed to remain at Carnegie Tech for up to an extra year.

Stever, then an MIT professor, was eventually named as the next president in October 1964, to take over Feb. 1, 1965.

Stever’s own abrupt resignation, upon being nominated to lead the National Science Foundation, left the university lacking a president for five months.

Without a successor in place, the Board of Trustees appointed Edward R. Schatz, Carnegie Mellon’s vice president for Academic Affairs, to fill in temporarily from February 1972. Schatz remains the university’s only acting president who did not continue into a full term to lead the institution.

The trustees had narrowed their list of permanent candidates down to four by April, but it wasn’t until May 9 that the board formally recommended Cyert, then the dean of Carnegie Mellon’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration, to the post effective July 1.

Even with the process over, some members of the board had reservations about the future. “Some trustees feel that the responsibilities of running the University are now so heavy and varied,” the May 9, 1972, meeting minutes noted, “that at the proper time we should consider complementing the president with another top officer whose main job would be to serve as a kind of ‘outside’ president for such matters as fund-raising, public relations, etc.”

Presidential legacies

With the 201 decision to name the Collaborative Innovation Center after Mehrabian, all of Carnegie Mellon’s past presidents are memorialized with at least one building on the Pittsburgh campus. They also have a presence on the second floor of Hunt Library, where university archivist J. Dustin Williams manages a collection of presidential artifacts.

Most of the collection consists of administrative materials from the president’s office, Williams said, but there are more personal items as well, including presidential correspondence, speeches and papers written by the presidents, and other memorabilia.

“I was actually just looking at a merry Christmas [message] from the faculty — kind of a nice one — that was to Baker, if I remember,” Williams said. He also singled out presidential correspondence, which gave a more personal sense of what Carnegie Mellon’s leaders thought during their times in office.

“We try to keep everything that we can that the president’s office can give to us,” Williams said, even though most materials aren’t open to the public until 50 years after they were produced. “We are in the process of trying to get more materials from Mehrabian’s time and, especially right now, Dr. Cohon’s time.”

A less physical legacy of past presidents is their effect on the leaders who replace them.

The personal qualities of a long-term, well-liked president can become core parts of a successor’s job description.

Searching for Warner’s successor after a 39-year career as a professor, department head, dean, vice president, and president became a hunt for “a combination of academic and personal qualities that only a genius with the values of a saint and the constitution of an Olympic athlete could meet,” Fenton wrote.

Likewise, Cohon’s 16-year tenure at Carnegie Mellon left an imprint on the search for his replacement.

“Nobody was saying exactly ‘Get another Jerry,’ because you can’t,” Rollett said of last year’s input-gathering process, “but nevertheless some of those characteristics were very important.”
Suresh, as a materials scientist, does, however, share academic background with Cohon, an environmental engineer.

“More than one trustee turned to me and said, ‘Is it necessary to have a scientist-engineer?’ ” Rollett said. “And I said, ‘No.’ ”