Penn State

Farewell to a president: Penn State’s Bryce Jordan dies

Former Penn State President Bryce Jordan, center, died Tuesday at his Texas home. He was 91.
Former Penn State President Bryce Jordan, center, died Tuesday at his Texas home. He was 91. Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State lost a piece of its history on Tuesday.

That was when Bryce Jordan, Penn State’s president from 1983 to 1990, passed away quietly in his Austin, Texas, home. He was 91.

For students on campus today, his name is synonymous with the giant venue beside Beaver Stadium, the place that houses basketball games and hosts giant concerts.

But he was more than a building.

“We are all going to miss him terribly,” said his wife, Barbara, a former Centre Daily Times reporter and editor.

He was an educator, starting his career as a music teacher with a stint as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland back in 1954. He later helmed the music department at the University of Kentucky.

He was a leader, taking the reins at the University of Texas at Dallas, growing it from a 40-student outpost to a campus of more than 7,000 before becoming COO of the University of Texas System in 1981.

“Bryce was the first president of UT Dallas,” said Barbara. “He was very proud of it. It became a very top research university.”

But then there was Penn State. The university had been around for almost 130 years before Jordan became president, but it had never had a fundraising drive that harnessed the power of a network of graduates and supporters that stretched across the country until he came. He took that on, and the campaign he began brought in almost $400 million.

$200 millionThe goal for Jordan’s first national fundraising campaign

Almost $400 millionThe net of Jordan’s first national fundraising campaign

That wasn’t the only financial stamp he left on the school. While Penn State already had a network of Commonwealth Campuses when Jordan arrived, he tied the university more tightly to the economic development of the state. He initiated a “Positive Sum Strategy” to help cultivate business.

Among the seeds he nurtured was the research park being developed on the edge of campus. By the time he left office in 1990, that park was up and running. Today, that park houses growing businesses, thriving offices and the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. It’s also integral to an ongoing project of current Penn State President Eric Barron, the Invent Penn State initiative that, once again, is trying to harness the power of Penn State to grow the economy of Pennsylvania.

The building that bears Jordan’s name opened in 1996. It is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and in January, Jordan spoke about his time in Happy Valley.

“Probably the greatest challenge was gaining an understanding of the university — its strengths and its areas of need for improvement. Another was getting acquainted with such a widespread institution. It took me at least six months to find time in my schedule to visit most of our campuses around the state,” he said.

Ask him what he was proud of at the school, and it wasn’t bricks and mortar.

“I think I was able to give the university a new opinion of itself, more pride in itself. I believe I gave Penn State some sense of the fact that it was good and that it could be — and should be — better,” he said.

Barbara Jordan said what really pleased her husband was hearing about the impact his students and employees he mentored were having out in the world. They once sat down and added up the number of people he had appointed to positions during his tenure at Penn State who had gone on to run other universities. There were about 15.

Barron was a former campus leader under Jordan, serving as founding director of the Earth System Science Center from 1986 to 2002 before his time as president at Florida State and then his return to Penn State.

“When I was a brand new faculty member at Penn State in the late 1980s, I was walking on campus and saw a man engaged with a group of students and thought to myself, ‘that man has incredible presence.’ I discovered only later that the person who I had seen was Bryce Jordan,” said Barron.

“Bryce Jordan’s positive impact and presence at Penn State has been profound and lasting. He played a critical role in advancing the university’s development as a national leader in research; oversaw the launch of the university’s first fundraising campaign focused on raising funding for scholarships, endowed positions and other improvements; and played a leading role in Penn State’s entry into the Big Ten, joining a group of the world’s elite institutions of higher education,” he said. “We are truly lucky as an institution to have had the benefit of Bryce Jordan’s leadership and presence in our community, and he will be missed.”

Some hired or appointed by Jordan have gone on to schools like UNLV and Baylor.

Barbara Jordan spoke of others, though, who are not presidents.

“There was a music student Bryce had in the late 1950s at the University of Maryland,” she said. The man contacted Jordan years later to talk about the impact that the music professor had on his life.

“It wasn’t just that he remembered Bryce,” she said. “Bryce remembered him.”

Just recently, Jordan heard that his name will be gracing something else. The main drive to that Dallas campus he turned from a couple of classes to a contender is going to be renamed Bryce Jordan Drive.

“He was very loved. He was just so pleased,” said Barbara Jordan.

No services have been arranged yet. Barbara Jordan said a memorial will be planned this summer.

In that January interview, Jordan said how he would like to be remembered at Penn State.

As someone who helped, someone who played a part in seeing the institution gain reputation as a strong public research university.

Bryce Jordan in January, on how he wanted to be remembered at Penn State

“As someone who helped, someone who played a part in seeing the institution gain reputation as a strong public research university,” he said.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce