He’s a sitting university leader, accomplished thermodynamics scholar and a former walk-on college football player with eight patents to his name. With the confirmation of the Board of Regents, G.P. “Bud” Peterson will take on a new title: President of the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The Board of Regents announced Monday that Peterson was their chosen finalist for the presidency after selecting him from three candidates presented to the Regents by the presidential search committee. The Regents must wait a minimum of 14 days to confirm him per Georgia law.
Peterson, 56, currently serves as the chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU), a position he assumed in July of 2006. His prior university administration experience includes six years as provost at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and four years as associate vice-chancellor of the Texas A&M University System.
“[My wife] Val and I are very excited to start this new chapter,” Peterson said. “Georgia Tech is a marvelous institution with a wonderful history and one that has made remarkable progress in the past few decades. I look forward to the transition and continuing the great legacy established by Wayne Clough, his predecessors and all the alums who have done so much to shape the world in which we live.”
Peterson earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering in 1985 from Texas A&M University after being hired at the university in 1981 as an assistant professor. From there, he steadily rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and then the executive associate dean of Engineering.
“Dr. Peterson fits Georgia Tech wonderfully,” said Willis Potts, IE ’69, a member of the Board of Regents who served as the search committee chair. “He rings all the bells in areas from academics to athletics to public service. We are thrilled that a sitting president of his caliber is interested in leading Georgia Tech.”
Peterson’s time at Texas A&M also included a stint from Aug. 1993 to Sept. 1994 at the National Science Foundation as director of their Thermal Transport and Thermal Processing Program, and at NASA during the summers of 1981 and 1982 as a research scientist.
He was also an instructor at two high schools and a technical institute in Kansas and served as a consulting engineer between his years at Kansas State University (where he earned bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Engineering) and his time at Texas A&M. While at Kansas State, he spent three years as a walk-on wide receiver with the football team.
Some confusion existed among observers as to whether the protocol for University System of Georgia (USG) presidential searches would result in three public nominees. Currently, it specifies that the search committee return “three to five unranked candidates” and Georgia law specifies that “up to three” of the candidates be named publicly, according to Susan Herbst, USG executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and chief academic officer, who was involved in organizing the search. The actual selection must occur at least 14 days after the announcement of a finalist.
Peterson took the helm at CU in the wake of scandals at the university that attracted national attention. Earlier this decade, CU’s football program was connected to off-campus recruiting parties that involved alcohol, drugs and sex, as well as numerous allegations of prostitution and rape.
In 2003, former placekicker Katie Hnida alleged that she had been raped by one of her teammates. Head Coach Gary Barnett was suspended and later dismissed in part due to comments he made in the aftermath of her allegations. Then in 2005, Ward Churchill, a tenured professor of Ethnic Studies, wrote an essay blaming the victims of the World Trade Center attacks for provoking the terrorists through their implicit support of United States foreign policy, referring to them as “little Eichmanns.” The Board of Regents of the University of Colorado dismissed Churchill in 2007.
Peterson worked quickly to move on from the school’s troubled past and look towards the future. In his first two years at CU, Peterson was able to boost fundraising by 80 percent, from $32 million in 2006 to $58 million in 2008. In Nov. 2007, he developed a long-term strategic plan for the university titled “Flagship 2030.” Its stated purpose is to transform CU into a flagship university for the 21st century, with short-term goals such as developing a new model of undergraduate education, increasing diversity, and expansion of faculty, research funding and graduate enrollment. Its long-term aims include developing residential colleges, creating a collaborative “Colorado research diamond,” alternative degree tracks emphasizing master’s degrees as a primary track and a three-semester year-round schedule.
As an academic, Peterson specializes in the field of phase change heat transfer, and his foray into university administration hasn’t prevented him from continuing research. His curriculum vitae lists 163 refereed journal publications and 124 refereed papers and conference proceedings. He is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, earning numerous awards from both groups over his career.
Peterson’s background and accomplishments in his field when added to his experience as an administrator persuaded the search committee and the Regents.
“Dr. Peterson rose to the top of the pool in part because of his scholarly experience as an accomplished mechanical engineer,” Herbst said. “That was very important to us because Tech is a place of scholarly excellence, and we need someone who is a very high-powered intellectual.” She emphasized his “depth” as a mechanical engineer and “breadth” with his administrative experience, like that with CU, which has a wide array of programs from fine arts to engineering.
It’s no coincidence, though, that the search committee chose a candidate with mechanical engineering expertise to lead a university known primarily for its engineering programs.
“There was some discussion early in the search process whether [an engineering background] was important or necessary,” said Gary May, chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a member of the search committee. “I’m biased, but I thought it was both important and necessary. I think it would be difficult for someone who came from a liberal arts background, not because those folks aren’t capable, but certainly it’s a unique environment and culture where 60 percent of the students and faculty are in engineering and it has a title like ‘Institute of Technology’ and it has a mission of economic development revolving around technology. Someone who got their Ph.D. in French Literature would probably have a more difficult time adapting to this environment.”
Peterson’s confirmation will place an end date for the interim presidency of Gary Schuster, who will resume his previous role of provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “Dr. Schuster has done a fantastic job this year getting us through a crisis,” said Nick Wellkamp, undergraduate student body president. “It had to be hard coming into the interim presidential role in one of the most challenging years Georgia Tech has seen in a long time.”
It is not currently known when Peterson will be confirmed or when he will arrive on campus, but Herbst said that students should look forward to the transition process and helping Peterson move into his position. “Bringing in a new president is a time for reflection for the university. The new person comes in and he has to learn about the institution, and it’s a great time for the institution to look at itself, who we are and where we are going,” Herbst said.