Stephen E. Thorsett became the 25th president of Willamette University on July 1, 2011. He is an internationally recognized astrophysicist who brings to Willamette more than two decades of experience as a scholar, teacher and academic leader.
Immediately preceding his arrival at Willamette, Thorsett was a professor and former chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He served most recently as the dean of its Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, leading a unit roughly comparable to Willamette in terms of budget and numbers of faculty, staff and students. In addition to traditional math and science departments, his division included a nationally recognized graduate certificate program in science writing, and he led the development of the successful California Teach program supporting future K–12 teachers. As dean, he hired nearly 50 new faculty who won dozens of national awards as distinguished young scholars. It is the support of this next generation of faculty leaders that Thorsett notes as his most important and rewarding contribution to UC Santa Cruz.
During his academic career, Thorsett taught broadly in both physics and astronomy and has authored or co-authored more than 100 scientific publications, focusing on the late stages of stellar evolution. His work examines radio pulsars, general relativity in binary star systems, neutron stars, planets orbiting pulsars and highly energetic gamma ray bursts. Among his many accomplishments, Thorsett co-discovered the oldest known planet, popularly dubbed “the Methuselah planet.” As students, he and four friends wrote a graduate physics textbook for Princeton University Press that remains in print, and he has edited three scientific conference volumes.
Before moving to UC Santa Cruz, Thorsett worked as an assistant professor of physics at Princeton University and a research fellow at Caltech. He was an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow and received the Fullam Award of the Dudley Observatory. He also earned a number of fellowships and other honors while completing his master’s and doctorate in physics at Princeton and his bachelor’s in mathematics with honors at Carleton College, from which he graduated summa cum laude.
Thorsett’s appointment at Willamette marks a return to Salem, his hometown. He is the son of Karen and Grant Thorsett, long-time Willamette University biology professor. Thorsett attended Salem public schools, and graduated from South Salem High School, where four years at the slow end of the cross country team led him to a lifetime of running; among many other races, he’s participated in two Hood to Coast Relays, two marathons and a triathlon. He is married to Rachel Dewey Thorsett, an astrophysicist and senior lecturer with security of employment in physics at UC Santa Cruz and an affiliated scholar in physics at Willamette. Thorsett and his wife have one daughter, Laura.
- 1991 Princeton University, PhD (Physics)
- 1989 Princeton University, MA (Physics)
- 1987 Carleton College, BA summa cum laude (Math with honors)
- 2011-present President, Willamette University
- 2006-2011 Dean, Physical and Biological Sciences, UCSC
- 2005-2006 Acting Dean, Physical and Biological Sciences, UCSC
- 2003-2005 Chair, Astronomy & Astrophysics, UCSC
- 2003-2011 Professor, Astronomy & Astrophysics, UCSC
- 1999-2003 Associate Professor, Astronomy & Astrophysics, UCSC
- 1994-1999 Assistant Professor, Physics, Princeton University
- 1991-1994 Millikan Research Fellow in Physics, Caltech
Awards and Honors
- 1997 Alfred P. Sloan Fellow
- 1994 Ernest F. Fullam Award, Dudley Observatory
- 1988 General Electric Foundation Graduate Fellowship
- 1987 National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship
- 1987 Joseph Henry Prize, Princeton University
- 1987 Tektronix Foundation Award