The University of South Florida's third president and the one credited with setting it on a path to research prominence, John Lott Brown, has died. He was 86.
Brown came to USF in 1978 from the University of Rochester, in New York, where he directed the Center for Visual Science.
As an engineer, he focused on promoting USF's professional schools - engineering, business and medicine.
"He represented the era when USF fundamentally changed from being a small liberal arts college to a research university," said USF marketing vice president Michael Hoad, who as a reporter at the Tampa Tribune covered Lott's tenure at USF.
During Brown's 10 years as president, USF experienced extraordinary growth. Its budget more than doubled to $250 million as its enrollment grew to 29,500 students, making USF the second largest public university in Florida.
USF research grants grew from about $10 million to $23 million under Lott, helping him fend off attempts to designate only the University of Florida and Florida State as the state's primary universities.
Betty Castor, a USF president from 1993 to 1999, called Brown "a visionary."
He established regional branches in Lakeland and Fort Myers, and he attracted researchers, scientists and doctoral students to the university, she said.
"He played a crucial role in the academic expansion, especially the medical expansion," Castor said.
"He really wanted to build the academic program," Castor said. "Now USF is a research giant."
His focus on research angered some faculty members who said it came at the expense of liberal arts teaching. Critics also complained that with his research push, USF grew too fast, particularly the medical school.
Toward the end of his tenure, the school had become financially insolvent because of lax internal administration. But Brown installed new management before he announced his resignation in 1987.
Brown's boss at the time, University System Chancellor Charlie Reed, said that USF under Brown was "one of American higher education's great 20th Century success stories."
After resigning, Brown became a professor in the engineering school, spending many of his evenings dancing with his wife Katie at Librero's School and Dance Club on Davis Islands. He also water skied and scuba dove.
The couple left Tampa in 1994 when Brown was asked to become interim president of his alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.
Brown had entered WPI in 1946 as part of the U.S. Navy's V-12 college training program. He then earned a master's degree in psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York.
He served on the faculties of the University of Pennsylvania and Kansas State University, where he did research on the physiology of the visual system.
He loved the study of the eye and how the brain perceived images, Hoad said.
"He was very much the engineer, the guy who was detailed and precise. He loved the precision of research."
He is survived by his wife, four children and six grandchildren.
Published in TBO.com from Jan. 19 to May 15, 2011