Cornelius J. Pings, a distinguished chemical engineer who served as USC provost
and then president of the Association of American Universities, died Dec. 6, of
cancer. He was 75.
Pings, USC’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs from 1981 to 1993, was instrumental in developing a system that linked academic planning with budgetary accountability in each of USC’s schools and its college.
His position oversaw the academic and research programs in all of the university’s schools, the libraries, student affairs, and community and governmental relations.
“Neal was a devoted colleague and friend. He was chief academic officer at this university in a decade remarkable for its gains in academic quality,” said USC President Steven B. Sample.
“He worked tirelessly for higher education, but that is not the full measure of the man. Neal also made a lasting contribution to the communities in which he lived and worked.
“He was a good and dedicated citizen who worked hard for the public good. We will all miss him,” Sample said.
Viterbi School dean C.L. Max Nikias said that Pings' stewardship had laid the foundations for steady and then increasingly rapid improvement in engineering. "We are still building on his foundation," Nikias said.
In 1993, Pings was awarded USC’s highest honor, the Presidential Medallion, for “his years of insightful and dedicated leadership that have left an enduring mark on the academic life of USC.”
That same year, he became president of the Association of American Universities until 1998. The Washington, D.C.-based AAU represents the nation’s 60 major research universities.
In 1988, Pings was appointed chairman of the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, a post that earned him national attention in higher education circles. A joint committee of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, the group was charged with addressing the health of U.S. science and technology.
From 1987 to 1989, Pings chaired an ad hoc committee for the AAU that undertook a major review of “Indirect Costs Associated With Federal Support of Research on University Campuses.” The committee’s report, which became known nationally as the “Pings Report,” considered and offered resolutions for a number of contentious research-related issues among government officials, faculty, and university administrators.
In 1994, Pings organized a group of university leaders to reexamine the issue of overhead costs. This was done in light of a White House proposal that called for a one-year freeze on the amount universities could charge for overhead costs of federally sponsored research. At the time, he blasted the government’s proposal in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, writing, “I assert that this action is bad science policy, bad public policy and flawed budgeting.”
Pings also served on three National Research Council committees that addressed topics ranging from the management of research on the International Space Station to the teaching of undergraduate science and mathematics.
His scientific expertise was in the areas of applied chemical thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and liquid-state physics.
In 1989, Pings was given Caltech’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Along with his wife, Marjorie, he was a presidential member of the USC Associates and also belonged to the Caltech Presidential Associates.
Pings was a member of numerous prominent scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Chemical Society.
He received several awards from groups including the American Society for Engineering Education and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
Pings, a Pasadena resident, came to USC from Caltech, where he was vice provost and dean of graduate studies from 1970 to 1981. He joined Caltech as a professor of chemical engineering and chemical physics in 1959 and earned his B.S. degree in applied chemistry and his Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from the school in 1951 and 1955, respectively.
In 1975, Pings was named the first David M. Mason Lecturer in Chemical Engineering at Stanford University – where he taught from 1955 to 1959 – and gave the Riley Lectures of Notre Dame in 1981. In the 1990s, he was awarded honorary doctorates in engineering from The Worcester Polytechnic Institute (1994) and the University of Notre Dame (1999). Harvey Mudd College elected him as a trustee in 1998.
Pings was a founding director of the Pacific Horizon Funds, serving from 1982 to 1999, and director, president and chairman of the board of Bank of America mutual funds from 1996 through 1999. He also held leadership positions with Farmers Group Inc., Hughes Aircraft Co., Maxtor Corp., Edelbrock Inc. and Amervest Co. Inc., among others.
After serving on a blue-ribbon committee organized by then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Pings was appointed to the executive committee of L.A. 2000. In 1992, he chaired the Central City Association.
Pings was also active in Pasadena civic affairs. He became involved with the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency in 1968 and chaired the group from 1974 to 1981.
He was a trustee of the Mayfield Senior School of Pasadena and belonged to the California Club, the Bohemian Club and the Twilight Club of Pasadena. In 1981, he received the City of Pasadena’s Arthur Nobel Medal.
Pings’ other activities included service on the education and finance committees of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was a Knight of Malta and, in 1998, Pope John Paul II appointed him Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory.
A native of Conrad, Montana, Pings is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Marjorie; his son, John; and his daughters, Anne and Mary.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Neal Pings Memorial Research Fund, USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, 1441 Eastlake Ave., Room 8302, Los Angeles, CA 90033-1048.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Dec. 11, at 11 a.m., at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 W. Temple St., Los Angeles.