The chair was endowed by Mrs. Eugene McDermott specifically for the executive vice president and provost (chief academic officer) of the University. Wildenthal was appointed to the chair on Aug. 18, 2000.
The principal theme of Wildenthal’s 30 years of research in experimental and theoretical nuclear physics is manifested in the USD or “Wildenthal” “shell-model” Hamiltonian (63 “two-body matrix elements”), from which thousands of experimental phenomena observed in “d5/2 – s1/2 – d3/2 shell” nuclei (those in the periodic table between Oxygen and Calcium) are predicted with what would have been considered in 1965, when the work started, astonishing accuracy. Today, 30 years after they were determined, the matrix elements, with minor evolutionary changes, continue to be used to interpret the ever-growing body of experimental data about these nuclei.
The story of this work provides a fundamental justification for academic tenure. The fruits of the research only ripened into wide success after 20 years of work, work which experts thought was hopeless and pointless when it commenced. While many other threads of my research were productive and provided the basis for tenure and promotion, without the stability of tenure it would have been irrational to continue pursuing this one big research theme for half a career. (Maybe in one sense the experts were correct, and I was just stubborn, but lucky, for without the amazing development of computing power that paralleled the research, the final successes would have been impossible).
Wildenthal graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and Mathematics from Sul Ross State College in 1958, where his father, Bryan Wildenthal, served as president from 1952 to 1965. After graduating from the University of Kansas with the PhD degree in physics, he held appointments at Rice University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Texas A&M University, and, for 13 years, at Michigan State University. He devoted most of the 20 years of his pre-administrative academic career to experimental and theoretical studies of the structure of atomic nuclei, work recounted in over 200 research publications in journals and conference proceedings, and to teaching large classes of beginning undergraduate physics students.
He was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1973, and has held visiting appointments at Brookhaven and Los Alamos National Laboratories, at the University of Munich, at the Max Planck Institute fur Kernphysik in Heidelberg, at the Gesellschaft fur Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt, at the University of Paris (Orsay), at the Universities of Oxford and Manchester, and at the University of Sao Paulo. He has been awarded both a Senior U.S. Fellowship from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and a Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Wildenthal moved into administrative roles first as Department Head of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Drexel University and then as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of New Mexico. He came to UT Dallas as chief academic officer with the title Vice President for Academic Affairs at UT Dallas in 1992, his title changing to Provost in 1994 and to Executive Vice President and Provost in 1999. Upon the departure of Dr. David Daniel as UT Dallas’s fourth president in 2015, Wildenthal was appointed interim president of the University by UT System Chancellor William McRaven. He returned to the post of Executive Vice President when Dr. Richard Benson was installed as president in 2016.
In accord with the terms of a 2017 gift from Margaret McDermott creating an endowment of $10 million for support of undergraduate research, the University’s Honors College was renamed the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College, in recognition of Wildenthal and his many contributions to the growth and enhancement of the University.
“Many, if not most, members of the faculty who enter into administrative work do so with visions of leading profound changes for the better. Most are then disappointed, because, as Goethe eloquently described the life of the typical administrator, it is akin to the task of Sisyphus, but with many kibitzers. But, not at UT Dallas! Motion at most universities is of the Brownian type, but UT Dallas has truly moved, forward and upward. While I have enjoyed all three of my administrative positions, I was profoundly fortunate to come to UT Dallas. The University’s potential for transformative change and growth was apparent when I came, but the reality of the past 20 years of progress far outstrips what would have been predicted from any sober assessment in 1992. Perhaps the most striking quantitative example of that progress is the growth of freshman enrollment, from 90 in 1992 to 1,800 this past fall.
“It has been a wonderful and fulfilling privilege to work with fellow faculty and administrators, past and current, and with enthusiastic students as we have built UT Dallas into a truly significant contributor to the life of the Dallas community and to the education of many, many, great students, young people who will make major contributions to the future life of our state and country. In sum, life as an administrator has provided many satisfactions, different from but as rewarding as those derived from teasing out some secrets of the material world.
“Our current achievements are the result of the continuing efforts of many members of the internal UT Dallas family. But, these achievements are also the result of the vision and committed generosity of the philanthropists and community leaders who first created the institution itself, and then, during the last 20 years provided the means to create such defining UT Dallas hallmarks as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Laboratory, endowed chairs such as those we celebrate here, the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program, and the Peter Walker landscape project. As we enjoy these successes, we can never thank our benefactors sufficiently.”