Dennis G. Hall, dean emeritus, professor and Vanderbilt’s first associate provost for research, has died

Dennis Hall (Vanderbilt University/Daniel Dubois)

Dennis G. Hall, Vanderbilt’s first associate provost and later vice provost for research, dean emeritus of the Graduate School, professor emeritus of physics and professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer science, died Jan. 6 in Nashville. He was 75 years old.

“As the university’s first associate provost for research, Dennis played an outsized role in moving Vanderbilt into the nation’s elite research universities,” said Timothy P. McNamara, interim dean of the College of Arts and Science. “He was a close colleague, a man of values and a cherished friend. Dennis left a permanent imprint on the university and on all who knew him. He will be missed dearly.”

In his position as associate provost, Hall served as a campus advocate for research and, at a time when the university and Vanderbilt University Medical Center were one entity, he partnered with the associate vice chancellor for research at the medical center to provide broad oversight of Vanderbilt’s research enterprise, particularly the university’s interschool research centers and institutes and the internal research grant programs that provided seed funding for promising research projects.

“I’ve known Dennis since 1990 when both of us taught at the University of Rochester’s Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Science,” said Philippe Fauchet, Bruce and Bridgitt Evans Dean of Engineering, Emeritus, and Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Before he left Rochester for Vanderbilt in 2000, we collaborated on several scientific papers that were well received. It is then that I saw firsthand the high standards he held in conducting scientific experiments and writing the results for publication. When I joined Vanderbilt as the dean of the School of Engineering in 2012, I was so pleased to work with Dennis again. I interacted with him in his dual role of vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School until his retirement. I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with him and learned a lot from him. He was a strong advocate for science and engineering.”

Hall served for nearly 15 years as associate provost and then vice provost and dean of the Graduate School. In addition, he oversaw the Vanderbilt University Press and the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries and served on the provost’s Budget Allocation Committee and as the permanent member of Vanderbilt’s Promotion and Tenure Review Committee.

“Following Dennis’s arrival as associate provost in 2000, the campus experienced a period of outstanding growth in research activity and research funding. He promoted interdisciplinary collaborations, the visibility of the Vanderbilt research enterprise and elevated the importance of Ph.D. education,” said Kenneth Galloway, Distinguished Professor of Engineering Emeritus, and dean emeritus of engineering. “His advocacy in Kirkland Hall and advocacy to external constituencies greatly benefitted the School of Engineering.”

From 2001 to 2008, Hall served as a member of the Board of Directors of Oak Ridge Associated Universities. From September 2004 through December 2014, Hall served as Vanderbilt’s representative on the governing board that oversees the management of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 2015, he left his administrative positions to focus on his research and writing. His occasional essays on a variety of topics have appeared in local and national venues, and he often wrote opinion pieces published in The Tennessean. His last submission on the topic of how science and technology shapes our everyday lives appeared on Dec. 29, 2023. In addition, he was a licensed and active amateur radio operator (KK4RVW, Amateur Extra Class license).

In a 2011 Vanderbilt news article, Jeff Balser, president and CEO of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and dean of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, categorized Hall as one of the more brilliant and creative science administrators in the country. “Dennis utilizes his grounding in science and problem solving to … find great solutions and move us forward. …He doesn’t really accept at face value the status quo … He questions everything, and that’s why he’s such a refreshing person to work with.”

Research in Optics

When Hall came to Vanderbilt from the University of Rochester in 2000, he had established a world-wide reputation in the field of optics. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he and his students carried out a program of theoretical and experimental investigations of the optical effects of confined systems: systems like optical fibers that change the way that light travels or is emitted, absorbed or detected. As recorded in the pages of more than 125 research articles and 21 doctoral dissertations and six master’s theses that he supervised, Hall and his students explored confined systems in pursuit of deeper understanding of the nature of light. As a consequence, they discovered or demonstrated a number of subtle or unexpected optical effects, fabricated unusual confinement structures and made a variety of first-ever measurements.

In 1992, Hall’s research team gained international attention for designing and building an unusual surface-emitting semiconductor laser based on a novel two-dimensional structure. By pushing the limits of the technology, the researchers successfully constructed a laser that forced light waves to travel as two-dimensional circular waves, mimicking the way that water waves travel when a stone is dropped into a pond. Other experiments used a layer of light-emitting organic molecules to demonstrate that under the right conditions light can shine through a layer of metal that is normally opaque: a finding with potential application in advanced flat-panel computer and television displays. His research resulted in three patents.

Hall was appointed director of the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics in 1993. Three years later he was named to an endowed chair, the William F. May Professorship in Engineering and Applied Sciences. Rochester’s Undergraduate Engineering Council, a student organization, honored him twice with its teaching award, and in his last outing in a graduate course, students rated him the perfect instructor. His commitment to teaching extended beyond the classroom: At the Institute of Optics, he was responsible for winning $2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education to attract graduate students in optics and optoelectronics. He also collaborated with the chair of the English Department to create a joint optics/English course. It was titled Clockwork to Chaos and discussed the ways that scientific ideas enter and influence important literature and how those portrayals contribute to popular views of the natural world.

“I knew Dennis for 25 years, dating back to the time when I was an undergraduate student in Dennis’s electromagnetics class at the University of Rochester. Dennis was an eminent scholar in optical waveguide and surface plasmon phenomena who was widely recognized in the optics community,” said Sharon Weiss, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering and director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. “In his role as vice provost for research, I will always remember him as being among the visionaries at Vanderbilt who supported the creation and growth of the trans-institutional Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the outset of the nanotechnology revolution. In his role as dean of the Graduate School, I will always remember his classic Dennis graduation speeches, full of data and statistics and always supporting science and critical thinking. For his kindness and quirkiness, scholarship and leadership, mentorship and friendship, Dennis will be missed.”

Hall was named a fellow of the Optical Society of America and the International Society for Optical Engineering, and in 1995 he was named a fellow of the American Physical Society. He served as a topical editor of the Journal of the Optical Society of America, as a member of the board of directors of OSA, on the executive committee of the National Nanofabrication Facility of Cornell University and on the board of directors of Oak Ridge Associated Universities. In 2005, his scientific contributions were recognized when he was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hall was also well known for his sense of humor. One example dates back to the 1980s: When he was interviewed by a local reporter about Rochester’s newly formed Center for Advanced Optical Technology, he said, “We’re just 12 guys trying to save the universe.” The quote ran in the paper, was the subject of a great deal of good-natured ribbing by his colleagues and was posted in big letters in the front of the center for several weeks.

Hall received a bachelor of science in physics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; his dissertation research in theoretical solid-state physics was carried out at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. However, he started his education at Southwestern Illinois College, originally founded in 1946 as a junior college to help educate World War II veterans. In 2009, Hall was given a distinguished alumni award by the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. “It was SWIC … that introduced me to the world of higher education, got me started and then sent me on my way,” he told the college newsletter.

He is survived by his wife, Rita, three children, Katie, Christy and Greg, and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be Saturday, Jan. 20, 2–6 p.m. at the West Harpeth Funeral Home, 6962 Charlotte Pike, Nashville, TN 37209.