Thomas takes his leave … for now

Ned Thomas addresses a gathering at Duncan Hall, there to honor him at the conclusion of six years as dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering.

Ned Thomas addresses a gathering at Duncan Hall, there to honor him at the conclusion of six years as dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

No need to fish for compliments as community honors outgoing engineering dean

Edwin “Ned” Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering for six years, was honored at a reception at Duncan Hall May 5 as he prepares to step down at the end of June.

“I’ve had a ball being dean of engineering,” said Thomas, who joined Rice in 2011 as dean after 22 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s a great job. In a couple of weeks, I’m going on a submarine ride out of San Diego for a day. They’re going to take us down. I hope they bring us up.

Ned and Dee Thomas.

Ned and Dee Thomas. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“If you’re dean of engineering and make friends with Navy ROTC, they put you in airplanes and submarines, so I’m looking forward to that,” he said.

Thomas will rejoin rank-and-file faculty as a professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemical and biomolecular engineering after a fall sabbatical at the University of Virginia, where he and his wife of 47 years, Dee, will get to spend time with their daughter and twin grandsons. “Then, when it gets cold up there, we’ll come back to Houston,” he said.

Thomas will also spend some of the summer fishing off the coast of Maine. “There’s a 25-foot Boston whaler up there, and there’s a lot of stripers and bluefish and flounder and whatnot that we have to catch,” he told the assembled well-wishers.

Several speakers interrupted the Cinco de Mayo festivities that began with margaritas and ended with a performance by the student band Mariachi Luna Llena.

Thomas brought “a combination of passion and compassion that I think is truly special,” Rice President David Leebron said. “He brings enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, which I think is rare. He has been a champion for the School of Engineering and a champion for high ambitions and high standards throughout the university.”

“Ned was just such a kind and generous partner in helping me to understand this place, and I will always, always be grateful for that,” added Provost Marie Lynn Miranda. “He models the way for all of us about how to be an effective leader of a school and keep a research program going.”

Mariachi Luna Llena.

Mariachi Luna Llena plays for the dean and guests. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

During his tenure, Thomas published groundbreaking research on the toughness of graphene, phononics, spider silk and photonic sensors from self-assembled block copolymers. He was also instrumental in founding Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering.

Miranda said she was impressed by Thomas’ enthusiastic promotion of his students’ accomplishments and his keen eye for talent in recruiting faculty. She also said he has been “one of the strongest … advocates for women and underrepresented minorities on our campus.”

Dean of Natural Sciences Peter Rossky, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Chair of Chemistry, talked about how much he’s valued his collaboration with Thomas. “I think everybody knows that since I came here and Ned and I formed this relationship, the ability of science and engineering to work together has been nothing short of amazing,” he said.

The 'Living Legend.'

The ‘Living Legend.’

“There’s never been a point at which there’s been a competition between what’s better for one or what’s better for the other,” Rossky said. “It’s always been about what’s best for Rice. I would be hard-pressed to find any other university in the United States where that kind of arrangement has been successful.”

Arnaud Chevallier ’98, a director of the Rice Engineering Alumni organization, said Thomas has been “an astonishing advocate for us.”

The dean’s executive administrator Melissa Chaviers appreciated his lighthearted approach. “When I accepted this position a little over three years ago, I had no idea I would in fact be working directly for a living legend,” she said. “From the moment I met Ned, I knew he was full of it: greatness, compassion, vision, dedication, inspiration. All of these things that help to make someone an amazing leader.”

She recalled Thomas was happy to share a thank-you email after a talk he gave in Hong Kong that referred to him as a “living legend,” noting the words were highlighted, bolded and enlarged. “Internal emails Ned sent for about the next year all included an ‘LL’ after his name in the signature,” Chaviers said.

She then presented Thomas a gift from the staff: A bobble head in his image wearing the uniform of his beloved Boston Red Sox, bearing No. 9 and appropriately inscribed: “Ned Thomas — The Living Legend.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.