Former Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost, John Brighton, dies


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —John Brighton, former executive vice president and provost, died on June 28, 2021, after a long struggle with dementia. He was 87.

Highly sought after as a top-academic administrator in the United States, Brighton served from 1991 to 1999 as executive vice president and provost at Penn State. He was the second individual to hold the title of executive vice president and provost in Penn State’s history. The position was created in 1983 by then-President Bryce Jordan. Brighton changed roles in 1999 to serve as a University professor and chair of the Teaching and Learning Consortium until 2003.

Brighton originally joined the University in 1965 as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and earned the rank of associate professor in 1967, which he held until 1977. In that year, Brighton joined Michigan State University as chair of its Department of Mechanical Engineering, and subsequently took on a director role in 1982 for the School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Brighton returned to Penn State in 1988 as dean of the College of Engineering, a position he held for three years prior to his role as executive vice president and provost for Penn State.

As a researcher, Brighton — who held bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering — was widely recognized as the lead engineer on fluid mechanics for Penn State’s artificial heart, which is still in use today. Additionally, Brighton served as the founding editor of the Journal of Biomechanics, authored dozens of research papers and held numerous patents.

“From his humble roots, John Brighton is an incredible example of excellence in academic pursuits that led to an abundance of accomplishments and outstanding leadership in higher education overall,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “John served Penn State in various capacities and he not only helped the University in times of need, but beyond, as many of his inventions are still in use today. John’s life and work have not only influenced our University, but also impacted our nation.”

At Penn State, colleagues described Brighton as “inclusive,” “supportive,” “passionate” and “committed.” Colleagues also cited Brighton for his leadership in strategic planning, steadfast commitment to diversity and dedication to improving education at Penn State. Importantly, during his time at Penn State, Brighton helped to implement the School of Information Sciences and Technology, which is now one of Penn State’s 12 academic colleges at the University Park campus.

As chair of the University’s Future Committee — a now disbanded group designated to strategically reallocate funds to strengthen Penn State’s core missions — Brighton aided individual colleges and units to focus on high-priority areas for reinvestment of funds. Notably, the Future Committee was responsible for cutting costs and reallocating $30 million over a three-year period of reductions in state funding in the early 1990s.

Brighton left Penn State to join National Louis University as provost in 2003. From National Louis University, the National Science Foundation (NSF) appointed Brighton as the assistant director of the NSF directorate for engineering. He managed an annual budget of $540 million and pursued workforce diversity for women and minorities in engineering fields.

After the NSF, Brighton was named vice president for research at Iowa State University in 2005. In 2008, he took on the role of vice chancellor for academic affairs and system integration in the Ohio Department of Education.

Before his leadership at Penn State, he held faculty positions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Carnegie Mellon University and Purdue University.

Born in 1934 to John and Esther as one of seven children, Brighton began his educational career at a local community college and later received admission at Purdue University, where he earned three degrees. Surviving Brighton are his wife of 19 years, Cheryl Achterberg, who served as founding dean of Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College from 1997-2005; daughter, Jill; sons, Kurt and Eric; and numerous other family members.

A public memorial service will occur at Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service - Northwest Chapel in Columbus, Ohio, from 4 to 6 p.m. on July 16. The family requests donations to Compassion and Choices or American Humanist. In addition, individuals may plant trees in Brighton’s memory and share their memories or condolences with the family online.


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