Kettering tenures a big part of distinguished career for Simpson

Jun 2, 2014

“My only goal here is to help Kettering be successful," Simpson said.

Dr. Robert Simpson (left) with Byron Green '86.

Published in the Spring 2014 issue of Kettering Magazine

A decorated and illustrious academic career will come to an end this summer as Dr. Robert L. Simpson, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kettering University, will step down from his current position.

Simpson has served as the Provost at Kettering on two separate occasions. Once during the 2006-07 academic year and again for the past four years starting in 2010. Simpson’s journey in academia began decades earlier in his first job in high school in Fresno, California.

From 1956-1960, Simpson worked as a local high school sports reporter for the Fresno Bee where he produced copy on a portable typewriter, careful not to make mistakes in the late hours of the night when recapping  the local Friday evening football games.

 “I learned there how to work towards deadlines. That’s been a helpful lesson throughout my life,” Simpson said. 

In the fall of 1960, Simpson enrolled at Fresno State College (now known as California State University Fresno) for his undergraduate education. In the first 15 weeks of his freshman year, Simpson majored in business administration and then economics before finally settling on zoology.

“It was a horrible instructor in the introductory business course and I had not a clue what economics was,” Simpson said. “I was always interested in science so I ended up where I should have started.”

Dr. Robert Simpson


  • Dr. Simpson will be presenting a special lecture, "Stomping Through the Swamp," in B.J.'s Lounge at 12:20 on June 5. An open house and tour will follow from 1:30-2:30 p.m. in the Biology labs. RSVP for the lecture here.
  • A farewell reception for Dr. Simpson for all students, faculty and staff will be held from 3:30-5 p.m. June 10 in the Sunset Room. Refreshments will be provided.
  • Dr. James Zhang appointed new Provost

Simpson stayed at Fresno State College until 1967, completing his undergraduate degree in zoology and his masters in biology. His passion for studying the natural environment in the laboratory was complemented by his 1960-1962 summers spent working for the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Parks Company where he began by cleaning cabins and latrines, escorting guests to their cabins and ended up supervising the crew that performed these tasks. From 1963 to 1967, Simpson moved up the ranks of the National Parks system. He went from escorting campers to cabins and cleaning cabins, to monitoring the trails during the graveyard shift from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. in the morning.  In 1963, Simpson become a park ranger at Sequoia National Park where he spent his first summer on the graveyard shift on road patrol, after which he spent the summers of 1964-1967 working six days a week as a backcountry  ranger assignments that were 11 to 40 miles from the nearest road.

“I had very large territories that I patrolled with a horse and two mules or by foot,” Simpson said remembering how for two years he spent every Sunday on top of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States .  

After completing his masters in the spring of 1967, Simpson packed everything he owned into his Volkswagen Beetle and headed east to upstate New York where he enrolled in a doctoral program in limnology (study of standing fresh water bodies like lakes and streams) at Cornell University.

“The first thing I learned, I had absolutely no idea how much corn was grown in the United States and I’m serious when I say that. When you hit western Nebraska, you start seeing corn and you see it all the way to Ithaca, New York,” Simpson said. “If you’ve been to the west, everything is big - big mountains, big scenery, big wide open spaces. And in the East, everything is small. I had to be make the transition from grandeur as expressed in big to grandeur expressed in small.”

While at Cornell, Simpson met his wife Penelope. They have been married for 43 years and have a son, Robert Lee Simpson III (35), who works in the Information Technology department at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and a daughter, Elizabeth Jean (32), who is an artist and self-employed custom landscape designer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Simpson accepted his first tenure-track faculty position at Rider College (now Rider University) in Lawrence Township, New Jersey while completing his doctoral thesis which he defended in 1971.

“It was a terrific little place to be because I could completely define what I wanted to do with my career,” Simpson said. “I could follow the teaching and research lines that I wanted.”

Simpson stayed at Rider from 1970 to 1985 and served as the chair of the biology department for 10 of those 15 years which was his first foray into higher education administration.  Along with his teaching and administrative duties, Simpson, along with a close-knit group of colleagues at Rider and Rutgers University, began a 25-year collaboration studying tidal freshwater marshes. In 1978, they published Freshwater Wetlands: Ecological Processes and Management Potential, the first book focusing exclusively on freshwater wetlands.

“He’s always very positive with what he brings to the research or brings to what he’s doing or interacting personally. He’s really pretty amazing that way,” said Mary Leck, a research colleague of Simpson’s since the early 1970s. “He was rigorous and always fair and I think pretty demanding of the students. The students really benefitted from those things. He was always fair and encouraging.”

In 1985, Simpson left Rider to become the Dean of Science and Mathematics at William Patterson College, a role in which he served for six years.

“I’d already done administrative work for 10 years as a department head so it was an easy transition,” Simpson said. “The school I was working with was focused on science and math.”

During his six years at William Patterson, Simpson maintained his rigorous pursuit of research and published a book on soil seed banks in 1989 with Leck and colleague Tom Parker.  He also brought a $2.9 million New Jersey Challenge to Excellence grant to his school to enhance teaching,  learning and faculty research

“There’s this thing called 10 o’ clock at night, Saturdays, and Sundays,” Simpson said. “If you’re committed to something, and I’m still very committed to research, you carve the time out. You make the time and if you have committed colleagues, you collectively make the time.”

From 1991 to 2006, Simpson served as the Provost and Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. His plan was to go on sabbatical in 2006 to complete his third book, this one on seedling ecology, when he received a phone call from Germany from then Kettering President Stanley Liberty.  After much conversation, Simpson agreed to postpone his sabbatical and serve as the interim provost at Kettering for the 2006-07 academic year. True to his word, Simpson left Kettering after one year and published his third book in 2009 also with Leck and Parker, while teaching biology and environmental science classes back at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

In 2010, Kettering called again to discuss the provost position that was once again vacant. Simpson was traveling with this wife in South Dakota at the time and his preliminary interview took place over the phone from a rural truck stop.

“The attraction was that I knew Kettering was going through a leadership transition. President Liberty was going to be in his last year and I had no idea who was going to be coming in as President,” Simpson said. “I knew enough about Kettering that I thought I could make a difference during that transition period. I actually signed up for two years.”

The original two year commitment turned to four years as Simpson oversaw the leadership transition to Dr. Robert McMahan, who was hired as President of Kettering in August 2011, and the three new vice-presidents that followed. Through the transition, Simpson is confident that Kettering is in a much better place than during his first tenure with the school in 2006.

“Of all the Presidents that I have worked with, Bob McMahan has the most varied and in some ways eclectic background,” Simpson said. “He’s an incredibly good scientist. He’s an entrepreneur. He knows business inside and out. He knows how government works and has been part of government. He truly has a vision of what a small private university can mean for its community and for its region. He’s not only able to articulate it but he’s able to execute it. He brings a strength that you don’t see in higher education very often. I knew Kettering’s potential from its students and the commitment of its faculty and staff. He’s brought a level of vision and a level of energy that has really rejuvenated this institution.”

Simpson is most impressed with McMahan’s attention to detail and the ethos of excellence that he expects for every small and large task at Kettering. Excellence is in the attention to detail according to Simpson and he feels McMahan brings that level of distinction to propel Kettering to new heights in the future.

“Dr. Simpson has served Kettering University with dedication and commitment through two tenures with the University,” McMahan said. “He has played an integral part in our success and has played a key role in steering Kettering toward a bright future. He will continue to be a tremendous asset to Kettering and to Dr. James Zhang through the transition.”

Simpson will be succeeded by Dr. James Zhang on June 1, 2014. Zhang has been the Dean of The Kimmel School at Western Carolina University since 2012 and has been an Electrical Engineering faculty member at the university since 2003. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Hunan University, a master’s degree from Indiana University in Telecommunications and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Purdue University, both in Electrical Engineering. He has authored or co-authored more than 50 publications and holds seven U.S. and international patents.

“At this point, I’ve essentially fulfilled what I came to achieve and it’s time for me to retire,” Simpson said. “My only goal here is to help Kettering be successful. When I leave, I’ll feel like I’ve made a very positive contribution.”

Written By Pardeep Toor | Contact: Patrick Hayes - - (810) 762-9639