First UVA Computer Science Ph.D. Graduate and Former President of the National Academy of Engineering Dies at Age 83

He received the University of Virginia’s first Ph.D. in computer science and was one of the first to earn the degree anywhere in the world. Not long after, he became known for his work in programming languages and compilers. But it was his later role in shaping computer science education, research and national policy that defines his legacy today.

William Allan Wulf, AT&T Professor of Computer Science and University professor emeritus in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science, died March 10, 2023, at age 83. He leaves behind his wife and partner throughout his career, Anita Jones. Jones, too, is a University professor emerita of computer science, and the Lawrence A. Quarles Professor of Engineering and Applied Science emerita.

Having co-founded a software company with Jones, led a directorate of the National Science Foundation and served 11 years as president of the National Academy of Engineering, Wulf achieved international renown. At UVA, he was revered for the qualities that helped him reach those heights.

“I remember Bill for his towering intellect, his open and always-friendly manner, his immense dedication to public service, and his conviction that all computer science faculty have gifts to offer both our educational community and the general public,” said Alfred “Alf” Weaver, professor emeritus.

“I have always admired Bill’s maxim of ‘leadership by example,’” Weaver said. “He not only talked about his ideas with regard to research and education, he also invited others to join him in their execution. Bill was an inspiring and charismatic leader who took great pride in the output of group efforts.”

UVA Engineering Dean Jennifer L. West, Nancy and Neal Wade Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering, said Wulf’s impact has been incalculable.

“Bill Wulf’s contributions not only to the field of computer science, but also to engineering research, education and practice, have made the world a better place.”

Portrait of William Wulf, UVA AT&T Professor of Computer Science emeritus

As president of the National Academy of Engineering, UVA AT&T Professor of Computer Science emeritus William Wulf gave the Online Ethics Center a home at the academy, which maintained the center until it moved to UVA Engineering in 2020.

‘Two Love Affairs’

Wulf earned his Bachelor of Science in engineering physics in 1961 and his Master of Science in electrical engineering in 1963 from the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, where he acquired two loves: computer science and teaching.

“Those two love affairs have shaped the rest of my life,” he told interviewer Jeffrey Yost for an oral history conducted by the Charles Babbage Institute in 2015.

Keen to assuage both passions but not looking for a tenured faculty position, he applied to teach at the mere 12 universities in the country that he knew had computing facilities. Only two considered hiring him without a Ph.D. One was UVA, which he joined in 1963.

At that time, there was no computer science department at UVA, so Wulf joined the applied math faculty.

But Alan Batson, an applied math professor who in 1960 was behind buying the computer that brought Wulf to UVA, and Robert Hunter Owens, who led the applied math division, had ideas. In 1964, Owens sent a proposal to the engineering dean, Lawrence Quarles, for a new Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, which would offer only graduate degrees in the beginning.

Owens became the new department’s first chair and Batson its first computer science professor — and under Owens’ persuasion, Wulf became its first Ph.D. student, earning his degree in 1968.

Wulf studied under Batson, who became a lifelong friend, mentor and colleague.

After receiving his Ph.D., Wulf joined the computer science faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, where he met and married Jones, who earned her Ph.D. there and served on its faculty.

At CMU, Wulf was involved in the development of C.mmp, a multiprocessor system for which he and his students designed the software, known as Hydra. Hydra was written in BLISS, or Bill’s Language for Implementing System Software, a programming language later adopted by Digital Equipment Company.

The couple left CMU in the early 1980s to start Tartan Laboratories, a software company based on his research. Tartan was sold to Texas Instruments when UVA recruited Wulf and Jones back to academia in 1988.

Wulf took leave during his first two years at UVA to serve 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. In addition to guiding the research, education and public policy directions of a nascent field, one of Wulf’s major achievements at the NSF was facilitating the transition of government-built computing networks to eventually become the internet we all use today.

Back to Charlottesville

In 1990, Wulf returned to UVA, where Jones was already leading the computer science department as chair.

“It was a dream come true when Bill joined the department and I had the opportunity to work with him on compilers and computer architecture,” said UVA professor Jack Davidson. “Bill was one of my heroes when I was an undergraduate computer science major in the 1970s.”

Davidson recalled using BLISS-10 to write system software for his part-time job in college.

“I was fascinated with the code and how the compiler worked,” said Davidson, who pursued his Ph.D. and research areas because of Wulf’s compilers and a book he co-authored called “The Design of an Optimizing Compiler.”

Within two years, Wulf’s impact on the undergraduate program — which had conferred its first bachelor’s degrees in 1977 — was felt when he and several colleagues led an NSF-funded effort to revise the curriculum.

“Bill’s idea was that computer science, like the other sciences, should have closed laboratories where students did active learning,” Davidson said.

“This curriculum development and dissemination effort had a tremendous impact on our department — it put us on the map — but it also had a major impact nationally and globally as this mode of teaching undergraduate computer science became the standard and continues to this day,” he said.

A Proponent of Diversity and Ethics

Arguably Wulf’s talent and devotion to uniting people for a purpose — for better engineering, better policy and a better society — is his greatest contribution.

“Bill often said, ‘It is better to build bridges than walls,’ and he lived his life accordingly,” said UVA professor emeritus Gabriel Robins.

Examples of this include Wulf’s promulgation of “collaboratories,” a term he coined for computing environments built to support collaboration among researchers in separate locations, and UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, which he and Batson helped create in 1992.

This institute’s visionary founders wanted to provide the information technology tools of the future — which were not then routinely accessible to everyone — to arts, humanities and social science scholars to pursue their research.

Algorithmically composed image of more than 2,000 UVa-related photos

This image is algorithmically composed of more than 2,000 UVA-related photos to illustrate William Wulf’s influence on computer science, engineering and UVA. Click here to zoom in on the individual photos. Created by Gabriel Robins.

Wulf also was an “early and steadfast proponent of inclusivity and diversity in all of its forms,” and he had a holistic approach to engineering, research and invention that was prescient, Robins said.

Nowhere was this more evident than in his tenure as president of the National Academy of Engineering, a body that helps guide the nation on engineering and technology matters.

Emphasizing ethics and diversity, he established the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society at the academy, which in turn provided a home for the Online Ethics Center, a digital library for resources on ethics in engineering. The center moved to UVA in 2020.

Regarding the need for diversity, Wulf was adamant. He argued that engineering requires creativity, which comes from making unexpected connections between things we already know — in other words, creativity is constrained by life experiences.

“As a consequence of a lack of diversity, we pay an opportunity cost, a cost in designs not thought of, in solutions not produced,” he said in an NAE address.

Margaret Martonosi, the current assistant director of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation — the same position Wulf held at the NSF — said she will always remember the way Wulf talked about diversity when he was the NAE president.

“At a time when the research community was not as far along as it now is in recognizing the benefits of diversity and the need to work on it proactively, Bill spoke forcefully on the topic,” said Martonosi, the Hugh Trumbull Adams ’35 Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. “His willingness to be out in front and outspoken on the issue helped me and other early-career untenured folks like me to feel welcome in the field. And, in time, to be outspoken ourselves.”

Sandhya Dwarkadas, the Walter N. Munster Professor and chair of UVA’s Department of Computer Science, also has seen the impact of Wulf’s advocacy in her field and the department she now leads. 

“Bill’s commitment to fostering innovation through inclusion continues to serve as a guiding principle within our department,” she said.

Given the impact of Wulf’s leadership, it’s no surprise his list of honors and associations is long.

In addition to membership in the NAE, he was a fellow of nearly every major professional society in his field, as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Philosophical Society, and he was affiliated with national academies across the globe. He also helped establish the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine, modeled after the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and he was a founding trustee of Egypt’s New Library of Alexandria.

Wulf was awarded five honorary doctorates, including from Carnegie Mellon; authored more than 100 papers and three books; held two U.S. patents; and supervised more than 25 Ph.D. students in computer science.

Among his numerous prestigious awards for research, education and public service, Wulf revealed in the Yost interview that the Association for Computing Machinery’s Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award was the most meaningful to him, in part, because of two early mentors: Batson and Lloyd Fosdick at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign.

“[They] made me realize the impact that an individual faculty member can have on the whole life of a student,” Wulf said. “Ever since I became a faculty member, that has sort of been my gold standard.”

‘Man of Many Talents’

As prolific as Wulf was in his professional life, he was also an avid woodworker and gardener.

“He made some amazing furniture,” said longtime colleague James Aylor, Louis T. Rader professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering and dean emeritus of UVA Engineering.

Wulf and Aylor helped establish the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine, of which Aylor now serves as president.

“He was a man of many talents who enjoyed doing things outside of his accomplishments as an academic and scholar,” Aylor said.

Wulf’s humor was legendary, too, with his penchant for self-deprecating one-liners and willingness to be part of the joke. In 2008, Paul Reynolds Jr., now professor emeritus, discovered Wulf’s dissertation was unsigned. Reynolds organized a “Recall Bill Wulf” event asking Wulf to re-defend his thesis 40 years later, with some of his original committee members, including Batson, grilling him in front of a large audience of students and faculty.

“What this event shows is that the department could have a good time, and that it loved Bill, and Bill loved the department,” Reynolds said.

Wulf also loved the University and the principles of academic freedom, which he felt came under assault in 2012 when a few members of the Board of Visitors forced the removal of then-President Teresa A. Sullivan. He resigned in protest and was one of the most influential voices in the wave of faculty and student support that resulted in Sullivan’s reinstatement.

For Kim Gregg, the computer science business unit manager with 32 years in the department, processing Wulf’s passing has been hard.

“Bill Wulf was one of the most gracious people I have ever known,” Gregg said. “He seemed to always live in the moment, and that translated into someone who accepted everyone for who they were and what they brought to the table.

“When he was working through a problem or just needed to think, he would walk up and down the hallway in Olsson Hall and, later, Rice Hall,” she said. “Bill had a profound impact on the field of computer science, but he also had a profound and lasting impact on all of those who knew him.”

In addition to his wife, Wulf is survived by his 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.

A memorial service is being planned for later in the year. The family has asked that tributes be directed to the National Academy of Engineering or UVA Engineering to support activities that Wulf cared about deeply and worked to promote, including women in engineering, diversity in engineering and engineering education.