From Silicon Valley to the Susquehanna Valley
John Bravman, the 17th president of Bucknell University, returns to the East Coast after 35 years at Stanford University.
By Gigi Marino
The physical journey from Palo Alto, Calif., to Lewisburg, Pa., is remarkably linear. Plot the route on a U.S. map; the result is a nearly perfect coast-to-coast tether. Get on the Bayshore Expressway, merge onto Route 80, drive east 2,771 miles and the GPS will announce, “You have arrived.”
Bucknell’s 17th president, John Bravman, has indeed arrived and, in many ways, his metaphysical journey to the heart of the Susquehanna Valley also follows a direct progression. While he is giving up palm trees for pin oaks and red-tiled roofs for Georgian-brick buildings, a constant has guided his entire career — an abiding devotion to undergraduate education.
At Stanford, Bravman, who grew up in New York City and on Long Island, worked his way through the academic ranks from undergraduate student to endowed professor. When he left the university for Bucknell this past summer, after 35 years, he concurrently held the posts of the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University; the Bing Centennial Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; and professor of electrical engineering, by courtesy; as well as being the founding dean of Stanford’s Freshman-Sophomore Residential College and an engineering consultant in materials science to a number of law firms and venture capitalists.
Stanford holds a beloved place in Bravman’s heart and the university, in return, has an equally big love for him. Soon after his presidency at Bucknell was announced, Stanford established, in his name, the Bravman Family Scholarship, which has already attracted more than $4 million.
Students and staff alike responded emotionally to the news of Bravman’s departure. The Stanford Daily reported, “He durst not do it! He could not, would not do it! ’tis worse than murder! Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But it’s almost that bad.” Hyperbole with a nod to Shakespeare aside, Bravman was a popular — and, many thought, permanent — fixture at Stanford. This was the man who not only regularly lent out DVDs from his 750-plus collection to students who wanted to see a movie but also invited them into his home to pick and choose.
The article continues: “Dean Bravman has always seemed like a visionary to me, someone who sees both students and Stanford growing to reach our full potential. He talks with so much enthusiasm about University initiatives to give undergraduates more research opportunities and is so confident in handing over the reins to others in the Stanford community to embark on big projects. It is hard to think this man was made for any place but Silicon Valley.”
Yet, by the beginning of the fall semester, Bravman had made a new home in the leafy Northeast and stood side-by-side with first-year students on the other side of the country. Decked out in orange and blue, he cheered with them for their new school at the Ray Bucknell pep rally.
For all of his erudition as a scientist and scholar, he is a vocal enthusiast for higher education. While at Stanford, he played a key role in the university’s Campaign for Undergraduate Education, which raised more than $1.1 billion dollars and reignited the donor community’s support for Stanford’s undergraduate mission. As president, he will have a critical role in Bucknell’s fundraising campaign.
Bravman’s career is an exemplar of a fast-tracked academic with strong research skills. He finished his master’s and doctoral programs in five years and was immediately hired as an assistant professor; his 21-page curriculum vitae references 162 publications in refereed journals. “When I look at what I’ve been involved in,” he says, “it’s always a combination of my love for undergraduates and undergraduate education, which Stanford does extremely well. But it’s always hard at a research institution.” Bravman believes that the ideal educational setting offers studies that focus as much on the humanities as they do the sciences, what he describes as “a deep engagement with the whole spectrum of the human intellect.”
When talking about his appreciation of the liberal arts, Bravman invokes his father, an accountant by trade and a student of the world by proclivity. He says, “My father, while not college educated, was extraordinarily bright and well read. He worked in Manhattan and read a book a day at his lunch hour standing in bookshops because he couldn’t afford to buy the books. He was a fast reader and read a book a day for years. He always told me that I didn’t read enough and that I didn’t pay attention to him. But of course, he was right.” Bravman says that once he finished his formal education in engineering, he started pursing his own liberal arts education, mainly in political science, economics, history and literature. He now has a 4,000-book library. “Ninety percent of those books have nothing to do with science,” he says. “I’m returning to what my father always wanted for me but didn’t live to see.”
Bucknell’s emphasis on providing a broad liberal-arts education, as well as offering exciting research opportunities for students, strikes a harmonic chord in Bravman. “While I love science, love what science and engineering can do for the world, I’m also aware of what it can do to the world. We need students who are broadly educated, who are not only experts in engineering or English but also can work in what’s become a cliché but is so true, a small world that is changing fast in which they might have five or more careers,” he says. “When the whole country, the whole world, is moving counter to the general thrust of what a liberal arts education is, we need students who are broadly educated, who are articulate across a spectrum of human endeavors. The demand for true liberal education, for both the engineer and the English major and everyone in between, is of greater import now, more than it ever has been.”
Bravman is the second Bucknell president with an engineering pedigree (Herbert Lincoln Spencer, Bucknell’s eighth president from 1945–49, was a mechanical engineer). His wife, Wendy Wright, is the first spouse of a president to be a tenure-track professor. And they are the first presidential couple in many years to be seen pushing a baby stroller on campus. Their son, Cole, was born only days before Bravman was named Bucknell’s president. “We went to the hospital knowing that John was going to be named to the presidency at Bucknell,” says Wright, “so we knew that the challenge and excitement of moving across the country with a new family and adjusting to new careers would soon be upon us.”
Wright, an accomplished scientist whose research focuses on understanding the mechanical behavior of metallic glasses and other advanced materials, had been the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Santa Clara University. She has finished setting up a laboratory space at Bucknell and will begin teaching and working with students in January. She says that she has a “unique perspective” in her role of being a faculty member and the president’s spouse. “I directly see the importance of John’s work,” she says. “His primary responsibility is to provide the resources the faculty need so they can deliver the highest-quality education to our students.”
Both Wright and Bravman believe that their being a dual academic career couple with a young child sends a positive message to faculty members juggling academic careers and families. Wright notes, “In mechanical engineering, we have four infants among the faculty, which is very different from our experience in California. Being with colleagues who face similar challenges has created a supportive environment.” When appropriate, Cole accompanies his parents to University events. “We want people to see us as a family because that’s who we are. It’s good for the campus to see the president with an infant,” says Wright. “John’s facing the same challenges that many faculty raising children are. The fact that he is so supportive of my career sets a good example of his values.” Bravman also has two grown sons, Christopher and Matthew, who reside in California.
Bravman says that two working parents need to support each other. “Children demand time. That’s the reality,” he says. “We have to share the raising of our child. The only way to continue diversifying America’s faculties is to look at issues like this.”
Diversification of the student body, one of the cardinal points of The Plan for Bucknell that Bravman has embraced, also is a major concern for him. “We’re not going back to the days where the majority of the people who went to high-end colleges and universities all looked the same. If we did, we would not be preparing our students for the world they will enter,” he says. “Whatever we do in the classroom we have to provide a 24/7 milieu that prepares them in every way possible for the world into which they will enter personally and professionally. These are some of the great tasks of the University moving forward, to face the challenge of people asking, ‘Why should I pay $50,000 for a nontechnical education? Why does the make-up of the student body matter? Michelle Beck ’11, a member of the Bucknell Student Government and one of the students on the student advisory committee who talked with Bravman during campus interviews last March, says she has been impressed with his accessibility, transparency and student advocacy. She says that his experience at Stanford is a boon for Bucknell. “Stanford does a lot of interesting things that other schools don’t do, for example, with their green initiatives,” she says. “He’s planning on bringing a whole new direction to Bucknell’s green policies. It’s very exciting.”
Krista Yancey ’11 was the student representative on the search committee and says, “President Bravman’s ability to connect with people impressed me most during the search process. In our discussions, he paired inspirationally high expectations for Bucknell’s future with an attention to detail necessary for the execution of these ideas. Each response he gave proved that he cares tremendously about the work he does and the community surrounding him. This pride in the institution and collaborative style won my support.”
Additionally, Beck served on the presidential transition team. “When the team talked with John about inauguration, he distinctly said that inauguration is going to be about Bucknell, not about him,” she says. “It’s a celebration of the University and where the University is going. I think that’s really cool that we’re moving somewhere as a University, and he’s taking us there.”
Bravman says he is both humbled and honored to have been invited to be Bucknell’s president. “Being named president of this great institution has produced an odd mixture of seemingly antithetical human qualities of pride and humility,” he says. “I have a great deal of pride in what I have been asked to do and what I have achieved to be in the position to do that. But there’s an overwhelming sense of humility in the opportunities that have been given to me and the awesomeness of the tasks ahead in a place that has as honorable a past as Bucknell.”
Bravman is not only a scientist who follows scientific inquiry and method, but also someone who believes in intangibles. “Education is rooted in faith,” he says. “If we don’t have a faith in the future, education is pointless. We take it on faith that what we are doing is vitally important to each generation.”
In recognizing and honoring the generations, Bravman points out that the vitality of the institution depends not only on the faculty, staff and students, but also on its alumni. “Colleges and universities have this relationship with people who have been through the door and left, that other organizations just don’t. Every president, including me, certainly needs the collective wisdom, guidance, input and participation of alumni. We need the canonical time, treasure and talent of our alumni to help us in a myriad of ways, whether they are hosting a send-off party for students admitted to the University, or they are hosting a dean of a school who’s coming to a city to talk about what’s happening at his or her school, or they’re contributing as their heart tells them to the University.”.”
Both Bravman and Wright are dedicated to the academic mission. Says Wright, “I first think of myself as an educator, and John and I both passionately believe in the power of education to transform lives.” Bravman, a first-generation college graduate, still remembers the name of his elementary-school teachers — “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Miss Reel in the second grade who made us read every day” — and speaks of education with reverence. He says that the eventuality of the opportunities available to today’s students is the result of a continuum of kindness, faith and belief. “I tell students, ‘You worked hard to get here, but don’t ever forget that you’re also the beneficiary of the work of many others — your parents, your teachers, people long gone who founded this University, thousands of people who have sustained and nurtured this University,’” says Bravman. “You are not here just because of who you are. You are the product of many people and the beneficence of many other people, many of whom you will never meet. If you put these things together in the right way, you can craft an education with our help that will give you the best possible chance of happiness, success and the ability to contribute to the world around you.”
Gigi Marino is the editor of this magazine. To read more about John Bravman, go to www.bucknell.edu/President.