Remembering Arthur Thompson

in NEWS

First ENG Dean Put College on Path to Prominence

By Mark Dwortzan

Opening of the College of Engineering Building at 110 Cummington Street in February, 1964. Left to right are, Merritt A. Williamson, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture at Penn State, BU President Harold C. Case and BU College of Engineering Dean Arthur T. Thompson. Williamson gave the Convocation Address at the inaugural ceremony of the College. (Photo by BU Photography)
Opening of the College of Engineering Building at 110 Cummington Street in February, 1964. Left to right are, Merritt A. Williamson, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture at Penn State, BU President Harold C. Case and BU College of Engineering Dean Arthur T. Thompson. Williamson gave the Convocation Address at the inaugural ceremony of the College. (Photo by BU Photography)

College of Engineering students in a typical lab setting on Cummington Street in 1964 (Photo by BU Photography)
College of Engineering students in a typical lab setting on Cummington Street in 1964 (Photo by BU Photography)

Arthur T. Thompson, the first dean of Boston University College of Engineering, died on May 9 at the age of 96.

Serving with distinction from 1964 to 1974, Thompson laid the foundation for the College’s accreditation, instituted novel degree programs and considerably expanded the College’s undergraduate and graduate offerings. His achievements helped pave the way for the College to become one of the world’s finest training grounds for future engineers and platforms for innovation in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, photonics and other engineering fields. Since 1964, the College’s position in the US News & World Report’s annual survey of US engineering graduate programs has surged from unranked to the top 20 percent nationally.

In 1963, Boston University hired Thompson, then a longtime associate dean of engineering at Penn State University, to become dean of the College of Industrial Technology (CIT). At the time, CIT offered only three degree programs—in technology, aeronautics and management—and occupied a single, four-story building, but Thompson was bullish about CIT’s future. Reflecting on that time during an interview conducted last year in advance of the College’s50th anniversary, Thompson noted that “the soil was rich for this little technical school to grow.”

He pledged to develop engineers with “the capacity for responsible and effective action as members of our society” at dedication ceremonies on February 27, 1964, when CIT was officially renamed as the Boston University College of Engineering. His primary mission was to transform CIT into an accredited engineering program.

During his deanship, the new Aerospace, Manufacturing and Systems Engineering departments received accreditation. The College also instituted the nation’s first BS degree program in bioengineering and expanded to five BS and three MS programs in five fields.

“Dean Thompson took some major risks and took on the responsibility of starting a small engineering college in the shadow of a very large, world-class college across the river, and did it successfully,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen.

“Art had defined the College—he recruited people willing to start with nothing,” recalled Professor John Baillieul (ME, SE). Key appointments included Richard F. Vidale, who would later head the Systems Engineering program, and Merrill Ebner, who headed the Manufacturing Engineering program.

“Thompson and [Ebner] came up with this idea of manufacturing engineering,” said Louis Padulo, who served as dean from 1975 to 1985. “They had the two first accredited programs in the country in systems engineering and manufacturing engineering—way ahead of their time. The real strength, almost like in any startup, is to do something innovative.”

Thompson left the College in 1974 having accomplished the mission he had signed up for a decade earlier. “I felt I had completed my job because the school had taken off, we were accredited and applications were coming in,” he said.

After serving Boston University as engineering dean, associate vice president and professor of engineering, Thompson became provost at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

He was a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education and of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and a Registered Professional Engineer. In addition, he was a trustee emeritus at Colby College and Wentworth and served on the Academic Board of the US Merchant Marine Academy and as a trustee of Norwich University. His honors include the Education Award of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal of the US Army, in which he served during World War II.

Thompson received an arts degree from Colby College, an engineering degree from Penn State, amaster’s degrees in engineering from Harvard University and a master of business administration degree from the University of Chicago. He was also awarded honorary doctorates from Colby, Norwich and Wentworth.

Most recently residing in Newton, Thompson was predeceased by his wife of 70 years, Virginia (Deringer) Thompson, and survived by daughters Deborah A. and Harriet T. Thompson of Newton; granddaughter Ashima Scripp and husband Robert Bloomfield of Windham, NH; and great grandson Thatcher Bloomfield.

A memorial service will be held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 79 Denton Road, Wellesley on Friday, June 12 at 11 a.m. For tributes and guest book, visit www.duckett-waterman.com.

More information about Dean Thompson’s role in launching the College of Engineering can be found in the brochure ENG @ 50: Moving Society Forward.