Thomas B. Day, the retired president of San Diego State University, died June 15, 2021. He was 89. Photo courtesy SDSU

Thomas B. Day, who during an 18-year tenure as the sixth president of San Diego State University oversaw the creation of six joint doctoral programs, significantly increased faculty research and led a major campus expansion, has died at the age of 89, the school announced Wednesday.

Day, who became SDSU president in 1978 and retired in 1996, died on Tuesday.

His son, Adam — a past chairman and current member of the California State University Board of Trustees and chief administrative officer of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation — took to Twitter to offer thoughts on his father’s passing and several family photos.

“RIP SDSU President Emeritus Dr. Thomas Brennock Day,” he wrote. “An incredible father to 9 children, 16 grandchildren & 11 great grandchildren; loving husband of 60 years; visionary nuclear physicist; & higher education thought-leader.”

“Thomas Day was one of the most transformative presidents in the history of our great university,” said SDSU President Adela de la Torre. “That SDSU has competitive joint doctoral programs, a strong and diverse research enterprise and such national recognition is credit to Day’s leadership and service to the faculty and students.”

A theoretical physicist, Day championed a “teacher-scholar” model during his tenure as president.

“Day was a legendary leader within the CSU system for his transformative vision of pushing SDSU to become an exemplar of a teacher- scholar research intensive institution, which would be on an equal footing with the University of California,” de la Torre said. “Day was leap years ahead in identifying student access and academic excellence as equal and paramount to the future success of any public university. Day’s legacy and imprint on SDSU, our region, and on higher education is formidable, and will be remembered for decades to come.”

Day arrived at SDSU in July 1978, less than a month after California voters approved Proposition 13 and a time, he once recalled, when “the ceiling was about to collapse on higher education.” He worked from a corner office in the administration building near Hardy Tower and behind a statue of one of his predecessors, Samuel Black.

Day’s tenure was a time of financial challenges that included tuition increases and threatened faculty layoffs, but he expanded the campus, opened a North County campus in Vista which helped blaze a trail for Cal State San Marcos and created what is now the School of Public Health as well as the School of Communication. The School of Public Health required approval from the state Legislature; it now produces about 75% of the public health workforce in San Diego.

“Day was a strong and determined president for SDSU,” said SDSU President Emerita Sally Roush. “He acted with a force that arose from his deep dedication to the university. I had the great honor to work closely with him on many significant issues, and was able to witness firsthand the abiding commitment to SDSU that was the foundation for his leadership.”

Day was an advocate for diversity, stressing the importance of recruiting and hiring staff and faculty that reflected the growing racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the San Diego region, according to SDSU. He initiated the Freshman Success Program — now called the Thomas B. Day Student Success Programs — to ensure the success of students by providing paths to student support services and enriched learning opportunities.

“The history of any great university is the composite of thousands of people — students, faculty, staff and administrators — building year after year on illustrious predecessors,” Day said in 1995. “SDSU is certainly no exception.”

The Thomas B. and Anne K. Day Quad in the university’s Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex was named in his honor. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the building in January 2018 marked Day’s last visit to the campus.

Day was born in New York City on March 7, 1932. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1952 and completed a doctorate in physics from Cornell University in 1957.

Day was the father of nine children — five of whom earned degrees at SDSU — the grandfather of 16 and the great-grandfather of 11. He is survived by his children: Erica Lane, Monica Berenter, Mark Day, Kevin Day, Timothy Day, Jonathan Day, Patrick Day and Adam Day. His wife, Anne, and daughter, Sara Day, preceded him in death.

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