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In Memoriam: William G. Spitzer, 82

The professor emeritus served at every level of academic administration at USC, including provost and dean.

William G. Spitzer was the first person in USC’s history to serve at every level of academic administration.
William G. Spitzer was the first person in USC’s history to serve at every level of academic administration.

William G. Spitzer, 82, former dean of USC College and professor emeritus of electrical engineering, materials science and physics at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, died April 14 in Oceanside, Calif., after suffering a heart attack a day earlier. 

Spitzer was a seminal figure at USC, serving in an unparalleled number of administrative and academic posts. In fact, noted USC President Steven B. Sample, “He was the first person in USC’s history to serve at every level of academic administration — as provost, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, division dean and department chair.”

Sample added: “Bill Spitzer was a respected scholar and a steadying voice at USC. He was an extraordinary man who stepped in at critical moments without ego or fuss.”

In 1989, Spitzer received the Presidential Medallion, the highest honor bestowed by the university on a member of the USC community. In 1992, Hebrew Union College awarded him an honorary degree.

Spitzer joined USC as an associate professor of electrical engineering in 1963, achieving full professorship within two years. An expert in solid state physics, he chaired the department of materials science from 1967 to 1969 and headed the department of physics from 1969 to 1972.

The following academic year, he served as dean of the Division of Natural Sciences. In 1983, a month after being named dean of graduate studies, Spitzer was appointed to the newly created post of associate provost for research, becoming the senior officer responsible for the research needs of the university. He became acting dean of the College in 1985 and dean in 1986, serving in that post until June 1989 when he returned to teaching and research.

In 1993, Sample asked Spitzer to serve as interim provost while a search was conducted to replace Cornelius J. Pings, who had left USC to become president of the Association of American Universities. Spitzer served as provost until Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. assumed the post.

Following his retirement in 1992, Spitzer served as a part-time adviser to Sample and Pings, and he continued to participate as vice chair of the Strategic Planning Steering group and chair of the Faculty Senate’s Commission on the Future of the University.

Spitzer has chaired or served as a member of nearly every major committee and governance body at USC, including budget, personnel and search committees. The "Spitzer Profile," which allows flexibility in faculty teaching and research workloads at the university, is the product of a committee he led.

He was the recipient of a USC Associates Award for Research in 1970 and gave that year’s Research Lecture, “Semiconductor Defects and Infrared Absorption.” In 1982, he received a Raubenheimer Award from USC College.

Spitzer was a fellow of the American Physical Society, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the author of more than 100 journal articles. His research focused primarily on the optical and electronic properties of semiconductor materials.

During sabbatical leaves, he served as a visiting research scientist at the University of California, Irvine, the Naval Research Laboratory and the Air Force Avionics Laboratory.

Spitzer earned his bachelor’s degree in 1949 from UCLA, his M.S. in physics from USC in 1952 and his Ph.D. in that field from Purdue University in 1957.

Before joining USC, he was a research scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., and at the Bell and Howell Research Center in Pasadena.

While at Bell Laboratories during his formative years as a researcher, Spitzer pioneered the basic study of the physical properties of gallium arsenide, a compound that made a convincing case for itself as the material of choice for optical processors.

Spitzer is survived by his wife of 60 years, Jenny MA ’74; a daughter, Margi; a son, Matthew JD ’77, who holds the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at USC, where he is also a professor of political science; and a granddaughter, Amanda ’08.