REMARKS FOR KAILATH RETIREMENT CELEBRATION
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 8, 2001
JAMES F. GIBBONS
First I want to say what an honor it was for me to be asked to speak at this celebration. The Electrical Engineering Dept at Stanford has, for nearly all of its 75 year history, been universally regarded as one of the very best departments in the country, if not the world. To earn that reputation we have often had to create completely new programs as new opportunities arose. More often than not, we have done that by hiring new young faculty who had the energy and imagination both to build these programs, and to help existing faculty in modifying their programs to take advantage of the new developments.
One of those opportunities materialized in 1949, when Claude Shannon published his famous paper on the mathematical theory of communication. A little over ten years later Stanford placed its bets in this field on two young faculty members: Norman Abramson and Tom Kailath. The result, driven especially by TK from then until now, was the creation of a program in information and control system theory that is second to none and absolutely critical to the stature of this department.
I have had the rare privilege of observing the development of that program from its beginnings, so I know how deeply indebted we are to Tom: for his enormous contributions to his field, to the EE Department, to the School and to the University. Tom, you are without doubt a fully complete example of what an EE faculty member at Stanford can do and be.
I should stop there; but I decided to look back into the records to see more precisely how this came about. I thought this audience might enjoy a few snippets that I have taken from various papers and reports that have chronicled Tomís early life among us.
I will start with the somewhat unusual terms under which Tom came to Stanford. In a letter bearing the date of March 20, 1962 from the then-Dean Joseph M. Pettit to Dr. Thomas Kailath we read:
"Dear Dr. Kailath: I have been regretting that I was out of town at the time you visited Stanford, and I still look forward to the pleasure of meeting you. I have asked Norm Abramson to see if the three of us might get together for lunch in New York City on the 29th and hope that this will be possible. He will make the arrangements.Ē
Wonderful! Lunch in New York with a new faculty candidate that you want to impress. Dean Pettit always was very smooth. He then proceeded as follows:
"In reviewing our salary situation for 1962-63, we have decided to modify our offer to you, placing the starting salary at $9,000. As you must realize, this is higher than our normal starting salary for Assistant Professors, but we feel you have unusually good qualifications."
The meeting in New York occurred as planned. That meeting then led to an internal memorandum from Dean Pettit to the EE department chairman, Hugh Skilling, dated April 2, 1962, in which Dean Pettit said:
"On March 28th I met with Norm Abramson and Dr. Kailath in New York City with a view to encouraging the possibility of Dr. Kailath joining our faculty. He seemed genuinely interested and pleased at the increased salary that I extended two weeks ago."
I donít know what Dean Pettit expected, but if this was an IQ test, Tom passed it with flying colors.
Dean Pettit went on to say:
"I have the impression now that he is leaning more towards Berkeley than towards CalTech, principally because there is more evidence and future prospect of a sizeable group in the communication field at Berkeley. He was very concerned as to whether we planned to increase the activity at Stanford beyond Abramson and himself, and if so to what extent.Ē
Ah yes, here we have another IQ test, this time given by the candidate to the Dean.
Pettitís response was vintage Deanspeak: "I told him that I couldnít really say; that the department had not made any attempt to answer that specific question, but I would put the question to them when I returned."
The answer from the department was, to put it simply, a very closely qualified maybe.
The next letter in the appointments file is from Tom to Professor Fred E. Terman, Provost. This letter is dated May 4, 1962, and reads as follows:
"Dear Professor Terman: I wanted to thank you for your courtesy and patience during my visit to Stanford last week. I do feel that Stanford is one (italics mine) of the more attractive universities to be at but I should like to wait a few weeks before making a final decision. Sincerely yours."
So much for the generous salary incentive. Tom was evidently not fully persuaded that Stanford was clearly the place he should go, based in part on what he seemed to interpret as our uncertain commitment to the field.
What follows next is some documented evidence of high IQ on the negotiation front. Appointment papers for Tom Kailath are forwarded to the Provostís office under the date line of April 24, 1963. That is essentially one year after Tomís letter to Fred Terman. However, the appointment is not for an assistant professorship; it is for the position of Acting Associate Professor starting in September 1963. So Tom never was an Assistant Professor. And in June of 1964, papers are again forwarded proposing the appointment of Tom as a full Associate Professor for a five year term beginning in September 1964.
In supporting this latter appointment, John Linvill wrote as follows to President Wally Sterling:
"Dr. Tom Kailath came to Stanford with an Acting Associate Professorship in Electrical Engineering in the fall of 1963. His promise as a researcher in the field of communication theory justified his first appointment at a rank above Assistant Professor. The appointment was made Acting on the basis of a lack of experience in teaching in an educational institution. At this point, the Department strongly recommends the appointment of Dr. Kailath to an Associate Professorship for a period of five years. Dr. Kailath has played an especially important role in the creation and teaching of a set of specialized but very important courses in communication theory. He and Professor Abramson, his closest colleague, have established a strong curriculum for Stanford in the communication theory field. In addition, his knowledge of the general field of linear systems has contributed to a course taken by virtually all graduate students in Electrical Engineering.
So here is the first evidence of the enormous impact that Tom is going to have. . [ Note to new faculty: you might have realized that no evidence was given to show that Tom actually was a good teacher, though of course he was. The appointment process was more relaxed then than it is now, not with regard to quality, but with regard to a formal proof of it. Please be advised that Bruce could not support your case for promotion with such a simple statement regarding teaching experience these days. You have to prove the quality of your teaching through such things as the Tau Beta Pi evaluations, and submit those with your papers].
The external letters supporting Tomís appointment make special reference to the fact that Tom had generated approaches to solving problems in the field of communication theory using techniques of discrete mathematical modeling and matrix algebra, saying that this approach has enjoyed conspicuous success in the community and led quickly to very broad generalizations. The referees agree that Tom ranks as an international spokesman in his area of expertise and is one of the truly bright minds in the field. This is in 1964, friends, when Tom was 29 years old.
I will conclude this voyage through Tomís appointment papers with those that propose promotion to Full Professor. These are dated May 8, 1968, a short four years after his appointment to Associate Professor. Now the letters of reference say that Tom has established himself as the countryís acknowledged academic leader in several fields. In particular, one of Tomís references says that his work on feedback channels is "one of the three most important contributions to information theory since the original work of Shannon."
This reference also mentions that the work is not only of theoretical importance, but is being actively pursued in new space systems designs where the theory of feedback channels is essential to the design of future command systems.
So Tomís appointment to Full Professor occurred in the year that he was 33 years old.
In 4+ years, he had built an information systems laboratory with a very considerable reputation, despite the early departure of his friend Norm Abramson for a more relaxed Hawaiian life. He had led searches for two extraordinary faculty, Tom Cover and Bob Gray; he had created a highly regarded industrial affiliates program for ISL; and he had seen 12 students through their Ph.D. work, students who have since made their own significant contributions, both to Stanford and to the field.
Rather than continue to follow Tomís mind boggling career to its present state, I will skip ahead to a single point, quoting from a note that I attached to my request to Tom for his Faculty Summary for the Academic Year 1985-86. I wrote as follows:
ďDear Tom: I very much appreciate your taking time to fill out the attached form carefully. I know from past experience that you will be overly modest, especially where service and collegial support are concerned. I also know that the categories of this report can give only a partial summary of your contributions to the School. In particular, they will miss completely the goodwill and generous spirit that you bring to everything you do. You will always have my thanks, my very best wishes and my warmest regards. Sincerely."
That was true then, it is true now, and it will always be true Tom, whatever you may do next.
This faculty will always be in your debt and it is a great pleasure for us to acknowledge it with this celebration.