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VOL. 23, NO. 7OCTOBER 24, 1997


Ex-President Wm. McGill Dead at 75

President William J. McGill in front of Alma Mater. Photo by Manny Warman.

By Fred Knubel

William J. McGill, distinguished psychologist, author and president of Columbia during the decade of the 1970s, died Sunday, Oct. 19, in La Jolla, Calif. He was 75 years old.

  He had suffered a severe heart attack last Wednesday and was a patient in John M. and Sally B. Thornton Hospital of U.C.-San Diego. He had been chancellor of U.C.S.D. from 1968 to 1970, before joining Columbia, and had been an adjunct professor there again for the past 17 years.

  McGill was a leading mathematical psychologist, highly regarded as both a theoretician and experimentalist. He made lasting research contributions in quantitative psychology, particularly in information processing, among them the precise measurement of reaction times to stimuli. At the time of his death, he had nearly completed a book with a former Columbia colleague on how the brain processes sound and light to expand the range of human perception.

  But it was McGill's skill in handling conflict that brought him public attention as chancellor of UCSD and recommended him for the Columbia presidency at the turbulent start of the 1970s. He calmed the San Diego campus when student demonstrations occurred and a controversial appointment was criticized. At Columbia, he began his decade-long term by dealing with student unrest face-to-face, at times plunging into crowds of anti-war and civil rights protesters to talk with their leaders. His legacy at both Columbia and San Diego includes heightened curricular and scholarly attention to human rights issues.

  "Dr. McGill made an invaluable contribution to Columbia during a crucial decade in its history," President George Rupp said. "He continued to be a great friend of Columbia, and he will be missed tremendously both here in New York and in California."
President William J. McGill, right, is pictured with his predecessor, Andrew W. Cordier, on whose peacemaking he built. Photo by Manny Warman.

  University of California President Richard C. Atkinson said: "Bill McGill was one of the great figures in higher education in the period following World War II. He was a superb scientist, distinguished president of two of America's leading universities, and a passionate advocate of university involvement in addressing the challenging issues facing society."

  William James McGill was born Feb. 27, 1922, in New York City, the son of a musician and grandson of an Irish immigrant dockworker. Raised in the Bronx, he sold shoes and ran an elevator at Radio City Music Hall as a schoolboy.

  After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees at Fordham, he earned the Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1953 at Harvard and was an assistant professor at M.I.T. until 1956, when he joined Columbia. He was chairman of the psychology department from 1961 to 1963 and left in 1965 to co-found the psychology department at the newly established U.C.S.D. campus.

  His research contributions were at the forefront of advanced knowledge of sensory mechanisms. He published many scientific papers analyzing the flow of sensory information, particularly between the ear and the brain.

  The week before he died, he and Malvin C. Teich, professor emeritus of engineering science and applied physics at Columbia and now a professor at Boston University, had spent days polishing a final text for a new book.

  It will propose that the brain amplifies, and in the process adds, a special kind of noise in transmitting visual and auditory signals up the sensory pathways so that we can hear and see both very faint and very strong sound and light. "It's a book he long wanted to write, and it will be published," Teich said.

  In 1968, McGill chaired a search committee to select a new U.C.S.D. chancellor for what was becoming a restless campus. When five finalists refused the offer, he was recruited for the post himself, which he accepted warily.

  Confrontation ensued when he stood his ground against then-governor Ronald Reagan in re-appointing Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and when he reasoned with militant students who in sit-ins and teach-ins demanded a curriculum emphasizing Marxist doctrine. His style and courage, as well as his scholarly stature, attracted the search committee at Columbia, and he became the University's 16th president on Sept. 1, 1970, at the age of 48.

  He immediately faced many of the same anti-war and civil rights protests on a campus memorably struck by student unrest two years earlier. He modernized the administration, created a dialogue with student leaders and finished the job of peacemaking that his predecessor, Andrew W. Cordier, had begun.

  During his presidency, the University's fund-raising performance recovered dramatically; he balanced the budget and completed $100 million in new construction.

  New buildings included the Sherman Fairchild Center for the Life Sciences, the Julius and Armand Hammer Health Sciences Center, the International Affairs Building, the Geosciences building at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Dodge Physical Fitness Center and an expanded Avery Hall.

  Faculty honors and research advances multiplied across the campus.

  The concept of general education, pioneered at Columbia in 1919, was expanded to systematically introduce humanities instruction at the graduate and professional levels.

  Curricular innovations in the schools of architecture, engineering, business and medicine resulted , and a new Center for the Study of Human Rights was established.

  In 1976, the University created and endowed the Society of Fellows in the Humanities, which supports the work of outstanding young scholars on annual appointments. The programs became models for other American universities.

  When he announced in 1979 that he would retire the following year, the chairman of the Trustees, Arthur Krim, said: "You leave Columbia with its academic excellence intact, its campus vibrant, its administration reorganized and its budget in balance. You have won the confidence of students and faculty, not by throttling but by encouraging the rights of dissent so important to an academic environment, yet leading whenever required with a firm and just hand. All this adds up to a considerable personal accomplishment. We Trustees who have lived through these years with you believe it to be the single most outstanding contribution made by any university leader in the past decade to the preservation and enhancement of a great private university."

  McGill returned to U.C.S.D. in 1980, became an adjunct professor of psychology and continued his research.

  He is survived by his wife, the former Ann Rowe; a daughter, Mrs. Thomas B. (Rowena) Springer of Reno, Nev.; a son, William R., of San Diego, and two grandsons.

  The funeral will be private. Memorial services are being planned.