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Silbey, former dean of science, dies at 71

Professor Robert J. Silbey passed away Thursday at age 71 after a battle with cancer. Silbey, a faculty member at MIT for 45 years, held several positions, including dean of MIT’s School of Science (2000–2007), director of Materials Science and Engineering (1998–2000) and head of the Chemistry Department (1990–1998).

“Bob Silbey was a total citizen of MIT,” said Charles M. Vest, president of MIT from 1990 to 2004, in an article by the MIT News Office. “He was a first-rate scientist, an excellent teacher, a skillful administrator, and a caring steward of the MIT student experience. As chemistry department head and dean of science, he built bridges across disciplines and brought a strong sense of humanity as well as a great sense of humor to his work. Although he never sought the limelight, he has left a big legacy at the Institute and will be greatly missed.”

According to the News Office, Silbey was known as a caring mentor; many of his students went on to positions of leadership in academia. During his time as dean, four Nobel Prizes were awarded to faculty members in the School of Science. Silbey, also a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, oversaw the construction of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex (Building 46) and supported the TEAL (Technology Enhanced Active Learning) program that changed the way freshman physics was taught at MIT.

A Robert J. Silbey Memorial Fund has been established at MIT in his memory — donations can be sent to the provost’s office. A memorial celebration will occur in early 2012.

—Stan Gill