John Sampson Toll, an internationally renowned physicist and pioneering educator who culminated his career at Washington College, passed away Friday, July 15, 2011 of natural causes at Fox Hill Assisted Living in Bethesda, MD. He was 87.
Dr. Toll is credited with redefining Washington College as one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher education. During his presidency, Dr. Toll elevated Washington College’s national reputation, strengthened its academics with new programs and general education requirements, invested in the physical plant, and directed the single largest fundraising campaign ever conducted by any undergraduate college in Maryland. Before Dr. Toll arrived in January 1995, the College had experienced three straight years of budget deficits. Dr. Toll balanced the budget every year he was in office, and by the end of his tenure had more than quadrupled the endowment.
By his own account, his decade at Washington College (1995-2004) ranked among the most professionally productive and personally rewarding of a career in higher education that spanned six decades. At 71, the former Chancellor of the University of Maryland System agreed to serve as Acting President through a transitional period, and then the Board of Visitors and Governors asked him to stay on. After working at major public research institutions, Dr. Toll said he was impressed that undergraduate students here could conduct research with faculty members in much the same way graduate students do. He proved adept at raising money to support that kind of student/faculty collaboration. With an original campaign goal of $72 million, the Campaign for Washington’s College surpassed its target by nearly 44 percent, bringing in total contributions of $103.4 million. Under his leadership, the College’s endowment assets grew from just under $27 million to more than $112.4 million.
Jay Griswold, Chairman Emeritus of Black Oak Associates who served as chair of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors during Dr. Toll’s tenure, remembers him as “one of the greatest presidents of Washington College, and a great man. He was a totally dedicated, selfless individual who taught me a lot about how to treat people and how to raise money for Washington College.”
Gerald L. Holm, Chairman of The Hodson Trust, says Dr. Toll was “known for his intellect, strong leadership, gracious manner and commitment to education. He was, above all, a visionary,” he adds.
Former Maryland Governor Harry Hughes says that Dr. Toll possessed a rare combination of intelligence and modesty. “He did a marvelous job as head of the University of Maryland and later at Washington College. He was greatly interested in students and was one of the finest human beings I ever met. He will be greatly missed; I was proud to consider him a friend.”
As president, Dr. Toll initiated the Washington Scholars program, a successful experiment in student recruitment. His academic initiatives included the addition of five new majors, a certification program in elementary education, a general education program featuring a set of innovative first-year seminars, and the introduction of fine arts, foreign language, and quantitative requirements. Two new academic centers—the Center for Environment and Society, and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience—were established on his watch, as were ambitious initiatives to internationalize the curriculum. His capstone achievement—securing a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus—reflects the strength of the academic environment Dr. Toll achieved.
Dr. Toll rejuvenated Washington College’s physical campus as well, with the addition of several academic, recreational and residential facilities—including Daly Hall, Goldstein Hall, the Schottland Tennis Center and, as a final tribute to him, the John S. Toll Science Center.
Joachim Scholz, professor of German emeritus, served as Provost and Dean of the College under the Toll administration. “Working for Dr. Toll was an ongoing and exciting learning experience. He was a man of infinite positive energy as a leader, and of infinite kindness as a person who refused to say a negative word about anything.”
John Toll, who is known for his work in dispersion theory, elementary particle physics and quantum field theory, began his career in higher education at Princeton University, where he helped establish the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He is highly regarded for his work at SUNY Stony Brook, a school he built from the ground up into one of the nation’s best research institutions, and for his long association with the University of Maryland, where he first taught physics and then returned to preside over a system of five campuses. In 1988, he headed up the merger of Maryland’s two public multi-campus university systems and was named Chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
Prior to his appointment at Washington College, he had served as President of Universities Research Association, a consortium of universities with research programs in high-energy physics that operates the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. When Congress proposed to build the Superconducting Super Collider, URA was asked to expand its role to include oversight of that project. When budget pressures led Congress to cancel the project, Dr. Toll returned to University of Maryland where he served as chancellor emeritus and professor of physics.
A University of Maryland colleague, Rita Colwell, remembers him as an extraordinary leader, mentor and friend. Colwell served as Toll’s academic vice president at the University of Maryland System; together they developed various biotech centers and research programs for the System.
“He was a visionary who always liked challenges,” Colwell says. “He never wanted to sit back and let things happen. He wanted to make sure there was always forward progress. He loved innovation, and was really fun to work with. He was just wonderful. I will miss him so much.”
Dr. Toll was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the New York Academy of Sciences and the Washington Academy of Sciences, and a member and former national chairman of the Federation of American Scientists. He served as chairman of three advisory panels for the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, and as chairman of advisory panels in physics for the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Born October 25, 1923 in Denver, Colorado, John Sampson Toll was the son of Oliver Wolcott and Marie D’Aubigne Sampson Toll. He earned his high school diploma at Putney School in Vermont and was graduated with highest honors from Yale University in 1944. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he completed post-graduate studies at Princeton University where he helped establish Project Matterhorn, now known as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He worked in the Theoretical Physics Division of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and as associate director of Project Matterhorn before turning to teaching.
In addition to his wife of 40 years, Deborah Taintor Toll, he is survived by daughter Dacia and her husband Jeffrey Klaus; daughter Caroline and her husband Nick Vetter; and a grandson, John Blaese Toll Klaus.