Edward Crawley, the charismatic U.S. professor who has headed the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) since its founding, on Friday officially handed over his duties as president to his Russian successor, Dr. Alexander Kuleshov.

Edward Crawley, left, handing over the Skoltech bell to his successor Alexander Kuleshov. Photo: Sk.ru

Crawley, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was key to the creation in 2011 of Skoltech, a graduate research university attached to the Skolkovo Foundation.

“You are all founders of this place,” Crawley told a crowd of students, professors and representatives of the foundation packed into a lecture hall at Skoltech for the informal handover ceremony.

Crawley thanked the students and professors for their help with “the human drama of building a university in Russia from scratch.” By way of a farewell speech, he recalled a list of ten “firsts” that the university had seen since its founding, ranging from the first group of 20 students who “stepped into the void” by enrolling for a university that was back then little more than a website, to the first doctoral examination, which took place just a day before the handover ceremony.

“You became our academic father,” said Dmitry Smirnov, the subject of that examination, who completed a master’s and PhD at Skoltech and was in the university’s first year of graduates.

“You were always very close to us and responsive to talk to. You guided us not only as a science mentor, but as a friend,” said Smirnov. His words were reflected in a collection of photos of Crawley’s time at Skoltech that his colleagues had turned into a montage set to the Aerosmith song “It’s Amazing.”

Crawley, who will retain the honorary title of founding president, was presented with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by Skolkovo’s senior vice president for external communications, Alexander Chernov, who urged the professor to go outside and fly the UAV – which was designed by Skoltech students – whenever he thought of Skoltech from his office in MIT, the partner institute of Skoltech.

“You are not leaving this university, but staying on as the founding president,” said Chernov, adding jokingly that Crawley had called on his Russian partners to be “more professional and committed than we had ever dreamed.”

Alessandro Golkar, an assistant professor at Skoltech, praised his colleague for “founding a university from scratch in difficult times,” recalling how he had passed up several other enticing job opportunities after being persuaded by Crawley to work at Skoltech in Russia – “a country to which, I should point out, I had never even been,” laughed the Italian.

“I believe you once said you wanted to unite the Russian and U.S. space industries,” said Golkar. “Well, you may well have achieved this.”

Crawley congratulated his colleague and friend Kuleshov on his appointment before handing over to him the bell rung at the start of academic year, along with a symbolic key to the university, but – “because we’re a science and tech university” – with a more modern device attached to it: a USB stick containing Skoltech’s founding documents.

Kuleshov, an expert in information technologies and mathematical modelling who has served on Skoltech’s board for four years, said the position was both a “big honour and an enormous responsibility.”

“For me personally, the main slogan of Skoltech is ‘a school for the gifted.’ Russia has plenty of gifted young minds now,” he said.

“Any establishment is remembered for its founder – not for those who came second and third,” said Kuleshov, who is also director of the Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“It is impossible to overestimate the contribution of Ed,” he said. “Ed did a great job.”

Students and staff of Skoltech pose for a group photo on Friday. Photo: Sk.ru