Astrophysicist and award-winning science writer Ray Jayawardhana will be the first person of color to take the helm of the College of Arts and Sciences when he replaces Gretchen Ritter ’83 as the Harold Tanner Dean this September, the University announced on Tuesday.
Jayawardhana has been dean of the faculty of science at York University in Toronto since 2014, where he has managed a CA$55 million budget. He studies “the origin and diversity of planetary systems” and the making of brown dwarfs and stars, according to his faculty webpage. Jayawardhana has also been named a professor of astronomy at Cornell.
Ritter, a third-generation Cornellian and the first female dean of the arts college, was originally scheduled to step down in June but will now continue until August 31, according to a University press release. She will continue her research and will teach in the government department after her term ends, The Sun previously reported.
In an email to The Sun, Jayawardhana said he is “delighted” to become a part of the “vibrant community of scholars” at the University.
“A desire to pursue a liberal arts education was a key reason for my moving to the United States from Sri Lanka, where I grew up,” he said in the email. “Over the years, I’ve sought out opportunities to engage with colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines, so it’s an exciting prospect on a personal level.”
Jayawardhana received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before working at the University of York, he served as a faculty member at the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan, and as a Miller Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Professor Jayawardhana is both academically distinguished and has outstanding experience in academic leadership,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff in the press release. “He is also someone who bridges disciplines easily, having trained broadly with substantial background in the humanities and the communication of science.”
Prof. Robert Raguso, neurobiology and behavior, a member of the search committee for the dean, said the committee felt Jayawardhana would be a “compelling advocate” for the college and for the University.
“The committee was impressed by Ray’s unusual creative energy, both as a scholar and as an administrator,” Raguso told The Sun. “He was able to articulate a coherent vision for the college and provide thoughtful responses to the challenges he would face as a new dean.”
In addition to his astronomy research, Jayawardhana’s articles have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, among other newspapers and magazines.
He has also authored books about astronomy. The television documentary “The Planet Hunters” is based on his book Strange New Worlds, according to Jayawardhana’s website.
At the College of Arts and Sciences, Jayawardhana will be faced with faculty disagreement over whether or not recommended changes to the college’s curriculum should be instituted. In addition, Ritter told The Sun previously that Cornell had “significant budget shortfalls” from 2008 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2015. In 2016, all departments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences received a 0.5 percent cut, and some departments received additional cuts, including the chemistry department, which lost $490,000.
Jayawardhana’s appointment as dean will last for five years, and will begin on September 1.
“I look forward to working with faculty, staff and students at the College, and across the entire University, on our shared challenges and aspirations,” he said.
In the press release, Kotlikoff also thanked Ritter for her achievements as the dean of the University’s largest college. These include bringing Klarman Hall to completion, launching a review of the undergraduate curriculum, restructuring the college’s advising and admissions offices and retaining key faculty members.
In June, as a tribute to her legacy, staff and alumni contributed $634,000 in gifts to create the Gretchen Ritter ‘83 First Generation Scholarship fund.