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Faculty Senate chair describes trajectory of his academic career

Raymond E. Levitt, who joined Stanford's faculty in 1980, is the Kumagai Professor in the School of Engineering, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment  and chair of the 45th Faculty Senate.

L.A. Cicero Raymond E. Levitt, professor in the School of Engineering, is the chair of the 45th Faculty Senate.

Raymond E. Levitt, professor in the School of Engineering, is the chair of the 45th Faculty Senate.

A framed black-and-white photograph of "Spaceship Earth" – the iconic geodesic sphere in Walt Disney's Epcot theme park in Florida – hangs on the wall in Professor Raymond E. Levitt's office at Stanford.

It is a tribute to Levitt's father, a structural engineer who emigrated to the United States from South Africa to work on the 18-story sphere, which opened in 1982.

"I'm sure my decision to go into civil engineering as an undergraduate was partly influenced by a father who loved his work and who took me out on construction projects almost from the time I could walk," said Levitt, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. His second-floor office in Y2E2 looks out over a landscaped plaza and Stanford's latest construction project, the Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering Building – the final building in the new Science and Engineering Quad.

Levitt, who is the chair of this year's Faculty Senate, also followed his father's example by finding work he loves – teaching and doing research at a university, even though, as he says he "bumbled into" an academic career.

"As I finished my doctorate at Stanford, I began talking to companies, thinking I would get a job in industry," said Levitt. "But they said to me, 'we can't use you. You've got a PhD. You want to be a professor, don't you?' I really didn't know anyone who was a university professor, other than the professors I had been exposed to as a student. It had not been the game plan. But as it turned out, there were all sorts of interesting jobs open when I graduated."

He took the job offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held for five years before returning to the Farm in 1980.

Levitt, who was born and raised in Johannesburg, earned a bachelor's degree in his hometown at Witwatersrand University. But it was Cape Town, which he described as "the most beautiful city I know in the world," that captured his heart.

After graduating from college, he worked in Cape Town for a Dutch marine construction company that was building a dock for supertankers.

It was a project that would pique his interest in the field that would later become his specialty: creating computer simulation tools to model and predict how an organization – such as a construction firm, a utility or a satellite launch vehicle maker – could best work on projects that needed to be done very rapidly.

"The Dutch firm working on the harbor project had absolutely brilliant PhD engineers who were patenting all kinds of engineering inventions, but who couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag," he said. "I thought to myself, 'there's got to be somewhere I could learn to engineer the work process in a more systematic way.'"

That place was Stanford, where Levitt earned a master's degree in civil engineering in 1973 and a doctorate in construction engineering and management in 1975. His dissertation focused on what construction companies could do – through polices, practices, training and incentives – to improve worker safety on construction sites.

"I became something between an applied social scientist and an engineer," he said.

In 1988, Levitt co-founded the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, which has developed computerized tools to improve the process of planning, designing, building and operating sustainable facilities as a joint project of the Computer Science and Civil Engineering departments.

"It was a joy to be able to hook up with organizational theorists and computer scientists to do what I wanted to do, which was to build organizational engineering tools," he said. "You don't build a bridge and see if it stands up. You model it in a computer and test it and tweak it and adjust it until the one in the computer works, and then you build the real one."

He said computer simulation tools also can predict where an organization will fail.

On a project that must be done quickly – such as repairing electrical facilities after an earthquake – workers often escalate issues faster than the first or second level managers can handle them and coordination breaks down, Levitt said.

"The simulation tool we developed models the direct work that people have to do, as well as the supervision and coordination that is required, what we call hidden work," he said. "It sees who is going to become swamped by the combination of the tasks they're directly responsible for, plus supervision and coordination. It's inspired by structural analysis tools that engineers use to test whether a building will stand up."

Or, in the case of Lockheed Martin Corp., which sought Levitt's advice, whether a launch vehicle would successfully send a television satellite into orbit. The simulation was so successful – it correctly predicted the four-month launch delay and failure of a critical component from an outside supplier – that the company urged him to commercialize the technology.

Levitt launched Vité Corp. to commercialize and sell the simulation software in 1996. He served as chairman and chief executive officer from 1996-97. He returned to Stanford in 1998, after turning over the reins to a Stanford alumnus. Four years later, ePM LLC, a consulting firm, acquired the company's SimVision software.

Levitt said he realized he didn't have the temperament to run a company, adding that he likes managing research projects that have a beginning and an end.

"Managing an ongoing organization – that's not my bag," he said.

He also missed being a professor and working with students.

"I missed the teaching and I especially missed the PhD students working on long-range problems, instead of worrying how to pay this month's salaries or fix this bug in the software and whatever else you do as the CEO," he said. "I like developing new ideas, not just trying to sell already existing ideas."

In 2003, Levitt founded the Global Projects Center (GPC), which is focused on finding ways to help governments and policymakers better understand the role that the private sector can – and even should – play in the development of public infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges and civic buildings.

"Rich countries have underinvested in maintaining their infrastructure and poor countries don't have enough money," said Levitt, who is the center's director.

"We need to renovate and expand our infrastructure. Poor countries need to build theirs from scratch. In some cases, governments lack the financing ability to invest in infrastructure, especially now. In other cases, they lack the technical expertise to do it well. There is a group of international firms and financial investors – including pension funds and sovereign wealth funds – that are really keen to invest in and help deliver public infrastructure projects, because they offer long-term, relatively high, inflation-adjusted paybacks. 

"GPC brings together faculty from engineering, social and management science from around the campus and the world to develop theory and tools that can help bridge these gaps in capacity and financing."

At Stanford, in addition to working with PhD students, Levitt also teaches a freshman seminar, "Designing Organizations for Global Projects." Last year, he returned to his beloved Cape Town during winter quarter to teach the course to students enrolled in the Bing Overseas Studies Program who were working on public service projects with local governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Levitt, who served on the Faculty Senate's Steering Committee last year, said the experience gave him a good look at how the senate functions.

"I was very surprised and honored when my colleagues voted me to be chair," he said. "It's been very interesting to take a deep dive into university governance and see how the place is run."