One of LSA’s most illustrious scholars continues to leave a lasting legacy that will now be recognized in brick and mortar.
On May 19, the University of Michigan Board of Regents approved the renaming of the physics building’s Randall Laboratory addition to the Homer A. Neal Laboratory, after the late LSA professor emeritus, physicist, and higher education leader. The renaming holds symbolic and historic value: This will be the first academic building on central campus named after a Black member of the University of Michigan community.
A native of Franklin, Kentucky, Homer A. Neal thrived in his academic career, earning a Ph.D. in physics from U-M in 1966, during a time of much racial segregation and strife. His work of breaking down barriers in physics is a testament to how creating access for all students could create a culture of excellence for the entire university.
“Homer Neal was a true trailblazer in the liberal arts and his impact is still felt throughout LSA today,” says Anne Curzan, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. “We are elated that the physics building addition will be renamed after someone who meant so much to our college, our campus, and our community, as well as to his academic field. It is much deserved and speaks volumes about his contributions as a scholar and higher education leader. Homer Neal was and remains an inspiration to so many of us.”
Professor Neal, who passed away in 2018, was considered one of the most prominent and well respected scholars in physics. He spent the majority of his distinguished career studying particle spin and polarization, and his work helped change the way research is conducted and gathered in physics.
Two decades after graduating from U-M, Professor Neal joined the LSA faculty in 1987. During his time here, he served as the Physics Department chair and led cutting-edge research, including U-M’s group on the DZero Collaboration at Fermilab. This collaboration discovered the top quark in 1995 and brought the university into the ATLAS Collaboration at CERN, which discovered the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle that contributes to the mass of other fundamental particles such as electrons and quarks.
“The Physics Department is thrilled to honor Homer Neal’s life and achievements by conferring his name upon the state-of-the-art laboratory that his vision helped to create,” says David Gerdes, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics and chair of the Department of Physics at LSA. “Dr. Neal’s pioneering accomplishments as a physicist, national science policy maker, educator, and academic leader make him richly deserving of this lasting recognition. The LSA Physics Department ranks among the top natural science departments in the world today in part because of Dr. Neal’s enduring legacy.”
In addition to his work as a scholar at LSA, Neal served U-M as a high-ranking administrator. He served as the university’s interim president in 1996, as well as vice president of research for three years.
His work also went beyond the university. He was a member of several organizations, including the National Science Board (NSB). He led NSB’s first report on undergraduate STEM education, resulting in the creation of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. To this day, the program provides summer research opportunities for hundreds of college students. He also served on the board of directors for the Lounsbery Foundation and the Ford Motor Company and the Council for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and was the first African American to serve as president of the American Physical Society.