William Wulf

December 8, 1939March 10, 2023
Obituary of William Wulf
William Allan (Bill) Wulf passed away in Charlottesville, Virginia on March 10, 2023. Wulf was a pioneering computer scientist, president of the National Academy of Engineering from 1996-2007, and AT&T Professor of Computer Science and University Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia. He was 83. An only child with a father who contracted Parkinson’s and was disabled early, Wulf 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.” He was mentored by an extraordinary teacher when he transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana where he earned both a BS in engineering physics and MS in electrical engineering. The opportunities he had there, including as a teaching assistant, kindled in him a lifelong love of teaching and of computer science. He would go on to earn a Phd in Computer Science– one of the first dozen or so in the world in that then-entirely new field–at the University of Virginia in 1968. From UVA he joined the faculty at the Computer Science powerhouse at Carnegie Mellon University, to lead a directorate at the National Science Foundation, back to a prestigious appointment at UVA, and then to the presidency of the National Academy of Engineering. He always said 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. At CMU, he began the research that would inform a startup he founded in Pittsburgh with his wife and fellow computer scientist Anita Jones, Tartan Laboratories. Tartan was later acquired by Texas Instruments, who wanted the Tartan technology to enhance their specialized, high speed computer products. Through Tartan, Wulf was a leader in Pittsburgh’s evolution from a steel town to a high tech mecca; he was recognized for his role in the establishment of the city’s High Technology Council. As Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Division of Computer and Information Science and Engineering in the critical years of the late 1980s, Wulf helped catalyze and oversee the process of converting the early military network (the ARPAnet) into the beginning of today’s Internet. First, he facilitated the transfer of the ARPAnet out of the defense department to an NSF-managed research network accessible to civilian science and engineering researchers. Then he worked with Congress, and Senator Al Gore, to craft legislation that made it possible for the public to access that network. At NSF he was also responsible for operating the National Supercomputer Centers. Making high performance computing resources affordably accessible made it possible to pursue lines of science and engineering research that otherwise could not be addressed. Wulf’s presidency of the National Academy of Engineering was described as having “reinvent[ed the] NAE to serve the nation and engineering profession after a period of organizational turmoil.” Determined to advance engineering diversity, education, and ethics, within the framework of engineering service to national concerns ranging from critical communication and transportation infrastructure to climate challenges, Wulf increased the tempo, membership (particularly women and from business), and the advisory products of the NAE. The whimsical website Engineer Girl, was launched in 2001 to attract the interest of young girls in engineering, is one example of his initiatives. He chaired the board of the Anita Borg Institute which advocates for and inspires women in technological fields. Throughout his career Wulf emphasized both the importance of collaborative work and of diversity in engineering. He is credited with having coined the term and defined 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.” With his own Phd mentor-then-colleague Alan Batson, he was instrumental in the creation of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVA. He wrote and spoke about the challenge for engineering of having too much of a “pale, male, pocket-protector guy” image, and he emphasized that, as a creative endeavor, engineering needed the full wealth of diverse human experience and perspectives. He was widely recognized for his accomplishments and contributions. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He was a foreign member of engineering societies in Japan, Russia, Venezuela, and Spain and was a founding trustee of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the “new” Library of Alexandria in Egypt. He was also a fellow of the ACM, IEEE, AAAS, and AWIS. He held honorary doctorates from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Connecticut, the Colorado School of Mines, New York Polytechnic University, and Missouri University of Science and Technology. He was the recipient of the ACM Policy Award, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Ralph Coats Roe Medal, the ACM Karl Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award, and the American Association of Engineering Societies Kenneth Andrew Roe Award in addition to the NAE Simon Ramo Founders Award in 2021. He authored over 100 papers and technical reports and three books, and held two US patents. As Wulf moved through this series of professional experiences and positions, he always loved teaching– he considered himself a teacher first. When he left Navy Pier for college, and when he went on to graduate school it was with a career in teaching in mind. He was immensely proud of the many undergraduates he taught and the roughly 25 graduate students he mentored at CMU and UVA. He also collaborated on research projects with graduate students, including his first PhD, the late Charles (Chuck) Geschke, co-founder of Adobe Systems. In 2017 the ACM described him as “the complete computer scientist, a passionate researcher and teacher but first and foremost an educator.” He remained close with many of his students. Having experienced its benefits and having invested his career in and alongside higher education, he was enormously proud of the American system of research universities– the world’s greatest, he would often say. He returned to UVA from the NAE, but resigned in protest in 2012 in the uproar over the board’s firing of then-president Teresa Sullivan (whom they then reinstated). He called out the business mentality of the board, noting that just as General Motors should never be run by a board of all academics, an excellent academic institution should never be run by a board without academic experience. At campus rallies, appreciative signs called him “Our Hero Wulf.” When he wasn’t working or traveling, Wulf was often woodworking, a hobby he described as “cutting big boards into little boards.” In fact he crafted furniture, following generations of builders and wood-workers in his mother’s family as he had followed his father into engineering. He was also an avid gardener and photographer; he especially enjoyed the equipment of these avocations, equally enthusiastic about a tractor for turning mulch or a new lens. He is survived by his beloved wife, Anita Jones, daughters Ellen Wulf Epstein and Karin Wulf, sons-in-law Steven Epstein and Christopher Grasso, and grandsons Henry and Abraham Epstein and John and Ethan Lofgren. Wulf will be interred at the University of Virginia Columbarium. A memorial service is being planned for later in the year. The family asks that tributes be directed to the National Academy of Engineering or to the University of Virginia School of Engineering to support activities that Bill cared about deeply and worked to promote, such as women in engineering, diversity in engineering, or engineering education.

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