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BY CAMERON H. FLETCHER AND ED LAZOWSKA
WILLIAM ALLAN WULF, former NAE president, died March 10, 2023, at age 83. With vision, intellectual rigor, and a quiet confidence, he led the NAE from 1996 through 2007. He consistently demonstrated ...
WILLIAM ALLAN WULF, former NAE president, died March 10, 2023, at age 83. With vision, intellectual rigor, and a quiet confidence, he led the NAE from 1996 through 2007. He consistently demonstrated his passion for engineering and his dedication to advancing the technological welfare of the nation, and he established an enduring legacy of service to the NAE, to engineering education, to engineering practice, and to the nation. His thoughtful engagement earned him the trust and respect of all who were fortunate to know and work with him.
Bill stepped up as interim president of the NAE at a time of institutional turmoil. Under his steady hand and wise statesmanship, the Academy emerged stronger in its mission, programs, and stature. His vital contributions to the stability, growth, programs, and reputation of the NAE earned him the abiding appreciation and gratitude of his peers.
He was born December 8, 1939, to Otto and Helen (Westermeier) Wulf, and grew up in Chicago. An only child with a father who contracted Parkinson’s and was disabled early, Bill attended the Navy Pier campus, a two-year undergraduate division of the University of Illinois at Chicago. He would later say he went to Navy Pier “because I could afford it,” and often remarked that he was lucky to be born in a country that could take a kid from such a modest background to the heights of a new and exhilarating profession—computer science.
Bill transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, earning a BS in engineering physics in 1961. In his final undergraduate year, he took a course in computer science from Professor Lloyd Fosdick. Bill often said that with that course he “fell in love with teaching and with computer science.” Though he did not intend to go to graduate school, when Fosdick invited him to be a teaching assistant, Bill stayed and earned an MS in electrical engineering (1963) in large part to be the teaching assistant.
After receiving his MS, Bill applied for a teaching position at the small number of universities he was aware of that had a computer at that time, and accepted a position at the University of Virginia. The faculty later invited him to work toward a PhD, and he became UVA’s first computer science PhD—and among the first dozen or so people in the world to earn a PhD in computer science.
Bill then joined the computer science faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. He designed the BLISS programming language and developed a groundbreaking optimizing compiler for it. He was a member of the design team for an early multiprocessor, C.mmp, and led the development of its Hydra operating system, a capability-based, object-oriented microkernel designed to support a wide range of guest OSs.
He authored two influential books—it was a time when computer science education was being defined at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, with Bill and CMU among the leaders—as well as a multitude of research papers. With his wife, Anita K. Jones (NAE 1994), he cofounded and served as president of Tartan Laboratories, a compiler technology company that was based on the highly optimizing compiler technology that he had developed.
The University of Virginia recruited Bill to its faculty in 1988. His first two years were spent on leave at the National Science Foundation as assistant director of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate. It was a delicate assignment, as CISE was then just two years old. Bill left his mark in many important ways. For example, he facilitated the transfer of ARPAnet out of the Department of Defense to the National Science Foundation as NSFNET, which made the network accessible to the NSF research community, and then worked with Senator Al Gore on legislation to open access to the network more broadly, leading to today’s global internet.
Returning to UVA as the AT&T Professor of Computer Science and University Professor, Bill returned to his first love: teaching and mentoring. His influence at UVA, as at Carnegie Mellon, was pervasive.
Throughout his career he emphasized the importance of collaborative work. He is credited with coining the term and defining the concept of a collaboratory: a “center without walls, in which the nation’s researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location, interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries.”1
With his UVA PhD mentor-then-colleague Alan Batson, Bill was instrumental in the creation of the university’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), one of the earliest digital humanities activities. It provided digital scholars with the computing environment that would be broadly accessible a decade in the future. This required not only a vision for the future role of technology but also insightful computer science leadership because judicious decisions had to be made about compute power, database functionality, and technical support of a magnitude that was highly unusual in the humanities at the time. IATH had a major impact in history, English, and a range of other fields.
In 1996 Bill again took leave from UVA, this time to become president of the NAE. He restored the stability of the Academy, rekindled the interest and confidence of the members in its mission, and fortified the reputation of the NAE both in the National Academies and on the national scene. He cultivated a strong partnership with NAS president Bruce Alberts to reestablish the NAE as an equal partner in the Academies, strengthening both the NAS and NAE.
He was a dynamic advocate of the critical role of engineering and technology in addressing US and global social, political, and economic issues; in national and homeland security; in globally sustainable development; and in quality of life. And he was a tireless promoter for the US engineering research enterprise as essential to the nation’s economic well-being and global competitiveness.
A hallmark of Bill’s life was a scrupulous sense of justice, ethics, and integrity. It infused his leadership style, and contributed to his championing of the advancement of women in computer science and in engineering, and his views on diversity. He was an eloquent and highly principled advocate of engineering education, public technological literacy, active consideration of ethics in engineering, and diverse representation and participation in engineering.
He was instrumental in bringing an explicit focus on ethics to the NAE’s work, with the 2007 transfer (by request from Case Western Reserve University) of the Online Ethics Center to the NAE website. It became the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society, and Bill was an active member of its advisory committee (2007–13). This center was the foundation for the current NAE program on Cultural, Ethical, Social, and Environmental Responsibility in Engineering (CESER).
Bill’s thoughts on the consequences of the lack of diverse representation in engineering were articulately conveyed in his oft-quoted 1998 article in The Bridge,2 in which he explained that the range of design options considered in a team lacking diversity will be smaller.... the constraints on the design will not be properly interpreted.... the product that serves a broader international customer base, or a segment of this nation’s melting pot, or our handicapped, may not be found.... the most elegant solution may never be pursued…. [B]y failing to attract a diverse engineering workforce, we diminish what engineering can contribute to society, and society pays an opportunity cost.
He initiated the Celebration of Women in Engineering in 1999, and the NAE’s signature EngineerGirl website debuted in 2001 to showcase the appeal, relevance, and fun of engineering for K-12 girls (and boys). EngineerGirl now includes an annual writing contest and in-person local engagement through an Ambassadors Program for high school girls.
He testified before the congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development,3 addressing what he called a concern “that is, if not unique to engineering, at least more serious for engineering than some other professions: the incorrect image that society has of engineering and engineers…. the mistaken notions that only [mostly white] men can be engineers and that engineering and engineers are boring.” Among other things, he called for engineers and engineering programs to “Create public service announcements that use the words ‘engineering’ and ‘fun’ in the same sentence.”
Under his leadership the NAE took a prominent role in defining the necessary attributes of US engineers to compete and lead in the global economy. The Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education (CASEE) was created in 2003 to work with the engineering education community to make engineering education more relevant to the needs of employers, university programs, graduates themselves, and society at large.
Bill also enhanced the NAE’s international engagement, for example by supporting the expansion of the Frontiers of Engineering Symposia to bilateral series with Germany and Japan. He saw the potential of global collaboration among fellow engineers and engineering academies to help foster peace, security, and sustainable development.
In the mid-2000s, amid a growing sense of urgency about the role of energy in US economic vitality, national security, and climate change, Bill led the NAE Council in developing a major joint NAE/National Academies energy initiative, America’s Energy Future: Technology Opportunities, Risks, and Tradeoffs.
Bill also understood the importance of publicly recognizing engineering excellence and contributions. He pursued the establishment of major NAE awards such as the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize (1999) for outstanding achievement in an engineering field that contributes to the advancement of science and engineering, improves quality of life, and has widespread application or use; and the Bernard M. Gordon Prize (2001) for the development of new educational approaches to engineering, with a focus on innovations such as curricular design, teaching methods, and technology-enabled learning that strengthen students’ capabilities and desire to grow into leadership roles—awards whose goal was not only to recognize achievement but also to advance the recognition of engineering. In the latter vein, he was instrumental in the creation of the 2003 book A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements that Transformed Our Lives,4 which documented the value of engineering to the life of the average citizen and laid the groundwork for the NAE’s Grand Challenges initiatives.
Bill returned to the University of Virginia in 2007, at the conclusion of his second term as NAE president. Throughout his career he taught and led by principled example. Two illustrations bookend his academic career.
Bob Colwell (NAE 2006) remembers approaching him for advice about the selection of his CMU ECE PhD thesis topic. Although Bill was at the time a young CMU computer science faculty member, “He made me feel like a peer, a trusted colleague, not the green newbie grad student I actually was. I was floating on air for a week afterwards. And I then understood that Bill’s approach to dealing with others was the only way to go, and that if I was ever in a position of authority, I would treat everyone I ran across as an equal, not because that’s the most effective thing to do (although it is), but just because it’s the right thing to do.”
Decades later, Bill’s final act as a University of Virginia faculty member was to resign, in protest over the conduct of the UVA Board of Visitors in removing President Teresa A. Sullivan in 2012, which he called “the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen.”5 Sullivan was reinstated after the ensuing revolt on campus, but despite entreaties from Sullivan and others, Bill refused to “unresign,” writing “I was delighted by the reinstatement of Terry Sullivan—but that, in my view, didn’t fix the underlying problem! As my original message noted, my wife and I have extensive experience in both executive positions and board positions in industry, academia, and government—we’ve seen the executive-to-board relationship from both sides, and in multiple contexts—and my judgment is that the current [Board of Visitors] is incompetent to govern UVA!” 6
Generous and dedicated as a volunteer, Bill was exceptionally active in service to the NAE and the National Academies. For example, he chaired the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (1992–96) and was inaugural chair of the Division Committee on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2001–07). He also served on the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society Advisory Committee (2007–13), Committee on the Case for International Sharing of Scientific Data: A Focus on Developing Countries (2010–12), Committee on Counterterrorism Challenges for Russia and the United States (2002–08), and Forum on Information Technology and Research Universities (2002–06), among others.
In addition to his election to the NAE in 1993, Bill was elected as an international member of societies corresponding to the NAE in China, Russia, Romania, Spain, Venezuela, Australia, and Japan, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In 2021 he was selected to receive the NAE’s Simon Ramo Founders Award, “For outstanding accomplishments in academia, government, and industry and reinvention of the NAE to serve the nation and engineering profession after a period of organizational turmoil.”
Bill is survived by Anita, their daughters Ellen Wulf (Steven) Epstein and Karin Wulf (Christopher Grasso), and four grandsons.
1 The National Collaboratory: A White Paper. In Towards a National Collaboratory, the unpublished report of an invitational workshop at Rockefeller University, March 17–18, 1989.
2 Diversity in Engineering. The Bridge 28(4):8–13.
3 Testimony to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development, Committee on the Diversity of the Engineering Workforce, July 20, 1999.
4 A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives. Washington: Joseph Henry Press.
5 Wulf resignation letter, June 19, 2012
6 U-Va. Professor: Why I won’t unresign. Washington Post, July 30, 2012.