Willamette University

Welcome (Back), President Thorsett

On a mildsummer morning outside Waller Hall, in one of his first official acts, President Steve Thorsett shakes paws with Blitz, the university mascot.

The ensuing photo shoot, playfully but efficiently conducted against the backdrop of Waller’s red bricks, draws the attention and realization of several campus passersby: Willamette’s newest president has arrived.

Through some twist of fate — or just good old-fashioned luck — Steve Thorsett, a longtime member of Willamette’s extended family, has returned to lead the institution that, from a very young age, influenced the course of his life.

Bearcat at Two

Born in New Haven, Conn., Thorsett moved with his family to Oregon as a toddler. “I’ve always considered myself a native Oregonian. I love the environment, the openness of the people, their curiosity,” he says, grinning. He talks about his Northwest home with a mix of pride and wonder. It’s clear that he’s happy to be back.

Thorsett’s father, Grant, moved west in 1967 with his wife Karen and their twin sons, Steve and David, becoming the fourth member of the biology faculty during the presidency of G. Herbert Smith. During more than 30 years at the College of Liberal Arts, the senior Thorsett would help shape science education and produce legions of student fans.

“My earliest memories are of Willamette,” President Thorsett says. “I spent a lot of time on campus; I studied in the libraries, went to football games. It was always just a part of growing up.”

By high school, with graduation and college looming, he needed to earn some money, and this led to his first job on campus. At the time, Goudy Commons didn’t exist and residence halls at Willamette had their own dining facilities; Thorsett went to work as a Doney Hall dishwasher. He appreciates the experience now more than he did as a teenager. Ask him what his favorite spot on campus was back then and he responds from the gut: “Not the dish room.”

Nearly 30 years later, Thorsett is mildly amused by what’s changed and what hasn’t. “One of the interesting things about coming back to Willamette is that I hear people talking about the need to renovate buildings,” he says. “I remember when those buildings were built.” Salem, too, is different in some ways  but just the same in others. “Downtown is much livelier than when I was in high school, but the look of the Capitol complex and the older neighborhoods in that part of town — which I’ve been visiting at least annually since then — hasn’t changed much.

“Sometimes it feels like Salem is exactly the same place it’s always been, and then I look at it in a different way and see that it’s grown. The same is true to some extent with Willamette.”

Higher and Higher Education

Thorsett pursued a liberal arts education from Carleton College, where he studied Zeno’s paradox in philosophy, did field work in Minnesota snow drifts, studied abroad at Oxford and managed to run a marathon in Paris. What really grabbed him, though, was mathematics and what he calls “the allure of precision.”

“I became interested in general relativity and Einstein’s work,” Thorsett says, warming to one of his favorite topics — and the focus of his research and teaching for nearly 20 years. “I got into astrophysics basically because it offered the set of tools I needed to do the fundamental tests of physical theory that I was interested in.”

Eventually, he started studying things like how fast stars spin and the potential effects of gamma rays in distant space (he’s an authority in the study of gamma ray bursts, phenomena that throw out potentially destructive radiation). His research interests carried him well past his PhD and into professorships, first at Princeton, then as a research fellow at Caltech, and then at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where he served as chair for the astronomy and astrophysics departments. Over the course of two decades in academia, he published more than 100 articles and monographs, many in collaboration with other top scientists, and served as an active leader for two NASA telescope missions.

Still, he shrugs off the glamour of it all. He even refers to one of his most impressive achievements as “one serendipitous discovery.”

Not long ago, Thorsett and a team of researchers isolated a previously unknown planet, now commonly referred to as Methuselah (see sidebar
p. 25). More than 12,000 light-years away from Earth, it is the oldest known planet. The team used gravity measurements to deduce the existence of this independent body, which orbits and tugs on a pair of far-off stars, and the discovery made international news when NASA announced it in 2003.

Thorsett’s space explorations led him to another important discovery: his wife, Rachel. The two met while sharing a PhD advisor in Pasadena, but the relationship didn’t take off until Thorsett asked Rachel, by chance a next door neighbor, for some moving-in advice. Rachel Dewey Thorsett, a highly regarded scholar and professor of physics on her own, is a graduate of Harvard and Princeton and taught at Princeton and UCSC; her husband refers to her as even more of a “hard-core physicist” than he is.  Their daughter, Laura, 15, was born during a stint in New Jersey.

Thorsett’s research encompassed both the vast, nearly ungraspable aspects of space (he still muses about how hard it is to conceptualize the scale of the universe), as well as those aspects that are smaller-scale and precisely measurable. Along the way, he’s practiced combining “big thought” and “little thought:” wide-view analysis and minutia. Ideal preparation for the Willamette presidency.

Path to President

“About 10 years ago I was bitten by the administrative bug,” Thorsett says. It sounds a little like an admission; some professors joke about “going over to the dark side” to administration, even though many of them are cut out for it. He took the customary path — from tenured professor to department chair, working with faculty committees and eventually the UCSC academic senate’s executive committee — but the deeper into administrative work he got, the more he realized that he enjoyed it and, evidently, was good at it.

“In time I got to the point in my career where being faculty chair was something that was expected of me. And then these two threads — academic and administrative — came together. The skills of managing large groups of people, projects and budgets fed into academic leadership.”

Over time, his combined experiences suited the role of an academic dean, and when the opportunity presented itself, Thorsett successfully sought the dean’s position of UCSC’s physical and biological sciences division. In this role, one he held until his appointment to the Willamette presidency, Thorsett led a unit with as many students and a budget as sizeable as the university as a whole. Over the last six years, he contributed to three major facilities construction projects, raised $50 million, and inspired fond allegiance among fellow administrators and faculty. He made a habit of reaching out to alumni, too.

He demonstrated, as former chair of the Willamette Board of Trustees and search committee member Bob Packard ’73 put it, three of the major prerequisite “gotta-haves” for university presidents: academic, fundraising and administrative leadership experience. But, while all of this felt natural enough, Thorsett never spent a whole lot of time thinking about college presidencies.

To be more specific, he really only thought about one or two of them.

“I received a lot of phone calls from colleges and universities and ‘headhunting’ companies looking for me to apply for jobs,” he says. “Several years ago I told one to call me back if Willamette ever had a position open, and so I was thrilled last fall when they did. They asked me to apply and I thought about it for about five minutes and put in an application.”

College of Law Dean Peter Letsou, who also was involved in the presidential search process, put it another way:

“Among the candidates we talked to, all wanted to be college presidents. All of them had incredible abilities and passions for the job. What set Steve apart from the group was that he wanted to be the president of Willamette University.”

What’s Next

Looking ahead, Thorsett remarks that it’s always hard for somebody in the president’s position to balance off-campus needs with being visible and accessible. The trouble with being the new president is that so many people want you for so many things right away. “But I’ll be working very hard to try to meet as many people as I can and to try to talk to them in informal settings, not just in ceremonial events where you always see the president,” he says.

That process has already begun. Quickly after arriving, Thorsett invited hundreds of staff and faculty, and any students who were around over the summer, out to the north lawn so people could meander up for a chat. Strawberry shortcake was an incentive, but nobody really came for that. Earlier, his presidential “hello” email had come promptly on Friday the first of July — his first day — because, as he put it: “Although I know many of you may not receive this message until after the Independence Day holiday, I wanted to share my excitement in being here as soon as I arrived.” Communication is king, and by the time his inauguration ceremony comes early in 2012, people both on and off campus are likely to know the president already.

All signs suggest that he’ll lead with purpose, a clear view of the “big Willamette” picture — and optimism.

“I go back to Robert Noyce, a Grinnell alumnus, Willamette parent and an early leader of Intel,” he says, “who emphasized the role of optimism in enabling people to make hard choices, to travel instead of stay home. A successful leader must be able to project that optimistic sense of the institution.”

And that’s something else that he’s already begun.


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“Willamette was always just a part of growing up.”

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Above: Steve Thorsett (right) and brother David grinning in the leaves.

Below: The Thorsett family portrait, 2011.

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“All the candidates wanted to be college presidents ... What set Steve apart from the group was that he wanted to be the president of Willamette University.”

— Peter Letsou
Presidential Search Committee Memberand
Dean of the College of Law