Montana State University

Former MSU Vice President for Research Robert Swenson passes away Dec. 26

December 29, 2015 -- MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Former Montana State University Vice President for Research Robert “Bob” Swenson, 81, of Bozeman, passed away on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015. A memorial service in Bozeman will be held in the spring.

Swenson was head of the MSU Department of Physics from 1970 to 1990, becoming Vice President for Research in the summer of 1990 and serving until 1998.

Under Swenson's leadership, MSU's research activity rose from $17.2 million in 1990 to $41.59 million in 1997, making MSU a major research university in the West.

Swenson was an important leader in MSU's and Montana’s involvement in the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, EPSCoR, which strives to stimulate research in rural states that typically only receive a small portion of overall federal research funding. Montana’s involvement in EPSCoR has had a major impact on its universities’ ability to conduct research and has brought more than $200 million into the state. Swenson served as chairman of the Coalition of EPSCoR States and served so ably – and with such a deep commitment to improving the nation's science and technology enterprise -- that the coalition created a scholarship in his honor, the “Dr. Robert Swenson Scholarship" at MSU. The scholarship was awarded to one deserving student per year for four years based on criteria developed by MSU in consultation with Swenson. The honor was presented to Swenson in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 1998.

Swenson was integral in encouraging faculty to think bigger. He encouraged a group of them to write a major grant to the National Science Foundation to build a program in laser optics. The result was the Optical Technology Center, or OpTeC, which started in 1995 with John Carlsten at its helm. The interdisciplinary research and education center promotes education, research and jobs in Montana, particularly in the area of optical science and engineering. OpTec has helped nurture more than 30 optics and photonics companies in Montana, creating one of the state’s most successful high-tech niches.

Swenson played a pivotal role in keeping the fledgling Center for Biofilm Engineering afloat after the death of its director, Bill Characklis. Thanks to the persuasion of Swenson and then-President Mike Malone, the National Science Foundation agreed to continue funding of the center. Today, the center is the world’s leader in biofilm research and considered one of the most successful examples of NSF Engineering Research Center seed funding.

From 1993 to 1995, Swenson’s tenure saw the construction of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Building as well as the creation of the forerunner of today’s Technology Transfer Office, where MSU discoveries are made available through licensing for commercialization. He also helped establish MSU’s TechLink, which transfers discoveries made in federal labs to the commercial sector.

“A university’s distinguishing characteristic – the creation of knowledge – bears with it a public trust to transmit that knowledge,” Swenson was quoted in the 100-year history of MSU, “In the People’s Interest.”

Swenson is survived by his wife Janet and children Kari, Paul and Johanna.

Connie Lange, (406) 994-4571 or connielange@montana.edu