CORVALLIS, Ore. – John V. Byrne, who served as Oregon State University’s 12th president from 1984 to 1995 after leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, died Thursday. He was 95. 

As president of Oregon State, Byrne oversaw the construction of buildings and the addition of degree programs, strengthened OSU’s academic reputation and boosted fundraising.

“The university we know and love today would be unrecognizable without the many lasting contributions of President Emeritus John V. Byrne,” said OSU President Jayathi Y. Murthy. “His life was distinguished by exemplary public service in Oregon and across the nation, scientific accomplishment, and the warm friendship he shared with colleagues, students, artists and community members.”

Interested in teaching, Byrne left a position as a geologist at an oil company in Texas in 1960 to join the oceanography program at what was then known as Oregon State College. He was one of the first faculty members of the department and spent his early years researching coastal estuaries.

In 1968, he was named chair of OSU’s oceanography department, and three years later he was promoted to dean of the newly created School of Oceanography, now known as the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

A year later, he was also elevated to serve as the director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Byrne served in this dual capacity until becoming Oregon State’s first dean of research in 1976 and later vice president for research and graduate studies.

In 1981, he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to serve as the third administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C. He remained in this role until 1984 when he returned to Corvallis to succeed Robert MacVicar as Oregon State’s 12th president.

As president, Byrne oversaw the expansion, renovation or acquisition of dozens of buildings and other campus facilities, helped raise $40 million for the expansion of the Valley Library, established more than 30 new degrees or certificates and created the University Honors College and the Department of Ethnic Studies. He did this amidst a budget crisis caused by significant reductions in state funding for higher education.

He also oversaw the implementation of the university’s first strategic plan, development of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and acquired the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers and other materials that were later housed in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.

In 1995, Byrne announced his intention to retire as president and was succeeded by Paul Risser in January 1996.

Upon retiring as president, Byrne remained a prominent member of the OSU community, participating in university and arts events, teaching in the Honors College, furthering his own scholarship, helping to found local arts organizations, and contributing to state and national commissions. He served on the state’s vote by mail commission and led the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State Land Grant Universities.

In 2017, Byrne’s memoir, “Undercurrents,” was published by Oregon State University Press. It explores his childhood during the Great Depression and World War II and his career as a scientist, educator and administrator.

Byrne, who was born in Hempstead, New York, earned a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College in 1951, a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1953 and a doctorate from the University of Southern California in 1957.

Byrne is survived by his wife, Shirley, children Donna Byrne, Karen Byrne (Mike Dickey) and Steven Byrne (Holly), and grandchildren Adiv Paradise, Liat Paradise, Lauren Byrne and Quentin Byrne.

General OSU

About Oregon State University: As one of only three land, sea, space and sun grant universities in the nation, Oregon State serves Oregon and the world by working on today’s most pressing issues. Our more than 36,000 students come from across the globe, and our programs operate in every Oregon county. Oregon State receives more research funding than all of the state’s comprehensive public universities combined. At our campuses in Corvallis and Bend, marine research center in Newport, OSU Portland Center and award-winning Ecampus, we excel at shaping today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders.

Story By: 

Sean Nealon, 541-737-0787, [email protected]


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