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Kenneth G. Ryder, 1924-2012

Former Northeastern University President Kenneth G. Ryder, who championed the educational advantages of the university’s signature co-op program, launched new academic units and presided over a radical change in the campus’ physical appearance, has died. He was 88.

Ryder was named the fourth president of Northeastern in 1975 and spent some 40 years at the university in both academic and administrative roles. He began his career at Northeastern in 1949 as an instructor of history and government and was promoted to associate professor of history in 1956. In 1958, he was appointed dean of administration and in 1971 became the university’s executive vice president.

Ryder’s 14-year tenure as president of Northeastern was marked by a dramatic transformation of both the university’s physical campus and academic programs. Over the course of his tenure, Northeastern launched the College of Computer Science, which was later renamed the College of Computer and Information Science, and established nearly two-dozen new academic centers and research institutes.

“Much of the success we have today began under President Ryder’s leadership,” Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, wrote in a memo to the university community.

Ryder championed the value of experiential education and was the driving force behind the World Council and Assembly on Cooperative Education, according to a biographical history of his presidency titled “Coming of Age: The Ryder Years.” By the final year of the Ryder administration, author Antoinette Frederick noted, Northeastern was placing approximately 9,000 students in positions with some 3,000 employers.

Ryder valued classroom learning as much as real-world experience and was explicit in his belief that teaching should be of utmost importance at Northeastern. As a case in point, he established the Excellence in Teaching Awards in 1979, an honor bestowed upon high-achieving faculty.

The physical expansion and beautification of campus were among Ryder’s other top priorities and accomplishments as president of Northeastern. He was determined, for example, to turn the university’s asphalt-covered landscape of brick buildings into a greener campus. In one case, a tarmac in front of Churchill Hall became a garden of azaleas, oaks and rhododendrons.

Ryder also presided over the 1979 purchase of Boston Arena from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Today fans of the Huskies know the building as Matthews Arena and flock to the facility to watch Northeastern hockey and basketball games.

Ryder was tireless in his pursuit of funding to build Snell Library, securing $13.5 million from the Department of Defense and $5 million from trustee and alumnus George Snell to design the $35 million, 240,000-square-foot facility. The library officially opened in the fall of 1990, one year after Ryder retired, but, as Frederick explained in “The Ryder Years,” “It serves as an appropriate symbol for the administration that planned, designed and oversaw its development.”

Under Ryder’s leadership, the university’s Board of Trustees voted to divest from companies with interests in South Africa. In 1988, the Law School became the first American university to grant South African Nelson Mandela an honorary degree. While still in prison, Mandela was granted an absentee Doctorate of Laws for his struggle against apartheid.

Ryder received a bachelor’s degree in history from Boston University in 1946 and a master’s in history from Harvard in 1947. His undergraduate studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. According to Frederick in “The Ryder Years,” he went into active service in 1944 as an officer on a landing craft in the Pacific theater, where he participated in the landing at Okinawa.

His military service shaped the focus of his academic career and his philosophical outlook on resolving conflicts. “It made me realize I never wanted to fight with anyone,” he recalled in “The Ryder Years.” “The war confirmed that sense in me — that issues can be settled by discussion.”