Mike Zisman ’70 honors professor who changed his life

Professor William L. Luyben and chemical engineering alum Mike Zisman

Mike Zisman ’70 (right) with the professor who changed his life, William Luyben.

Great faculty change students’ lives. They bring subjects to life, broaden thinking, and provide students with a strong foundation of knowledge on which to build. Professor William L. Luyben is one such faculty member who changed the life of Mike Zisman ’70, founder and co-CEO of Golf Genius Software. Zisman and his wife, Linda Gamble, recently made a $2.5 million gift to endow a faculty chair in honor of Luyben, his chemical and biomolecular engineering professor and a Lehigh faculty member since 1967.

The chair will initially be called the Zisman Family Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Upon Professor Luyben’s future retirement from Lehigh, it will be known as the William L. Luyben Chair, with the chairholder embodying the qualities of Professor Luyben as “an exemplary teacher, mentor, and distinguished researcher.”

“This brings closure to a 53-year journey,” Zisman said. “When I came to Lehigh, I was not a particularly good student my first two years. I remember how Professor Luyben pulled me aside one day and said, basically, ‘Shape up or ship out.’ It changed my life — I just woke up and thought, ‘Well, maybe I should try studying. Maybe that would make a difference.’ And I made the dean’s list after that.”

Luyben further impacted Zisman’s life and career trajectory by introducing his students to the use of computers for simulation. “I loved doing those simulations,” Zisman recalled. “It helped me realize that I really loved computer programming.”

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and working briefly at DuPont, Zisman went on to earn a master’s in systems engineering and a doctorate in decisions sciences from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a faculty member at the Sloan School of Management at MIT until 1979 when he founded Soft-Switch, a company that, in a pre-internet era, allowed users of different computer brands the ground-breaking ability to email each other.

Soft-Switch was acquired by Lotus Development Corporation in 1994, with Zisman serving as CEO. A year later, IBM acquired Lotus, and Zisman stayed on until his retirement in 2004 as vice president of corporate strategy. In 2009 he founded Golf Genius, a cloud-based software system that helps golf professionals manage leagues, tournaments, and events.  

“I thank Mike and the Zisman family for this honor,” Luyben said. “I like the expression, ‘I touch the future — I teach.’ I think that’s applicable in Mike’s case. I also want to thank Lehigh for providing the faculty with students we can challenge and encourage.”

President Joseph Helble, himself a graduate of Lehigh’s chemical engineering program and former student of Luyben’s, thanked Zisman for his incredible philanthropy and said the gift in honor of Luyben is proof that “what the faculty and staff do at Lehigh makes a huge difference in shaping the future.”

“We are grateful to Mike Zisman and Linda for this generous, impactful gift for the university,” said Nathan Urban, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Chairs such as this one are incredibly important to us as a university, to attract and retain the very best faculty, to give them the kind of support and resources that they need to carry forth and excel in Lehigh’s research and teaching missions.”

A former Lehigh trustee, Zisman served on numerous committees during his tenure. He was part of the Rossin College Advisory Council and was inducted into Leadership Plaza in 2009.

“I often tell people I'm a product of my education,” Zisman said. “I got an incredible grounding at Lehigh and a great foundation in analytical, critical thinking. But I think Professor Luyben had more impact on my life than anybody. And I'm grateful.”

— by Cynthia Tintorri