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Eaton, Gordon Pryor

Published onJul 30, 2021
Eaton, Gordon Pryor

(March 9, 1929 - )

Quick Facts

Geologist, former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and twelfth president of Iowa State University, serving from July 1986 – October 1990.


Source: Iowa State University News Service

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Eaton received a BA in geology (1951) from Wesleyan University, and an MS in geology (1953) and a PhD in geology and geophysics (1957) from the California Institute of Technology.

Eaton served on the faculties of Wesleyan University (1955-1959) and the University of California at Riverside (1959-1967). During a period of academic leave from UC-Riverside, he served as Project Chief (1963-1965) for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado. Upon his return to the university, Eaton served as chair of the Department of Geosciences and associate professor (1965-67). From 1967 to 1981, Eaton worked for the U.S. Geological Survey in several administrative and scientific positions in the Washington, D.C., area as well as in Denver and Hawaii National Park. He returned to higher education in 1981 as dean of the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. In 1983, Eaton assumed the position of provost and vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University. Eaton was appointed president of Iowa State University in 1986.

Gordon Eaton, President of Iowa State University, 1986-90, 1991 by Istvan Nyikos (Hungarian - Canadian, b. 1942). Oil on linen. Commissioned by University Museums with funds from the ISU Foundation. In the Presidential Portrait Collection, Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U91.12

Location: Iowa State University, Parks Library

Eaton's installation[1] coincided with several significant anniversaries for a land-grant university:

  • the 125th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act

  • the Centennial of the Hatch Act

  • the Centennial of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which is the oldest higher education association in the country

President Eaton got a unique piece of hardware at his installation—the Presidential Medallion. The medallion representing Beardshear Hall was designed by installation committee to symbolized "the venerable tradition as well as a dramatic and dynamic new perspective of Iowa State University … a doorway to academic adventure and opportunity."

Though his tenure of five years was deemed brief considering his predecessor had been in office for more than two decades, Eaton’s time at Iowa State was characterized as that of “significant change.” Eaton entered the presidency on the heels of daunting state budget reversions and federal funding cuts. In one of his first addresses to the faculty, he remarked that “the glory days of relatively strong funding from state and federal governments are over—probably for our lifetime.” Eaton sought to address this reality by redefining the university’s mission to refocus resources on areas of unique strength to Iowa State.

Despite tough budget constraints, Eaton made increasing faculty salaries his top priority and successfully convinced the Board of Regents to boost salaries by more than 46 percent over four years to make Iowa State more competitive. He also improved the university’s research enterprise by more than doubling sponsored research funding from $51 million in 1986 to $113 million in 1990. In 1986, Iowa State received a 4-year, $18 million commitment of state lottery proceeds to expand research in agricultural biotechnology, and two years later, Iowa State became the first university in the nation to field-test a genetically-engineered plant. In addition, several major research centers were created, including the Institute for Physical Research and Technology, the Utilization Center for Agricultural Products, the Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition, the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Social Behavioral Research Center for Rural Health. In 1987, the ISU Research Park was established south of campus to attract companies in biotechnology, veterinary pharmaceuticals, microelectronics, and materials development and reliability.

Despite the university’s research success, some faculty members criticized Eaton, claiming the emphasis on research came at the expense of undergraduate teaching. However, Eaton sought to enhance undergraduate education and bring enrollment in line with the university’s limited resources by implementing stricter application of the university’s admissions standards. He also strengthened minority student recruitment and emphasized the importance of a diverse faculty and staff. He is credited with establishing a long-range strategic planning process.

Eaton determined that private support would play an increasingly important role in the face of state budget woes. In 1988, the ISU Achievement Foundation combined with the Iowa State University Foundation, the five-year, $150 million, Partnership for Prominence capital campaign launched in July. Just before Eaton’s departure in the fall of 1990, he announced the university was more than half way to its goal.

Six major campus buildings were constructed during Eaton’s tenure, including the Durham Center for Computation and Communication, Molecular Biology Building, Agronomy Hall, National Soil Tilth Laboratory, the Applied Science Center, and the Recreation/Athletic Facility. Three facilities underwent major renovations/expansions: MacKay Hall, the Veterinary Medicine Research Institute, and the Veterinary Clinic for Industrial Education and Technology.

In 1990, Eaton resigned from Iowa State to become director of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. In 1994, President Clinton appointed Eaton as Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, headquartered in Reston, Virginia. Across his career, Eaton was recognized with a number of awards, including Distinguished Alumni Awards from Wesleyan University (1981) and the California Institute of Technology (1995). He was also elected as a Fellow at both the Geological Society of America and at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University announce Dr. Gordon P. Eaton as the 2016 the recipient of the Michel T. Halbouty Geosciences Medal.

Eaton retired in 1997 from the U.S. Geological Survey. He has two children, Gretchen and Greg, with his wife, Virginia Gregory. They were married in 1951.

Eaton Hall on Iowa State University campus is named after Gordon Eaton.

Selected Sources

Gordon Eaton Papers, RS 2/12, University Archives, Iowa State University Library, Ames, IA. Page 350 Page 378

Presidential Installations: Gordon P. Eaton

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