Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 5, 2000

A pioneer in computer architecture climbs the university's leadership ranks

John Hennessy's career is steeped in the academy, and most of it has been spent at Stanford.

Hennessy, 47, grew up in Huntington, Long Island, New York, and attended Catholic high school. In remarks last November as part of the "What Matters to Me and Why" series in Memorial Church, he said he draws upon his Catholic religious background for "quiet reflection and inspiration, when difficult decisions keep me up late at night." He added that at his high school he was exposed to a broad knowledge of a wide variety of religions that has helped him understand the different approaches and motivations of people of different faiths.

Hennessy received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University in 1973. He received his master's and doctoral degrees in computer science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1975 and 1977, respectively.

In the fall of 1977 he joined Stanford as assistant professor of electrical engineering, rising to associate professor in 1983 and full professor in 1986.

In 1981, Hennessy initiated a project at Stanford that focused on a simpler computer architecture known as RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer), a technology that has revolutionized the computer industry. In addition to his role in the basic research, Hennessy played a key part in transferring this technology to industry. During a sabbatical leave in 1984-85 he cofounded MIPS Computer Systems, now known as MIPS Technologies, which specializes in the production of microprocessors.

Hennessy credits his time at MIPS with giving him an appreciation for the world of business and the significance of leadership.

"It taught me about the importance of the people you work with and the importance of leadership, about being able to achieve things that do justice to the people on the front lines," he said. "I think of leaders as servants of their constituents."

In recent years, Hennessy's research has focused on building high-performance computers and in making such machines useful to a wide variety of potential users. One goal is to make computer cycles so inexpensive that massive amounts of computer power can be applied to solve problems ranging from large-scale scientific simulations to simple sensory tasks such as speech recognition.

Hennessy currently serves as chairman of the board of directors of T-span, and he also has been on the technical advisory boards for Tensilica, Microsoft and Virtual Machine Works.

Although he said his outside business experience has been of exceptional value, he has always returned to the university. "In my heart of hearts, I like being an academic and I like working with students," he said.

Soon after taking the helm of the School of Engineering in 1996, Hennessy oversaw the development of a five-year plan that resulted in a major new thrust in bioengineering and biomedical engineering. In 1999, Silicon Graphics and Netscape cofounder Jim Clark, Hennessy's former colleague in the Department of Electrical Engineering, donated $150 million to the university to further that effort. The donation will fund the Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.

"The whole notion of biology becoming this foundational science for lots of different disciplines is something that we can build on in a unique way," Hennessy said at the time. "Recent discoveries in genetics and cellular biology, coupled with strides in computing and miniaturization of devices, will provide incredible opportunities for advances in biomedicine, bioengineering and bioscience. The breakthroughs will be at the intersection of biology and other science and engineering fields. Stanford has world-class programs in all of these areas, and interdisciplinary work is already under way."

As dean of the School of Engineering, Hennessy also pledged to encourage the spread of computer technology as an instructional and design tool. He oversaw the development of the first online master's degree -- in electrical engineering -- offered by a major research university.

In 1999, President Gerhard Casper tapped him for the job of provost -- the university's chief academic and budget officer -- a post he has held since July with responsibility over more than 1,600 faculty members, about 13,000 students and an annual budget of $1.5 billion. He succeeded Condoleezza Rice, who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

Earlier this year Hennessy was named a co-recipient of the prestigious John von Neumann Medal awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, of which he is a fellow. He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He was a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator in 1984.

He has lectured widely and published scholarly papers on a range of topics. He has co-written two textbooks that are used internationally: Computer Organization and Design: The Hardware/Software Interface (1993; second edition 1998) and Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach (1990; second edition 1995).

Hennessy and his wife, Andrea, and their two teen-aged sons live in Atherton. The family plans to move into Hoover House after the presidential residence undergoes repair work. SR