Is Being NSF Director a Steppingstone Back to Academia?

The selection last week of Subra Suresh to be the next president of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) offers a glimpse into the process of recruiting a senior federal science official to a top academic position.

For starters, Subra Suresh becomes the latest National Science Foundation (NSF) director in the prime of his career to return to academia after serving less than half of his 6-year term (see our story this week in Science, and yes, they are all men). The $7 billion NSF is often used as a barometer of the country's commitment to basic research, and its funding of so many academic disciplines gives it arguably the broadest ties to the university community of any federal agency. So although Suresh's move is not surprising, the timing and his age (he took the NSF job in October 2010 at the age of 54) raise some intriguing questions:

  • Do university trustees see running NSF as an important steppingstone to the top job at their institutions?
  • Is it unseemly for universities to lure away federal officials after only a few years in the public posts?
  • Does choosing a midcareer scientist to lead NSF foreshadow a short tenure as director?

The answer to the first question is a clear no, according to the two men who played a major role in bringing Suresh to CMU—Ray Lane, chair of CMU's board of trustees, and James Rohr, who led the board's search committee. Both say that Suresh's current job was not a major factor in his selection as the university's ninth president.

Suresh would have been eminently qualified to lead CMU had he remained as dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead of coming to NSF in October 2010, says Lane, a longtime IT executive who is now a managing partner at the fabled venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. "I'd say NSF was icing on the cake."

Lane says the pool of candidates vying to replace Jared Cohon, who will step down at the end of June after 16 years as president, included "a lot of deans and provosts." But Suresh stood out, Lane says, because of his professional accomplishments as a materials scientist, his success as an academic administrator, and his vision for lifting CMU into the highest ranks of global research universities.

According to Lane, one other candidate had a better track record of raising money, an important part of any president's job, especially at CMU, whose $1 billion endowment is tiny compared with most of its peers. But Lane says Suresh's "record of academic achievement was much stronger."

Rohr, who is CEO of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based banking giant PNC, says the fact that the NSF director is appointed by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate "validated some of what we already know about him. But it wasn't so much his title. I was looking for someone with strong management skills, global experience, and a broad view of academia. The prestige factor fell below that."

Lane and Rohr were more circumspect about the propriety of luring a federal science official to their campus so early in his tenure. Historically, NSF directors either leave relatively early or remain on aboard for the full ride. Asked whether Suresh's short stay was a factor that the search committee weighed, Rohr says that "we talked about it, but it was not an issue for anyone."

At the same time, both men say they would be very unhappy if the shoe were on the other foot. "Heck, yes, I would be angry if he left Carnegie Mellon after 2 years," Lane says. "That would be very unfortunate."

Relating a conversation he had with Suresh, Lane says "he plans to give [the job] 10 years. He's looking to make an impact, and he sees how he can do it." Rohr says the search committee "didn't have a specific time in mind. [Departing CMU president] Jerry Cohon stayed quite a long time for that industry. … And we would hope that, if [Suresh] does a great job, we could keep him 8 or 10 years."

Richard Atkinson, a former NSF director who followed a career path similar to Suresh's, says he thinks that the director's office "is a natural place to look" for a university president. But he thinks it was irresponsible for CMU to hire Suresh so early in his tenure and equally inappropriate for him to accept the offer. "You shouldn't leave [NSF] after 2 years unless there is a very good reason," Atkinson says. "I think you should stay at least 4 or 5 years."

Atkinson, now retired, left NSF in June 1980 after 3 years as director to become chancellor of the University of California (UC), San Diego. (He later served as president of the UC system.) But Atkinson notes that he actually spent 5 years in the director's office, including 1 year as deputy director and 9 months as acting director after his boss stepped down. "And it was the most interesting job I ever had."

Suresh's announcement may have surprised his NSF colleagues and the academic community, but it was in the works for a long time. Cohon announced in August 2010 that he planned to step down as president on 30 June 2013. That triggered a long-term strategic planning exercise by the board. A search committee was formed last February, and Rohr says Suresh became a candidate last fall after being identified by both CMU faculty and an outside search firm.

The list was whittled down to about 20, and then six, before being trimmed to three. Suresh and the two other finalists came to campus in early January for a series of interviews, Lane says. After one was eliminated, the board then accepted his recommendation to hire Suresh.

All that activity took place behind closed doors, however, and remained confidential. Dan Arvizu, the president of the National Science Board, NSF's presidentially appointed oversight body, says Suresh told him about the job offer only a few days before it was announced on 5 February.

Suresh says the process, from his perspective, was straightforward. "Every university, when they do a search, may contact hundreds of people. I had one of those contacts. And then events took their course."

His decision to leave NSF is also simple, he says: The job was a perfect fit.

"Carnegie Mellon is a place I've known for a long time," he says. "I first visited it 30 years ago, and it's a place that I know quite well. My reason to leave had nothing to do with anything else other than that this was a wonderful opportunity that came along, at an institution that I had long admired."

Asked if he gave any thought to staying longer at NSF, Suresh says that "I wasn't seeking offers. But when the right offer came [I took it]. It would have been nice to have stayed another year or two. But opportunities come when they come."