San Diego State University's emergence as a full-fledged research institution occurred under the leadership of its sixth president, Thomas B. Day, a theoretical physicist.

During Day's tenure from 1978 to 1996, SDSU rose from the ranks of regionally recognized institutions into the tier of national universities with research-intensive portfolios. The number of joint Ph.D. programs grew from two to nine; external research funding advanced from $14.7 million in 1980 to $66 million in 1995; and SDSU directed resources to hire growing numbers of post-doctoral researchers.

To acknowledge Day's contributions, SDSU will name a section of the new Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex for him. The Thomas B. Day Quad is designed as an open area for students and researchers in the building to encounter one another informally and share their work—a literal collision course for sparking new ideas.