Charles Kruger, former vice provost and dean of research at Stanford, dies

A mechanical engineer with expertise in gas and plasma, as an administrator Kruger increased Stanford’s research funding and helped lead the university toward more interdisciplinary research efforts.

Charles H. Kruger, a former vice provost and dean of research and graduate policy at Stanford who helped lead the university toward more interdisciplinary research efforts, died Nov. 20, 2017, in Palo Alto, California. He was 83.

Charles Kruger

Charles Kruger (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

As an engineer, Kruger was an expert in gas and fluid dynamics. He was a serious scientist with over 200 publications, two textbooks and expertise in fields ranging from growing synthetic diamonds to spacecraft reentry. It was as an administrator, however, that Kruger sealed his academic reputation. He spent half of his Stanford career in senior administrative positions, including as dean of research from 1993 to 2003. During that time he increased Stanford’s research funding and helped build interdisciplinary initiatives including Stanford Bio-X.

Early interest in engineering

Kruger was born on Oct. 4, 1934. He grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where, as a teen, he disassembled and rebuilt a Model A Ford his father had procured for him for his birthday. That experience led to an abiding interest in mechanical engineering. He attended the University of Oklahoma briefly before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956 and a doctorate in 1960, both in mechanical engineering.

In between those two degrees Kruger applied for and won a fellowship from the National Science Foundation and chose to attend Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, where he received the English equivalent of a master’s degree, the Diploma of Imperial College. In London, he delved into biology, thinking he might transfer into medicine, then built an analog computer and developed a deep interest in fluid mechanics and thermal dynamics, which would become the foundations of his research career.

Upon returning to the United States, Kruger spent a year as assistant professor at MIT and a two-year stint in industry at Lockheed. In 1962, he came to Stanford as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He would remain in academia until he retired in 2003.

Kruger’s research career focused on physical gas dynamics, partially ionized plasmas, plasma chemistry, and plasma diagnostics. James Plummer, former dean of the School of Engineering,  teased Kruger at his retirement party that those interests “meant he worked with gases that glow in the dark.”

Kruger helped found the High Temperature Gasdynamics Laboratory with his Stanford colleague Walter Vincenti, with whom he would write the textbook, Introduction to Physical Gas Dynamics. Of his work with gases, Kruger joked, “I like to say that I became an expert on hot air, and that’s how I got into university administration.” Kruger rose to chair his department and the faculty senate, then served as senior associate dean in the School of Engineering.

Role as a unifier

Kruger was named vice provost in 1993 in the aftermath of a controversy over indirect costs in research budgeting. It was also an era of tightening belts in federal funding. Kruger is credited with restoring trust between Stanford and Washington, D.C. He saw his role as a unifier of the many diverse interests within the university.

“There are policy issues that cannot be handled on a school-by-school basis,” he said in a news release announcing his appointment to the position. He led Stanford as it doubled its research funding in the following decade and, more importantly, as it advanced its reputation among the most respected research programs in the nation.

“The dean of research role is one of the most complex and sensitive jobs at Stanford, requiring a delicate balance of encouragement and compliance: spurring on, yet reining in,” said John Etchemendy, provost emeritus, under whom Kruger served from 2000 until he stepped down. “Charles set a standard for Stanford’s academic leadership.  He was always thoughtful, soft-spoken and imperturbable; he inspired confidence and trust from everyone with whom he worked.  With his passing, Stanford has lost a consummate university citizen.”

After retirement, Kruger was honored with the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for exceptional contributions to Stanford. His impact on the university was likened to that of Fred Terman, the transformative dean of the School of Engineering in the post-war era.

Beyond his considerable research and administrative successes, Kruger saw relationships with the students as his greatest joy. He took great pride in teaching and going deeper than traditional teacher-student roles allowed. An avid mountaineer, Kruger liked to arrange group hikes with his students into the Sierra Nevada to inspire camaraderie. Likewise, he enjoyed mentoring foreign students for the way he felt it rounded out his own understanding of other cultures.

“For a boy who came out of a fairly narrow-minded environment in Oklahoma, the breadth of seeing greater parts of the world is really stimulating,” he said in an oral history recorded by Stanford in 2015.

One of the biggest transformations in academia Kruger encouraged over the course of his career was a trend toward interdisciplinary work. Kruger came to Stanford in the early 1960s just as much of the engineering school’s reputation was being cemented. Kruger lamented the siloed nature of things at the time, especially in mechanical engineering, and strove to break down those barriers as an administrator.

“When I first came here, mechanical engineering was divided into maybe four different divisions. Those might as well have been four different departments. Things have changed over time, I’m happy to say. They became more flexible,” Kruger said.

In that respect, Kruger was instrumental in the creation of some of the best-known collaborative initiatives at Stanford, including Stanford Bio-X, the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning and the Science and Engineering Quadrangle. Also, he helped to build the Stanford Graduate Fellowships Program, five of which are named after him.

Charles Kruger is survived by his wife of 40 years, Nora Kruger; his children: Beth Kruger Curran ’88 (spouse John Curran) of Arroyo Grande, California; Charles Kruger III ’84 (spouse Maya Kruger) of Irvine, California; and Ellen Kruger (partner Katie Stutzman) of Philadelphia; and six grandchildren: Jason and Zoe Curran, Charlie and Ellie Kruger, and Trevor and Derek Gibson. He was predeceased by a daughter, Sarah Kruger Gibson, of Santa Barbara, California.

Memorial gifts in the name of Charles H. Kruger may be made to the Yosemite Conservancy.

A Celebration of Life is planned for Monday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. at the Stanford Faculty Club.

Media Contacts

Tom Abate, Stanford Engineering: (650) 736-2245, tabate@stanford.edu