Former Michigan State University President John DiBiaggio died Feb. 1 at the age of 87, university officials announced Thursday.

DiBiaggio was a first-generation college student who grew up in Detroit and went on to become president of three universities, including MSU, where he was the school's top official from 1985 to 1992.

Many leaders depicted DiBiaggio, MSU's 17th president, as a champion for excellence, ethical decision-making and high professional standards.

“Along with Spartan Nation, I am sad to hear about the loss of former President John DiBiaggio," said James Blanchard, Michigan’s 45th governor, former ambassador to Canada and an MSU alumnus. "We all have fond memories of him and his commitment to MSU. We have lost a champion of higher education and of this special Spartan community that we all care for.”

MSU Trustee Melanie Foster said that DiBiaggio "was driven by the highest standards of professionalism in higher education."

"He was a tireless worker committed to enforcing ethics and gender equity in college athletics, and he had a charismatic personality that resonated with students," Foster said.

MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. joined others in hailing DiBiaggio's leadership.

“John DiBiaggio was a true advocate for inclusion, service to others and, most of all, equitable access to higher education," said Stanley. "His legacy is still felt on the banks of our Red Cedar and will be for generations to come."

DiBiaggio's tenure at MSU was marked by achievement as well as controversy.

When he stepped down in May 1992 to become president of Tufts University in Massachusetts, DiBiaggio said he wanted "either a long-term contract or simply a statement by the board affirming what we had done and saying I'd be here for a long period of time." The MSU Board of Trustees had offered him a one-year contract extension.

At the time he took the job at Tufts, DiBiaggio had just finished a two-year battle with  head football coach George Perles for control of the university's athletic department. The trustees had backed Perles over DiBiaggio in 1990 when the football coach asked to also take on the athletic director's job. At the president's urging, a new board voted to strip Perles of his athletic director duties in fall 1991.

According to Detroit News archives, DiBiaggio launched an ambitious capital fund-raising drive in 1988 that had amassed more than $200 million by the time he resigned, including a $20 million donation DiBiaggio helped coax from Eli Broad, a California businessman and MSU grad.

DiBiaggio also helped calm racial tensions when African American students held a sit-in at MSU in the late 1980s and was credited with rekindling the backing of the university's far-flung alumni. 

He achieved many firsts for MSU, such as the campus inauguration of the K1200 Superconducting Cyclotron, the world’s highest-energy continuous beam accelerator and a precursor to the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

 He also worked to promote MSU's land-grant mission.

"As President of Michigan State University, John DiBiaggio was a passionate advocate for land-grant universities and the important role they play in research and service to others," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing. "Under his leadership, the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory — the predecessor of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams — was created. In these ways and so many more, Dr. DiBiaggio's legacy lives on."

Prior to coming to MSU, DiBiaggio was president of the University of Connecticut from 1979-85. He was president of Tufts from 1992-2001.

According to MSU archives, DiBiaggio was the son of Italian immigrants. He graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1954 and the University of Detroit School of Dentistry in 1958. He also earned a master's degree from the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan.

He practiced dentistry in New Baltimore and held faculty and administrative posts at the University of Detroit, the University of Kentucky and Virginia Commonwealth University, according to the MSU archives. 

Following his career as a higher education president, DiBiaggio consulted with other college presidents and executive directors of higher education associations. He also served for two terms on the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees.

Lawrence S. Bacow, the 29th president of Harvard University and 12th president of Tufts, said he was fortunate to have succeeded DiBiaggio at Tufts.

"He was extraordinarily generous with both his time and his wisdom, and he gave me great advice that I have passed on to many people over the years: Always do the right thing," Bacow said. "That simple imperative shined through in John’s leadership of three of the country’s great universities. American higher education is stronger today for his many efforts, and I am proud to have known him and to have called him not only a mentor and a colleague but also a friend.” 

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