Joab Thomas, who served as president of Penn State University for five years in the 1990s and the University of Alabama for seven years in the 1980s, died Monday at age 81, officials said.
The cause of his death was unclear Monday evening.
Penn State president Rodney Erickson called Mr. Thomas a brilliant scholar, a visionary leader and a true gentleman. After resigning as Alabama president in 1988, Mr. Thomas worked as a faculty member for two years at Penn State before becoming president there.
"During Joab's tenure as president of Penn State, he led the effort to strengthen undergraduate education; he initiated the largest building program in the university's history; and his focus on fiscal responsibility resulted in more efficient resource allocation, as well as enhanced philanthropy and corporate partnerships," Mr. Erickson said in a statement.
At Alabama, officials said in a statement that Mr. Thomas helped triple research funding, raise admissions and curriculum standards and build economic development initiatives. "Dr. Thomas had a pivotal impact on The University of Alabama at a critical time in our history," Judy Bonner, University of Alabama president, said in a statement. "His commitment to enhancing academic excellence, supporting and encouraging faculty research, and promoting economic development efforts in West Alabama and throughout the state launched the university on a path that we continue to follow in many ways today."
Robert Witt, University of Alabama System chancellor, said Mr. Thomas was at the forefront of higher education.
Before becoming president at Alabama, Mr. Thomas was an assistant professor in the biology department, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, dean of student development and vice president for student affairs. Mr. Thomas left for North Carolina in 1976 and returned to serve as UA president in 1981.
Mr. Thomas of Tuscaloosa also served as chancellor of North Carolina State University. Officials at those universities praised Mr. Thomas' dedication to students and faculty.
"As chancellor at N.C. State, Joab Thomas left an indelible mark on the university," Randy Woodson, North Carolina State University chancellor, said in a statement. "His steady leadership, for example, led to the creation of NC State's College of Veterinary Medicine, which has grown into one of the top such schools in the nation."
A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Christ Episcopal Church in Tuscaloosa. University of Alabama officials say memorial gifts may be made to the Joab Thomas Scholarship at The University of Alabama, the Joab and Marly Thomas Graduate Fellowship at The Pennsylvania State University, or to The North Carolina State University Foundation.