Subra Suresh formally installed as CMU president

The Indian-born first-generation college student recalls a mother's inspiration

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The ceremony was filled with speeches about solving world problems and heavy in reminders of what a 113-year-old Pittsburgh institution already has contributed in areas from the hard sciences to Hollywood.

But to some who watched, Friday's installation of Subra Suresh as Carnegie Mellon University's ninth president also was this: an illustration of the classic American dream, a first-generation college student who came to America to study and decades later is heading one of its top universities.

More than 1,000 people, including campus leaders and delegates from national and international universities, crowded into Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. They watched just after 3 p.m. as a procession of men and women in academic regalia headed for the stage led by bagpipers, a nod to the 12,000-student university's Scottish roots.

In a brief interview and in his remarks during the ceremony, Mr. Suresh, 57, offered a glimpse of his vision for the institution as it moves deeper into its second century. He spoke with humility about his own past. He noted that the university's founder, Andrew Carnegie, came to America as a boy and became a successful industrialist and philanthropist.

"I cannot help but think about my own personal journey," said the Indian-born engineer and scientist.

He recalled how with borrowed money for a one-way ticket and less than $100 in his pocket he came to this country at age 21 for graduate studies at Iowa State University.

"I am here because of the vision and courage of a mother who herself was not lucky enough to go beyond high school," he said. "Still, she encouraged me to cross many boundaries."

Mr. Suresh, formerly the director of the National Science Foundation, took office July 1, succeeding Jared Cohon.

The day that Mr. Suresh's hiring was announced, Ray Lane, chairman of the board of trustees, said he hoped the new leader would help Carnegie Mellon become better known as a global university.

During the ceremony, Mr. Suresh asked what today's world would be like if Carnegie Mellon had not created a school of computer science. But he also suggested the same could be said of the university's contributions across the humanities, fine arts and other fields.

He said Carnegie Mellon must continue its important work to solve the world's problems from water purity to Internet privacy, using both an understanding of the hard sciences and of the human condition.

Closer to home in Pittsburgh, he said he would like officials at Carnegie Mellon to work with the University of Pittsburgh and city leaders to make Forbes Avenue -- which runs past both institutions -- one of the nation's leading corridors for innovation.

He said that goal will be advanced by a $67 million gift from alumnus David A. Tepper, formally announced hours before Friday's ceremony, that will be used to build a quadrangle that will be both the new home for the business school bearing Mr. Tepper's name and home for faculty in other academic areas, furthering entrepreneurship across the disciplines.

The new president said the Simon Initiative he announced this week to explore how technology impacts learning will help Carnegie Mellon build upon existing strengths in the coming years. It is named after Herbert Simon, the late Nobel laureate and CMU professor.

On a campus already known for its innovation across disciplines, Mr. Suresh said themes of entrepreneurship and technology-enhanced learning are believed by faculty, staff and students at Carnegie Mellon "to link this university in new ways."

Google executive chairman and former CMU trustee Eric Schmidt, who gave the keynote speech, said Mr. Suresh is the perfect person to lead Carnegie Mellon given his work for leading universities and for the NSF. "He is also a testament to why we need to be an open country, to get extraordinarily brilliant people coming to our country ... [to help] build our future," Mr. Schmidt said.

He described himself as in awe of Carnegie Mellon as the place where modern-day computer science was created.

"That's the facts," he said.

"How do I know it? Google told me," he added, triggering laughter from the audience.

Patina Miller, Tony Award-winner and CMU drama graduate (class of 2006), sang on stage to thunderous applause to begin the investiture ceremony.

In addition to being lavished with praise, Mr. Suresh received some gifts symbolic of Carnegie Mellon, including a plaid kilt and matching pair of plaid boxer shorts.

Representatives from the White House and the NSF also were in the crowd as well as representatives of Pittsburgh-area campuses. Friday's ceremony, 113 years to the day since Mr. Carnegie proposed the university to city officials, was beamed to university locations around the world, officials said.

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG. First Published November 15, 2013 4:55 PM

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