UArizona community remembers inventor, leader and philanthropist James C. Wyant
The founding dean and namesake of the University of Arizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, Wyant founded three successful optics companies, led multiple professional societies and gave more than $30 million to support graduate students and endowed faculty at the college.

James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences and University of Arizona Foundation
Dec. 8, 2023

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James C. Wyant
James C. Wyant, professor emeritus and founding dean of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, passed away on Dec. 8. Jacob Chinn / University of Arizona

Longtime Arizona academic leader and business owner, James C. Wyant, founding dean and namesake of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, passed away Friday, Dec. 8, in Tucson, after a valiant battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). He was 80 years old.

"Jim was a giant in the field of optical sciences," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "His vision and leadership dating back to the college's early years set the stage for what has become a world-renowned engine of innovation and knowledge transfer, as well as an essential training ground for the best and brightest students. Sometimes he would credit his success to luck – I believe the University of Arizona was lucky he chose to build his career here, and to leave a legacy that will ensure the college's success for generations to come."

Professor, dean, business leader and philanthropist. Through all these roles, "Jim" Wyant had a deep and lasting impact on the Tucson community, the University of Arizona and the field of optical sciences.

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The Wyant family (from left): Tammy, Clair and Jim.

An Ohio native, Wyant knew as a young boy that his lifetime dreams would include teaching and entrepreneurship. He attended Case Institute of Technology, now Case Western Reserve University, receiving a Bachelor of Science in Physics in 1965. He then pursued a Master of Science and doctoral degree in optical sciences from the University of Rochester's Institute of Optics, accomplished in 1969. 

With degrees in hand, he started out in industry working for Itek Corp. in Boston. In 1974, he had the opportunity to pursue his dream to teach, joining the University of Arizona as an assistant professor for the Optical Sciences Center (now Wyant College). He quickly reached full professor by 1979.

Yet in his early years of teaching, Wyant could not overlook his long-held desire to take his inventions to market. To satisfy that aspiration, he co-founded WYKO Corporation in Tucson in 1982 while maintaining a part-time teaching role at UArizona. The idea for the company came about after inventing a computerized interferometer for high precision measurements of the roughness and shape of surfaces. Applications included diamond turned mirrors, magnetic storage tape and recording heads of hard disk drives. Veeco Instruments then purchased WYKO in 1997.

In addition to WYKO, Wyant co-founded Tucson-based 4D Technology Corporation and served on the boards of directors of other successful optics companies.

"I took classes from Jim. He was my Ph.D. advisor, my boss, my business partner, my mentor and ultimately my friend," said John B. Hayes, who worked with Wyant at WYKO and collaborated in the establishment of 4-D Technology. "We spent over 40 years working together, and looking back, I realize that no one influenced the course of my adult life more or set higher standards for me than Jim Wyant."

Wyant returned to full-time teaching after the sale of WYKO. Then in 1999, he became the director of the Optical Science Center and led its transition to a college in 2005 as the founding dean. As dean, he oversaw tremendous growth in research, as well as the expansion of the Meinel Optical Sciences building, which added 47,000 square feet of state-of-the-art teaching and research space.

In 2013, Wyant retired but remained active as a professor emeritus. Throughout his teaching career at the University of Arizona, he graduated 34 doctoral students and 25 masters students, many of whom have gone on to be leaders in their fields.

Philanthropically, the Wyant family gave more than $32 million in support of optical sciences faculty and students. In 2013, they gifted $10 million for graduate student scholarships in a matching campaign called Friends of Tucson Optics. The donation brought in 250 additional contributors, resulting in 30 first-year graduate student-endowed scholarships at the college. In 2018, the family pledged $20 million in support new endowed faculty positions, also positioning it with a matching gift offer. This commitment was the largest gift for endowed faculty chair positions in the university's history. With the matching gifts from collaborating donors, and an additional $1 million in funding from the Wyant family, the endowed chair campaign netted $28 million, ensuring support for 14 endowed faculty positions for Wyant College.

In 2019, University of Arizona renamed the college the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences – a decision made in recognition of Wyant's role as founding dean, his dedication to inspire through teaching, his pioneering innovations in optics and photonics and his deeply generous philanthropy to enable education in optics.

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From left: James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences Dean Thomas Koch, Professor Emeritus James C. Wyant, and University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. Amee Hennig

"Jim genuinely cared about people, which is why I believe he focused his philanthropy on students and faculty, the lifeblood of the college," said John-Paul Roczniak, President and CEO of the University of Arizona Foundation. "He also designed his gifts as invitations to other supporters, which increased the impact exponentially. Jim was a man of integrity, and I admire and respect him so much. His generosity will benefit generations of students and researchers – not just at this institution, but his alma maters, Rochester and Case Western, as well."

Wyant's business acumen earned him numerous industry accolades, including the Eller College of Management Entrepreneurial Fellowship, Arizona's "Innovator of the Year" Product Award, the Tom Brown Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award, and the University of Arizona Technology Innovation Award.

A member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors, Wyant has also served as president of both OSA and SPIE – the two major international professional societies in optics. Recognitions for his technical work included awards, such as the OSA (Optica) Joseph Fraunhofer Award in 1992, the SPIE Gold Medal, and the SPIE Technology Achievement Award. He is a five-time recipient of R&D Magazine's R&D 100 Award, as well as a five-time recipient of Laurin Publishing's Photonics Circle of Excellence Award for optical products.

In 2019, Wyant received the SPIE Visionary Award, a highly valued honor that recognizes individuals whose lifetime work has demonstrated exceptional foresight, creativity, advocacy and vision and has furthered the research, development and industries related to light-based technologies.

Then, in 2022, Wyant received Optica's most esteemed award, the Frederic Ives Medal and Jarus W. Quinn Prize, for his pioneering contributions in advancing the science and technology of quantitative interferometric metrology, his leadership as an educator and entrepreneur and his visionary service to the global optics and photonics community. In August 2023, he was named an Optica Honorary Member, a recognition for his exceptional contributions to the global optics and photonics community.

At its 2023 Commencement ceremony, the University of Arizona bestowed an honorary doctorate on Wyant for his extraordinary impact on his field and the university. He also received honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester, Case Western Reserve University and the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics in Puebla, Mexico.

"Jim's commitment to the success of the college and to the field of optics was nothing short of astonishing," said Thomas L. Koch, Dean and Professor, Wyant College of Optical Sciences. "His academic leadership and philanthropic investments ensured that we would continue to grow, and recruit and support the best students and faculty – attracting the top people from around the world to make advances in optics that will improve our lives in unimaginable ways."

"To me, Jim was a mentor and a friend – and I will miss him deeply," Koch added.

Throughout the years, Wyant was passionate runner and hiker. He also was a long-time ham radio operator and enjoyed traveling the world. Wyant is survived by his wife, Tammy, and his son, Clair. His late wife, Louise Wyant, preceded him in death.

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Kaye Rowan

James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences