The University Record, February 4, 1997

Neal looks forward to research as he leaves interim post

Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Julie A. Peterson
News and Information Services


As his interim presidency drew to a close last week, Homer A. Neal was looking forward to re-immersing himself in his research in high-energy physics.

Neal, who retains his position as vice president for research, will be heading to Geneva, Switzerland, mid-February for work at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). After being in residence there through June, he will return to Ann Arbor to serve as vice president.

As Neal assesses his seven months as interim president, he emphasizes that his primary goal has been "to ensure a sense of continuity and to maintain a sense of campus community while the University was going through this sensitive period of transition, as well as to lay the groundwork for the new president."

He has been meeting with President Lee Bollinger regularly over the past few weeks, and also has shared with Bollinger the insights of his advisory panel, a group made up of deans and faculty, and student, alumni, and staff leaders. "The advisory panel has been extremely helpful to me and, I think, will be extremely useful to Lee as well in the months ahead," Neal says. "In fact, our last meeting in January was designed as an open exchange with the incoming president."

However, far from being a "placeholder," Neal has begun several initiatives that he cares deeply about and would like to see continued after his departure from the presidency.

Chief among these is the expansion of research opportunities for undergraduate students at the University.

"I would like very much for us someday soon to be able to say that we're the first major research university that is able to guarantee each of our undergraduates that if they wish to work on a scholarly or research project with a faculty member, they will be able to do so," he says. "The discussions started this year have been warmly embraced. The deans and faculty have been looking into the feasibility of such a program," and the Office of the Provost is in the process of hiring an individual to coordinate what we're calling the Michigan Opportunities for Research Experience.

When Neal served on the National Science Board in the 1980s, he chaired a committee to look at undergraduate science education that developed a program, Research Experience for Undergraduates, which has opened research opportunities for thousands of students since its beginning. "I have been watching that program carefully and have been fascinated by the gains students get from participation," he says. "That's probably colored my thinking on this subject."

Also close to his heart is fund-raising for the renovation of Hill Auditorium. Neal says that because the venue "belongs to no one, but to everyone, it has not had an organized set of champions in the same manner of some of our other initiatives."

Other efforts begun under his leadership have included the launching of searches to replace Farris W. Womack as executive vicepresident and chief financial officer and to fill the newly created position of executive vice president for medical affairs, and the establishment of the $450,000 President's New Century Fund for Diversity, a program that will seed programs designed to accelerate progress toward the University's goals for diversity.

But it's when Neal discusses his research that his passion becomes evident.

"It's very difficult to maintain your research as vice president, and almost impossible as president," he says. "As vice president you can carve out some time on evenings and weekends, but as president your evenings are taken up and weekends are almost always fully consumed."

The CERN Large Hadron Collider---similar in capability to the now-defunct Superconducting Supercollider project in Texas---soon will become the site of the world's foremost high-energy physics laboratory, Neal says. During his stay in Switzerland, he will prepare for his U-M research group to be involved in one of the first experiments there.

Neal's research group at U-M was involved in the 1995 discovery of the "top" quark, the last of six quarks---the most basic building blocks of matter---to be found. Now researchers will investigate whether six really is the magic number, and whether there may be as yet undiscovered building blocks even smaller than the quark.

"That's the frontier of the field for the next decade or so, and before I leave it, I would like very much to be involved in the next generation of experiments," he says. "An experiment in high-energy physics can take 8-10 years and is enormously expensive, so you don't get very many such opportunities in your lifetime."

Neal and his wife, Jean, have lived in Geneva a number of times before---it was the first place they went when he received a National Science Fellowship shortly after completing his doctoral degree in 1966---so "in many ways going to Geneva is like going home" for the couple, he says.

Even more so since his son, Homer Neal Jr., who recently completed a doctorate in high-energy physics at Stanford University, is currently conducting research at CERN on a two-year fellowship. Father and son will see each other occasionally but will be working on different experiments, Neal says.