WF ’66 named founding chancellor of ecuador’s new research university

Daniel Larson to lead Yachay Tech University

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You might not expect the academic head of a country’s first research university and a staunch advocate of science, technology, and math education to be equally passionate about the full range of arts and sciences—but they have always been crucial for Daniel Larson WF ’66, the founding Chancellor of Ecuador’s new Yachay Tech University.

“As a person and as an academic,” he said, “I feel strongly rooted in the arts and sciences.”

While an undergraduate at St. Olaf College, Dr. Larson found his studies in philosophy and religion particularly invigorating. “I was not, as a boy or in high school, into those modes of understanding the human condition and the world. I found it really liberating and exhilarating to find that in college.”

For the past 16 years Dr. Larson has served as the Verne Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science at Pennsylvania State University. During his tenure he was credited with significantly raising the national rankings of the science departments and supporting initiatives to further the public understanding of science.

Some colleagues thought he would finish his career at Penn State, he says, but the opportunity to shape a new institution, while an admitted risk, seemed too great an opportunity to forego.  “Some people do think I’m a little crazy,” Dr. Larson said wryly, but “I didn’t feel like I wanted to retire.”

That’s how he came to Yachay Tech, intended to be the cornerstone of Yachay City (yachay is the Quichua word for knowledge). The development of the city and the university is part of an ambitious $1 billion plan created by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, to improve higher education in his country and strengthen the science and technology sectors of its economy.

“The vision is to train students to carry out research, and to connect to research and commercial institutions and industry in order to move the whole country—and indeed the whole region—forward,” said Dr. Larson.

Both in his previous post at Penn State and his new position at Yachay Tech, Dr. Larson remains a strong advocate for STEM education.

A physicist by training, Dr. Larson notes, “No other area of understanding the world and the human condition has contributed as much to changing and improving the lives of people” as has science and technology. Both in Ecuador and in the United States, he says, “It’s extremely important that we have students at all levels well acquainted with science, technology, and engineering.”

As Yachay Tech’s new Chancellor, Dr. Larson has the opportunity to shape the academic foundation and future of the institution. By building a strong base in STEM education and research, the university hopes to serve as a source of human capital and innovation not only for Ecuador, but for all of Latin America.

After graduating summa cum laude from St. Olaf College in 1966, Dr. Larson went on to earn both his master’s and doctoral degrees in physics as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Harvard University in 1967 and 1971, respectively. He spent time as an assistant and associate professor at Harvard before joining the University of Virginia in 1978. Promoted to full professor in 1987, Dr. Larson served as the associate dean of arts and sciences from 1989 to 1991 and chairman of the physics department from 1991 to 1997. He was named the Maxine S. and Jesse W. Beams Professor of Physics in 1996. Dr. Larson became dean at Penn State in 1998. He continues to chair the board of directors of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope—in which capacity he has had opportunities to work with Nobel Laureate John Mather, also a Woodrow Wilson Fellow (1968).

Dr. Larson says his broad connections to a wide array of disciplines that began at St. Olaf have remained important throughout his career as a teacher, scholar, and administrator. “That rooting in arts and sciences,” he recalls, “also played out at my time at the University of Virginia, where some of my best colleagues were people in language and literature and government and anthropology and so forth. I had a very rich experience as a faculty member there.”


This story appeared in our Spring 2015 newsletter. To view the full newsletter online, click here.


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