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Web Extra: Perspectives Departments

Robert Huttenback and the NSF Institute for Theoretical Physics

Robert Huttenback, UCSB Chancellor 1977-86, played a key role in the National Science Foundation’s decision to establish the Institute for Theoretical Physics at UCSB. In early 1976, the National Science Foundation solicited proposals to establish a new institute which “would bring together physicists from different locations and age groups to stimulate the continued flow of new ideas.” The announcement created great excitement in the physics community, and over thirty universities throughout the United States submitted proposals. Huttenback, who was still at Cal. Tech., and would not arrive at UCSB until later that year, had heard about the proposed institute from a Nobel Laureate colleague in the Cal. Tech. Physics Department. Cal. Tech. was submitting a proposal, and this colleague noted that UCSB wouldn’t have a chance in this competition. As the competition evolved, Cal. Tech., the University of Illinois, a Cornell-Yale consortium, UC Santa Cruz and UCSB were selected as finalists, who where invited to present their proposals to a peer review panel in Washington in the Fall of 1977. At this meeting, the UCSB group announced a new key element to their proposal: three new faculty positions for physicists who would work at the NSF Institute, providing continuity for its post doctoral fellows, as well as the institute as a whole. This idea was well received by members of the review panel, but they questioned whether the UCSB proponents could guarantee the newly proposed faculty positions. Indeed, the Cal. Tech. group knew that Dr. Huttenback had not yet arrived at UCSB to take up his new position. So, the UCSB physicists phoned Huttenback in Pasadena, introduced themselves, and described the situation. His response was immediate: “so they want to play hard ball. Tell them that I will guarantee the three positions, and do everything I can to see that the Institute for Theoretical Physics becomes world renowned. By the way, give my best to my Cal. Tech. colleagues.” He was as good as his word, not only backing previous commitments, but playing an important role in securing the ITP grant through direct interactions with the NSF over critical issues, such as space, while protecting campus interests.

Huttenback was a great friend and supporter of the ITP, and the UCSB Physics Department. His enthusiasm for the ITP, and his vision for what UCSB could become, were instrumental in recruiting the first ITP director, Walter Kohn, the first ITP faculty appointment, Frank Wilczek, and physics department members J. Robert Schrieffer and Alan Heeger. While Schrieffer was a Nobel Laureate when he arrived at UCSB, the others were awarded the prize after coming to UCSB. An example of Huttenback’s recruiting style occurred when Schrieffer was considering an offer from the Physics Department. He arrived at LAX from the east coast intending to travel from there to Santa Barbara on his own to visit the campus. However, Huttenback insisted on meeting him at LAX, and drove up US 1, while extolling the virtues of the campus and his vision for its future. Shortly thereafter, Schrieffer accepted our offer.

There is no doubt that Huttenback’s strong support for the ITP stemmed from his devotion to intellectual quality across all disciplines. He realized that an internationally renowned institute or department in one area could help to foster excellence across the campus. The ITP was the first of several major initiatives he promoted. For example, his leadership played a major role in the evolution of the College of Engineering into the highly distinguished institution it is today. Clearly, UCSB’s standing as a leading research university is due to the efforts of many individuals. Robert Huttenback played a leadership role in the critical early days of this development.

James Hartle, Douglas Scalapino and Robert Sugar were among the co-founders of the Institute for Theoretical Physics, and Walter Kohn was its first director.