Van Harlingen receives Campus Executive Officer Distinguished Leadership Award

Siv Schwink
5/6/2016 10:00 AM

Professor and Head Dale Van Harlingen
Professor and Head Dale Van Harlingen
Professor Dale Van Harlingen, head of the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been selected to receive a Campus Executive Officer Distinguished Leadership Award by the Office of the Provost. The award recognizes exceptional academic leadership and vision by an executive officer within a college or campus unit.

The tenth head in the department’s 126-year history, Van Harlingen took on the unit’s top administrative role in 2006. His first years were tumultuous ones for the University, marked by abrupt changes in campus leadership and tremendous budgetary challenges. Guiding the department through this period, Van Harlingen sought ways to enhance the department’s productivity and impact through initiatives that would improve research infrastructure, teaching spaces, and strategic hiring of faculty and support staff.

“This has been a very rewarding and stimulating role,” says Van Harlingen. “The first five years were characterized by a period of limited hiring, retirements, and departures. We saw a drop in the physics faculty size from our traditional ≈65 to a low of nearly 50, putting stress on our ability to teach our classes and sustain our research productivity. The last four years have been a very different story, with an unprecedented period of hiring that has restored the size and strength of our faculty, launched exciting initiatives in research and education, and seen significant investments in our infrastructure.

“Now, of course, we are experiencing another major transition in the campus leadership and are preparing for another round of budget cuts—it will be challenging for us to maintain the momentum we have built. But we take confidence from what has remained constant throughout all of these ups and downs, and that is the commitment and expertise of our faculty and staff, and the support of the college and campus administrations that has helped us to achieve our goals and to excel in our missions.”

Among his colleagues, Van Harlingen is known for his genial disposition, his vision, and his holistic support of the trifold mission of Physics Illinois—teaching, research, and outreach. Professor and Associate Head for Graduate Programs Lance Cooper says no one could be more deserving of the award than Van Harlingen, whose remarkable vision and sense of what is possible “infuses the department with optimism.”

“Dale has been tireless in his efforts to preserve the department’s top-10 ranking and the #1 ranking of the department’s flagship condensed matter physics program,” comments Cooper. “He has accomplished this by retaining and attracting top faculty to our program, which in turn attracts the highest caliber postdocs and students to our department.

“During a challenging financial period for the state, the University, and its units, Dale has responded vigorously to identify funds to maintain—and even expand—research and teaching excellence,” Cooper adds. “Moreover, he has fostered a supportive, interactive, and inclusive environment in which faculty can pursue innovative educational and research programs, and he has provided essential support for those efforts—he is always among the first to celebrate our achievements.”

Professor Brian DeMarco has worked closely with Van Harlingen on many special initiatives and has welcomed the opportunity to observe and learn from him.

“Dale is forward-looking, bullish on diversity, invests in developing people, and embraces change. He has expanded and refined our mission, created resources to support students and faculty, and positioned us to remain among the top 10 physics departments in the U.S.,” Demarco asserts.

“Just one example of this—Since 2006, the number of physics majors in our department has grown from about 240 to 650 students. Enrollment in our introductory courses has also expanded, from 6,400 to 9,400 students per year, over the same period. Managing this growth while maintaining excellence in teaching is a challenging logistical and financial problem that Dale has embraced with enthusiasm. His unflagging support of the physics education research group has enabled it to flourish, developing innovative teaching methodologies and classroom tools and serving as an example to science departments across the country.  I admire the way Dale approaches problem solving, by expressing a positive vision, delegating responsibility while remaining in partnership, and encouraging our faculty to develop creative solutions.”

Physics Illinois Advisory Board member James Garland is a professor of physics emeritus and president emeritus of Miami University and served as Van Harlingen’s doctoral adviser.

Garland shares, “One of Dale’s primary accomplishments as head has been to foster the department’s sense of community. Physics Illinois takes great care to mentor its junior faculty and to publicize and advance their careers. It honors its retired emeritus professors, maintains contact with its alumni base, nurtures its students, and supports its large number of staff members, many of whom are fiercely loyal longtime employees. There is a spirit in the department that sets it apart from other major departments in the U.S. This kind of spirit and commitment does not happen spontaneously—it evolves out of strong committed leadership at the top.”

Assistant Professor Taylor Hughes agrees, “Dale is the heart of the physics department. His love for the department and for the University of Illinois is deep and infectious. He works tirelessly toward creating a broad and creative department that includes faculty members from diverse backgrounds and research interests. He is in no small part responsible for establishing and maintaining our warm, collaborative, and unified atmosphere, which supports great productivity. It is clear in all he does that Dale is strongly invested in the happiness of his faculty, their families, and the success of the department.”

In his decade as head, Van Harlingen has hired 22 tenure or tenure-track faculty members and 4 research faculty members, which amounts to more than a third of the department. He has championed gender diversity, bringing 6 stellar women faculty members on board, which in turn helped to stimulate a 9 percent increase in female graduate-student enrollments.

Among the highlights of Van Harlingen’s tenure as head, he was instrumental in the founding of the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory; he supported the effort to attract the NSF Physics Frontier Center, the Center for the Physics of Living Cells; he created a diversity committee to evaluate ways to increase the enrollment of outstanding students from underrepresented groups; he led the initiative and secured the funding to make vital improvements to instructional and interactive spaces; and he helped to secure funding for essential state-of-the-art research equipment that is now widely used by researchers around the campus.

Van Harlingen is the Donald Biggar Willett Professor of Engineering. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (1996) and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1999), and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (2003). He is the recipient of APS’s 1998 Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize.

Van Harlingen received his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in physics from The Ohio State University in 1972 and 1977, respectively. He completed his postdoctoral work at Cambridge University from 1977 to 1978 and at University of California, Berkeley from 1978 to 1981. He joined the faculty at Physics Illinois in 1981.

Van Harlingen and three other honorees will be formally recognized for their service and loyalty to campus, on May 11 at the Celebration of Academic Service and Leadership Excellence. The award comes with an honorarium and a commemorative plaque.

Recent News

  • Accolades
  • Alumni News

Congratulations to Physics Illinois alumnus M. George Craford on being presented today with the IEEE Edison Medal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The medal is awarded annually in recognition of a career of meritorious achievement in electrical science, electrical engineering, or the electrical arts. The citation reads, “for a lifetime of pioneering contributions to the development and commercialization of visible LED materials and devices.”


Craford is best known for his invention of the first yellow light emitting diode (LED). During his career, he developed and commercialized the technologies yielding the highest-brightness yellow, amber, and red LEDs as well as world-class blue LEDs. He is a pioneer whose contributions to his field are lasting.

  • Research

While heritable genetic mutations can alter phenotypic traits and enable populations to adapt to their environment, adaptation is frequently limited by trade-offs: a mutation advantageous to one trait might be detrimental to another.

Because of the interplay between the selection pressures present in complex environments and the trade-offs constraining phenotypes, predicting evolutionary dynamics is difficult.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have shown how evolutionary dynamics proceed when selection acts on two traits governed by a trade-off. The results move the life sciences a step closer to understanding the full complexity of evolution at the cellular level.

  • Research
  • Condensed Matter Physics

Since the discovery two decades ago of the unconventional topological superconductor Sr2RuO4, scientists have extensively investigated its properties at temperatures below its 1 K critical temperature (Tc), at which a phase transition from a metal to a superconducting state occurs. Now experiments done at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Madhavan and Abbamonte laboratories, in collaboration with researchers at six institutions in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, and Japan, have shed new light on the electronic properties of this material at temperatures 4 K above Tc. The team’s findings may elucidate yet-unresolved questions about Sr2RuO4’s emergent properties in the superconducting state.

  • Research
  • AMO/Quantum Physics

Using an atomic quantum simulator, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have achieved the first-ever direct observation of chiral currents in the model topological insulator, the 2-D integer quantum Hall system.

Topological Insulators (TIs) are arguably the most promising class of materials discovered in recent years, with many potential applications theorized. That’s because TIs exhibit a special quality: the surface of the material conducts electricity, while the bulk acts as an insulator. Over the last decade, scientists have extensively probed the microscopic properties of TIs, to better understand the fundamental physics that govern their peculiar behavior.

Atomic quantum simulation has proven an important tool for probing the characteristics of TIs, because it allows researchers greater control and greater possibilities for exploring regimes not currently accessible in real materials. Finely tuned laser beams are used to trap ultracold rubidium atoms (about a billion times colder than room temperature) in a lattice structure that precisely simulates the structure of ideal materials.