Willamette University announces new president

UC Santa Cruz dean and leading scientist Stephen E. Thorsett to be university’s 25th president

SALEM, Ore. – Willamette University Board of Trustees today announced Stephen E. Thorsett as the university’s 25th president, effective July 1, 2011.

“Stephen Thorsett brings an exceptional combination of visionary leadership, teaching experience and scholarly achievement to Willamette,” said Board of Trustees Chair Steven Wynne. “Steve’s dedication to a diverse liberal arts education and his passion for the highest academic standards will continue to advance Willamette as one of the nation’s top tier liberal arts universities. He understands and values Willamette University, Salem and the Pacific Northwest in distinctive and deeply personal ways,” said Wynne.

Thorsett, age 46, currently serves as dean of Physical and Biological Sciences and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

As dean and faculty leader at UC Santa Cruz, Thorsett built strong undergraduate programs within and across disciplines, developing innovative lab and field experiences and local internships. He prioritized faculty diversity, increasing the number of women science faculty.

During exceptionally difficult financial times, Thorsett was able to hire more than 40 new faculty and raise about $50 million in private capital to support academic programs. He also manages the 100-acre Long-Marine Lab and over 4,000 acres of natural reserve lands for restoration and research.

As a physicist, Thorsett has authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific publications, focusing on the late stages of stellar evolution. Among his many accomplishments, Thorsett co-discovered the oldest known planet, dubbed “the Methuselah planet,” in the constellation Scorpius.

“Stephen Thorsett is a superb choice as the next leader of Willamette University,” said Joseph Taylor, former dean of the faculty at Princeton University and Thorsett’s faculty advisor as a student at Princeton. “A distinguished scholar with a strong record in academic administration, he has demonstrated a deep commitment to the highest standards of scholarship and teaching.”

Prior to his current role at UC Santa Cruz, Thorsett was an assistant professor of physics at Princeton and a research fellow at Caltech. He earned numerous awards, fellowships and honors for his achievements as both an undergraduate and graduate student. He earned his bachelor’s in mathematics with honors at Carleton College, where he graduated summa cum laude.

“Dr. Thorsett sees the value in the service-oriented, global citizen that Willamette encourages. He understands the importance of campus diversity, education outside of the classroom and the purpose in learning communities," said Willamette student Ariel Wilson, class of 2013, who served on the search committee. "He  is also very approachable, and that's a huge benefit from a student perspective."

Thorsett, son of Willamette University emeritus biology Professor Grant Thorsett, grew up in Salem and graduated from South Salem High School. As a teenager, he worked summers and weekends at Willamette washing dishes.

“I am thrilled to have been selected as Willamette University’s next president. Willamette was my first introduction to the power of a liberal arts education in a small community setting,” said Thorsett. “Willamette is special to me for the quality of its teaching and learning, for its mix of a strong liberal arts core with outstanding professional graduate programs, and as a place with which I have a strong personal history and affinity. 

“One of the important parts of what binds Willamette together is a shared commitment to a student-focused education and the service mission embodied in the motto, ‘Not unto ourselves alone are we born.’ I was moved as I listened to people from across the university share their passion for Willamette’s mission,” said Thorsett. “It further strengthened my desire to be part of this university, and I’m excited for the opportunity to expand Willamette’s reach nationally and internationally.”

Willamette University professor of marketing and member of the presidential search committee Elliot Maltz said, “We’ve selected a president-elect with impeccable academic credentials from one of the top universities in the world. His combination of intellect, creativity and understanding of Willamette's values will serve the university extraordinarily well. I look forward to the great strides we will make under Stephen Thorsett's leadership.”

Thorsett succeeds M. Lee Pelton, who has served as president of Willamette University since July 1998. Pelton becomes president of Emerson College on July 1. Thorsett’s selection is the result of an eight-month search process completed with the help of executive search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates and a presidential search committee made up of representatives from the Willamette University Board of Trustees, faculty, alumni and students.

“Throughout the search process, Steve stood out as the candidate who embodied all that we were looking for — stellar scholarly achievement, an extensive track record of administrative leadership and fundraising as well as a deep dedication to the liberal arts,” said history professor and search committee member Ellen Eisenberg. “He is a humane and thoughtful individual, and I am thrilled that he will lead Willamette as our new president.”

Thorsett and his wife, Rachel Dewey Thorsett, have one daughter. The family will reside in Salem.

Willamette University is a private university that educates 2,600 students in a residential undergraduate liberal arts college and professional graduate schools of law, management and education. Adjacent to the Oregon Capitol, Willamette is nationally recognized for teaching and scholarly work in a community that models diversity, sustainability and service to others, values that reflect the university motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

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