Donald N. Langenberg, a career academic who during 12 years as chancellor of the University System of Maryland oversaw 11 colleges and universities, including the University of Maryland, College Park, and brought the system “national eminence,” died Jan. 25 of an aortic aneurysm at his Dickeyville home.
He was 86.
“Don Langenberg was a man of great integrity. What you saw was what you got. He was a man of his word,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992.
“He believed in education and the role of education transforming lives and how it strengthened the economy of Maryland. He had a generous spirit and a keen intellect. I was always inspired by Don Langenberg,” he said.
“He had depth and breadth, and there was nothing glitzy about Don Langenberg. He was all substance,” Mr. Hrabowski said. “He had a way of being honest and [was] an authentic person. Don was a cerebral thinker and could show an amazing amount of compassion and could feel for other people.”
William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who Dr. Langenberg persuaded to come back to Maryland after serving a four-year term as president of Ohio State University, succeeded him as chancellor upon his retirement.
“He served the system very well and he was highly regarded by the presidents for his intellect and his commitment to higher education, which was one of his major interests,” Dr. Kirwan said.
“Don was an iconoclast who grew up in a traditional educational environment. That was his background,” he said. “He was always trying to do innovative things in education, and was an early advocate of online education and technology in the classroom.”
Donald Newton Langenberg, who was born in Devils Lake, N.D., was the son of deaf parents. His father, Ernest Langenberg, was an educator who taught printing at the North Dakota School for the Deaf, and his wife, Fern Langenberg, was a homemaker.
When he was 3, he was sent to his Iowa grandparents to learn English, and when he was 4, he began school in a one-room schoolhouse. After completing second grade, he returned to Devils Lake, where he graduated in 1949 from Devils Lake High School.
In 1953, he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Iowa State University, and a master’s degree in physics in 1955 from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in 1959 from the University of California, Berkeley.
An expert in superconductivity, condensed matter and low-temperature physics, Dr. Langenberg began his teaching career in 1960 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also served as director of the Laboratory for Research and the Structure of Matter, and was vice provost for graduate studies and research.
Dr. Langenberg had also taught and collaborated at the University of Oxford, the Ecole Normale Superieure, the California Institute of Technology and the Technische Universitat Munchen.
President Jimmy Carter appointed him deputy director of the National Science Foundation in 1980, and three years later, Dr. Langenberg was named chancellor of the University of Chicago, a position he held until 1990, when he became chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
Dr. Langenberg took over a job that was created by Maryland after it reorganized its higher education system in 1988.
He succeeded chancellor John S. Toll, who had resigned in 1989, after frequently clashing with the Board of Regents over priorities and mission of the system as a result of its major reorganization of state higher education.
“You couldn’t have had a more directly opposed style of leadership,” recalled Dr. Kirwan. “Johnny Toll was high-energy and very hands-on. He wanted to be president and provost of every institution, while Don was low-key, very thoughtful, and highly unobtrusive with an institution’s leadership.”
What Dr. Langenberg accomplished while chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago later became a blueprint for what he brought to Maryland.
He worked diligently to build campus “self-esteem and foster a sense of partnership among faculty and the downtown Chicago community,” The Evening Sun reported at the time of his appointment to the UM system.
While in Chicago, he oversaw a reluctant merger in 1982 of a health science campus with an urban university.
“He did something people thought would do him in: He brought together the two campuses,” Carol Berthold, assistant chancellor at the University of Illinois, told The Washington Post in a 1990 article. “There was a lot less friction over it than people thought there would be. A lot of that was due to Don.”
“This system [Maryland] needs to know how to make its parts work closely together in a clear path,” Dr. Langenberg explained to The Evening Sun in 1990. “A common understanding of a clear mission is one of my early challenges.”
“During that time, the system budget nearly doubled to $2.7 billion. Ditto the chancellor’s salary, to $340,000,” The Sun reported in a 2002 profile of Dr. Langenberg.
“Langenberg earned it. The 1988 legislation created a job without power over the individual campuses, but one charged with leading the Maryland system to ‘national eminence, with each component fulfilling a distinct and complementary mission.’ ”
“He brought a great deal of educational experience to Maryland, and he understood what it meant to stay on course, focused, and sticking to it,” said Dr. Hrabowski, who came to UMBC as vice provost in 1987 from Coppin State College, where he had been a professor of math and dean of arts and sciences.
He was selected interim president of UMBC by Dr. Langenberg in 1992, and became president later that year.
“Don and the board made my first presidential appointment and he gave me a great deal of support and told me, ‘You can do this.’ He was a leader of leaders, and he could empower people. He believed in what the system could do for the state.”
“At times during Langenberg’s tenure, the system seemed more like a national battle, with each component firing missiles at the others. But the 11-campus system appears well on its way to eminence,” The Sun observed at Dr. Langenberg’s retirement in 2002.
“Indeed, there’s a national buzz about the Maryland system, particularly its professional schools in Baltimore, its flagship in College Park, its burgeoning online University College and its brash UMBC. Give Langenberg a fair share of the credit,” the newspaper reported.
“Don was the right person for the system’s evolution,” Dr. Kirwan said. “He worked very hard to make the system more than the sum of its parts. He was always looking for ways to build collaboration and strengths of the individual institutions.”
“He believed in young people, diversity, and inclusion of underrepresented groups,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “His moral compass was strong, and when it moved in a certain direction you knew it was the right thing to do.”
In addition to bringing unity to the Maryland system and fulfilling the Board of Regents’ quest for “national eminence,” The Sun said in a farewell editorial, “he succeeded to a degree few would have predicted. Perhaps not incidentally, public support followed the new atmosphere of comity and discipline. A bit of bottom-line evidence: Total annual giving to the system rose from $30 million when Chancellor Langenberg arrived to $150 million today.”
In retirement, Dr. Langenberg spent time at a second home in Queenstown in Queen Anne’s County. He also was a book collector and enjoyed photography.
“He liked to read about World War II and the history of Germany. He was an eclectic reader of nonfiction and fiction,” said his wife of 65 years, the former Dr. Patricia Ann Warrington, who had been professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 2 at the University of Maryland Medical School’s Leadership Hall, 655 W. Baltimore St.