In Hennessy, the grad that keeps on gifting

The giver: Already a big-time Stony Brook University benefactor, computer-science legend John Hennessy has established SBU's new John L. Hennessy Endowed Professorship in Computer Science.

One of Stony Brook University’s highest-achieving graduates is paying back his alma mater in a big way.

Former Stanford University President John Hennessy, who earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at SBU in the 1970s, is personally endowing a new computer-science professorship at Stony Brook, using prize money he earned as a recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2017 Turing Award.

The award, given to honor major contributions to the computer-science field, is generally recognized as the highest distinction in computer science – even regarded in some circles as “the Nobel Prize of computing.” Hennessy and fellow honoree David Patterson earned the distinction in April for their circa-1980s work on the reduced instruction set computing system.

Hennessy will use the funds from his share of the Turing Award (a $1 million prize, in this case shared by Hennessy and Patterson) to establish the John L. Hennessy Endowed Professorship in Computer Science at SBU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The endowment will support the chosen professor’s research and other academic activities – including research performed by the professor’s graduate students, according to SBU, which cites “a cause near and dear to Hennessy’s heart.”

As a graduate student, “I desperately needed financial aid,” Hennessy recalled, noting he “couldn’t pursue my dream of getting a PhD without that financial aid.”

He got the help he needed, and the rest is a heaping helping of computer-science history. Earlier this year, Hennessy was named chairman of the board at California-based conglomerate Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company), marking the latest achievement in a lengthy and well-documented career.

Great minds: Hennessy (left) and co-Turing Prize winner David Patterson, back in the day.

The scientist co-founded both MIPS Computer Systems (now part of Wave Computing) and Atheros (now part of Qualcomm). Prior to serving as Stanford University’s 10th president (he stepped down in 2016), the “godfather of Silicon Valley” logged time as director of Stanford’s Computer System Laboratory, chairman of the university’s Department of Computer Science and dean of its School of Engineering.

In addition to the prestigious Turing Award, Hennessy is a forthcoming winner of the Semiconductor Industry Association’s Robert N. Noyce Award, the semiconductor industry’s highest lifetime-achievement honor (he’ll claim that prize in November). And in 2012, he earned the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Medal of Honor, the IEEE’s top honor.

Earlier this year, he was inducted into the SBU College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, giving a full-circle sheen to one of computer-science history’s most illustrious bodies of work.

“I still think of my graduate-student days as some of the happiest days of my life,” Hennessy noted. “I came in every morning energetic, excited to be there and looking forward to what we might get done that day – to the conversations I would have with the faculty and my fellow graduate students.”

The establishment of the John L. Hennessy Endowed Professorship in Computer Science adds to a long list of donations Hennessy has made to SBU and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Among other efforts, the scientist has already gifted more than $300,000 to the Hennessy Endowed Graduate Fellowship Fund.

In 2016, he also helped establish Knight-Hennessy Scholars, an international graduate-level scholarship program facilitating study at Stanford University and “the largest fully funded scholars’ program in the world,” according to SBU.

It all adds up to “a legacy of excellence and singular achievement,” according to Fotis Sotiropoulos, dean of SBU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“The best part is that he’s far from done creating his legacy,” Sotiropoulos added in a statement. “His passion for and commitment to educating future global leaders and entrepreneurs inspires us, and is exactly what we strive to emulate here at Stony Brook.”

According to the Stanford president emeritus and living computer-science legend, such efforts are necessary to keep schools like SBU and Stanford thriving – and to help their students succeed, before graduation and after.

“Universities are about the people,” Hennessy said. “They’re about that incredible mixing of students and faculty.”

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