The board voted unanimously to hire Peterson, 56, at a specially called meeting. He was the only finalist from a national search to replace longtime President G. Wayne Clough, who left in June to lead the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., after serving since 1994.
"As an engineer, this is, of course, great professional fulfillment," Peterson said in a phone interview. "Georgia Tech is at the forefront of innovation and discovery at a time in our nation's history when both are a great necessity. I'm privileged to be a part of these efforts."
Peterson, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, is a former NASA researcher who headed the flagship campus of the University of Colorado system since 2006. He was picked from a pool of 38 applicants to lead the 19,000-student Georgia Tech, formally known as the Georgia Institute of Technology, though no other candidates for the job were made public.
University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis said Peterson will provide the "high caliber leadership that will allow Tech to continue to build and expand upon its national and international reputation."
He was scheduled to be on the Georgia Tech campus Wednesday afternoon to meet students, faculty and staff during a reception. He is expected to take office April 1.
Peterson will make $440,000 a year in salary, with $150,000 in deferred compensation and $12,000 in car allowance. New Georgia State University President Mark P. Becker makes $550,000 a year, and University of Georgia President Michael Adams, who has been in office for 12 years, makes $420,300 annually.
Peterson has a long history of work in engineering, including a stint at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a researcher in the early 1980s and multiple university teaching jobs. He started his career at Texas A&M as an assistant professor of engineering in 1981 and worked his way up to associate vice chancellor in 1996.
During that time, he also served as a program director for the National Science Foundation. In 2000, he moved to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he was provost, or chief academic officer, until 2006.
It was then he took the job as chancellor at the 32,000-student CU-Boulder, arriving just after a spate of national scandals marred the reputation of the campus. CU System President Elizabeth Hoffman had resigned the previous year after a sexual assault scandal in the football program and after a professor, Ward Churchill, ignited a national firestorm by likening some Sept. 11 victims to Nazis.
Peterson helped calm upset donors, increasing fundraising by 80 percent. He also increased federal research money by $14.1 million to $280 million from 2007 to 2008, CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard said.
"He's been a very stabilizing force, both within the university and in relationship to the community," said Stein Sture, vice chancellor for research and dean of the graduate program at CU-Boulder. "We are very sad to see him go."
Peterson received his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Kansas State University and his Ph.D. from Texas A&M. In the late 1970s, he worked as a high school math and science teacher.
Peterson and his wife, Val, have four grown children.