The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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John Byrne Oral History Interviews

Four life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

January - February 2014


John Vincent Byrne was born in Hampstead, New York on May 9, 1928, and grew up on Long Island. The son of two textile workers, Byrne attended Hewitt Elementary School and Horace Greeley High School, where he performed well in the classroom and played saxophone in multiple bands. After working for one year following his high school graduation, Byrne enrolled at Hamilton College, an all-male school located in Clinton, New York, where he discovered his love of geology and developed his skills as a public speaker.

Byrne completed his BA in geology in 1951 and moved directly to graduate studies at Columbia University. During this time period, Byrne conducted coral reef studies in the Bahamas, analyzed fossils in west Texas and assisted with research on the Polynesian atoll of Raroia. He completed his master's degree in 1953 and chose to move across the country to pursue a doctorate at the University of Southern California. While at USC, Byrne investigated sediments in the Gulf of California, took his first oceanographic cruise on the Velero IV and met Shirley O' Connor, who would become his wife. Byrne finished his USC studies in 1957, obtaining a Ph.D. in marine geology.

Byrne's first post-doctoral employment was with Humble Oil and Refining in Houston, Texas. He worked for Humble Oil for three years, analyzing soil cores in the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere. The Byrnes also started a family during the Houston years - a daughter, Donna, was born in 1958 and twins Lisa and Karen followed in 1960. A son, Steven, rounded out the family in 1962.

Interested in pursuing a teaching position, Byrne left Humble Oil in 1960 to join the fledgling oceanography program at Oregon State College. Led by Wayne Burt, oceanography at OSC was formed as a department in 1959 and Byrne was among its first faculty members; his initial position was devoted half to teaching and half to research, with an early focus on coastal estuaries. In the years that followed, OSU's program flourished and Byrne moved up the ranks accordingly. In 1968 Byrne was named chair of the department and in 1971 he was promoted to Dean of the newly created School of Oceanography. One year later, he was also elevated to the position of Director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Byrne served in this dual capacity until moving into OSU's upper administration in 1976, first as Dean of Research and later as Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.

In 1981 Byrne left OSU to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He stayed in Washington, D.C. for three years, reorganizing the structure of NOAA and making progress on whale protection during this time.

Byrne returned to Corvallis in 1984 to become the twelfth president in OSU history, succeeding Robert MacVicar. During his eleven years in office, Byrne did much to modernize the university, creating its first cabinet of vice-presidents, overseeing its first strategic plan, strengthening the academic rigor of its curriculum, boosting fundraising and investing in its technological infrastructure. Byrne also presided over the expansion and renaming of the campus library; the addition of new buildings to support Engineering, Agriculture and Athletics; the reinstitution of an undergraduate honors program, in the form of the University Honors College; and the creation of a new Ethnic Studies program.

Byrne's achievements as President were arrived at in the midst of what was perhaps the most challenging funding climate ever faced by Oregon State University. At one point, OSU was forced to slash twenty percent of its budget to accommodate reductions in state funding that emanated out of the passage of the Ballot Measure 5 property tax limitation initiative. As President, Byrne was forced to eliminate academic programs including Journalism, Religious Studies and Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. OSU's track and field program was also cut and the campus museum was shuttered.

In 1995 Byrne announced his intention to retire, and he was formally succeeded by Paul Risser in January 1996. He remained active on numerous fronts following his departure from office, serving on the state's vote by mail commission and leading the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State Land Grant Universities, among other pursuits.