Richard Newton
Richard Newton

Few on campus even knew Richard Newton was sick. Then, suddenly, he was gone. On the second day of 2007, only six weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he died at UC San Francisco Medical Center. He was 55 — far too young, as would be said many times in the coming days. He took over as dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering in 2000, and modernized its outlook as well as its facilities, extended its outreach to the underrepresented as well as its value to the wider society, and upgraded its élan as well as its national rankings. But he wasn’t done yet. Far from resting on his laurels, he seemed rarely to rest at all. His far-reaching plans weren’t all realized yet, which may frustrate him if such things are possible on the next plane, but the legacy he left is monumental.

Though neither he nor anyone there would have wished for it to be happening at all, the January 6 memorial service for Rich Newton, in the largest auditorium on the Berkeley campus, suited him to a T.

It came together quickly, began promptly, fit within the planned time window, revealed the person behind the big job, and exceeded expectations. As Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said, “Had we been able to invite every person whose life Rich touched, we most certainly would have filled Memorial Stadium.” Earlier, telling staff and the public of the death, Birgeneau offered this nutshell description: “Rich Newton was a man of incomparable vision. Dynamic and entrepreneurial, he understood the power of engineering and technology in entirely new ways, and he connected them to addressing society’s toughest problems. He had an unrelenting commitment to engineering for the betterment of society.”

Arthur Richard Newton was a “honeymoon baby,” born July 1, 1951, in Melbourne, Australia, the first of four children.

Very athletic in his youth, he could throw a boomerang and still held, as of 2003, the Victoria state triple-jump record for high school students under the age of 17. He played the very rough Australian-rule football semi-professionally, but eventually “had to make a trade-off between my studies and my sports injuries. Most Sundays, I’d be flat on my back recovering.” He also played basketball, as what we in the U.S. would call a forward, for the University of Melbourne.

There, in the early 1970s and by a fluke, some recalcitrant computer punch cards brought him into contact with a visiting American scholar, for whom they were not behaving. Young Newton helped him tame the cards, launching an acquaintanceship that blossomed into an apprenticeship and then a friendship of many years. The American was Don Pederson from UC Berkeley, already a revered engineering pioneer and a sharp-eyed talent-spotter. Within two years Newton found himself half a world away, on the Berkeley campus as what was then called a foreign student, in graduate school, on the ground floor of a revolution in integrated circuit design.

Former Provost Paul Gray, Newton’s predecessor as engineering dean, was also one of his professors. “To get a picture of what that was like, picture the articulate energetic Rich Newton you all knew as dean, and translate that back 30 years to an even more energetic graduate student sitting in a class that you were teaching. Imagine what that might be like. It was exhilarating, it was challenging, it was a little scary at times. But it was very memorable.”

Newton earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science in 1978, and was appointed to the engineering faculty that same year. “It’s rare for a research university to hire its own grad students immediately following their graduate work,” said Gray, “but Rich was such a brilliant guy, we knew we couldn’t let him get away to one of the institutions we compete with.”

Gray characterized some of Newton’s impact on his field. “Through the subsequent years, the semiconductor industry was fundamentally transformed by the pioneering work that Rich and his colleagues did, both as a graduate student and during the succeeding years as a faculty member.”

“We really wouldn’t have a semiconductor industry or a Silicon Valley, at least in its present form,” Gray continued, “without the array of electronic design automation programs and companies that sprang out of that early and basic work on computer-aided design. It’s one of the foundations of the semiconductor industry. And, in fact, building foundations is a theme that runs throughout Rich’s career.”

More recently, Gray said, as the new century dawned, “the state of California planned to build three science institutes on UC campuses. But the initial concepts for those institutes did not include anything like the CITRIS institute that you’re all familiar with. Rich pretty much singlehandedly developed the vision for CITRIS and then articulated it so passionately and so effectively that he and the campus and the Office of the President administration were able to convince the governor and the legislature to add a fourth institute. And that institute became CITRIS.”

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a letter of condolence, elaborated on that theme, saying that Newton “believed that technology had an almost unmatched capacity to help all people reach their full potential. And this unique vision led him to create the Center for Information Technology and Research in the Interest of Society — CITRIS — in 2001. This innovative public-private partnership has harnessed information technology to tackle some of society’s most critical needs. More recently, Dr. Newton used his forward-looking vision to help launch the UC Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, an effect that is shaping an entirely new scientific discipline, one that carries with it the promise of transforming life as we know it.” (Synthetic biology projects are underway at the Berkeley Center to, to among other things, convert bacteria into chemical factories that will produce anti-malaria treatments for pennies, instead of dollars.)

“Despite having one of the most demanding jobs — as dean — he always made students his priority.” —Omar Bakr, Computer Science Ph.D. Student

“He certainly wasn’t the first to be concerned about the huge inequities in quality of life in the world,” said professor Fiona Doyle, now acting engineering dean. “But most proposals to address this focus on leveling the playing field, which would lower the standard of living for most of us. But Rich’s genius was to recognize that so-called luxuries in the form of technology could be the very tools needed to raise the standard of living for all global inhabitants, without destroying the environment. In other words, rather than everybody becoming a have-not, everybody can become a have.”

Was it all roses? No. A retired engineering professor, Bob Brodersen, recalled in a news story on Newton’s death that there were more changes during the five years he worked under Newton than in the previous 25 years he was in his department. “There’d never been such revolutionary change in how the college does business than happened during the time he was here. It was painful — changing anything inside the university is not easy.” At about the same time,  a note from another retired professor, George Leitmann, was posted on the College of Engineering’s online memory book: “I want everyone to know that Rich was the best dean I have encountered in my 49 years on the faculty. I shall miss him terribly.” Another posting, from engineering assistant dean Michele de Coteau, extolled Newton’s “longstanding commitment to excellence and inclusion for engineering scholars from all backgrounds. He was engaged and accessible, making time to phone prospective freshmen and graduate students, eating dinner in the dormitories with incoming freshmen, and injecting his formidable energy wherever and whenever he could.” (A strong advocate for promoting women in the field, Newton was proud that the number of women on the engineering faculty nearly doubled during his time as dean, from 15 in 2000 to 27 today, and that, as he stated four years ago, “we have more women enrolled at the undergraduate and graduate levels combined than ever before in the history of the College of Engineering.”)

Students also wrote in the memory book. Engineering physics senior Michelle Yong, the current president of the Engineers Joint Council, recalled being in a half-hour meeting with Newton and two ASUC senators and “feeling so inspired by his words, it was like being shot with adrenaline. It made your heart beat faster to get out into the world and serve. He had so much advice to share with us young leaders, but he wasn’t at all the image of an elderly wise man. Dynamic and passionate, he was this almost youthful fountain of ideas, and we just kind of sat there and drank it all it.” Computer science Ph.D. student Omar Bakr had Newton as an advisor. “Despite having one of the most demanding jobs — as dean — he always made students his priority. He would meet with his students more often than most advisors would, to the point that we were the envy of our fellow graduate students.”

“There are a lot of visionaries out there, but when you have a visionary technologist, you understand how technologies can be applied to solve the right problems. Newton was a visionary technologist.”—Dado Banatao, Managing Partner, Tallwood Venture Capital and Chair of the College of Engineering’s Advisory Board

At the memorial, Provost George Breslauer talked about his personal reaction to the man. “Rich, to me, was a force of nature in the best sense. He was a benevolent tornado of a dean. My staff always said that Rich didn’t enter a room, he swept into it. He accomplished more good things in a week than most of us accomplish in a year, if ever. For me, he was a role model, although one who was very difficult to emulate. You could exhaust yourself just by making the effort. You could demoralize yourself by comparing your accomplishments too often to his. And yet because Rich was so friendly, so optimistic, so well intended, so decent and so charitable, you could not possibly feel threatened by the gap between your own accomplishments and his.

“Rich was ecumenical. He wanted everyone to succeed. He wanted everyone to pool their intelligence, their expertise, and their perspectives, in order to devise ways of enhancing the greater good.”

Newton loved teaching and missed it whenever other duties kept him from it. But his urge to make change while the iron was hot, coupled with an entrepreneurial streak, tempted him beyond the confines of campus in various ways. He advised so many colleagues and former students on startup businesses, and understood venture capital so well, that he went from consulting to helping found a number of design technology companies, including SDA Systems (now Cadence Design Systems), Synopsys, PIE Design Systems (now part of Cadence), Simplex Solutions, and Crossbow. For one relatively short period, he was president and CEO of Silicon Light Machines, which was later sold to Cypress Semiconductor.

“Newton had an astute business mind, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from an academic,” said Dado Banatao, managing partner of Tallwood Venture Capital and chair of the College of Engineering’s advisory board. “There are a lot of visionaries out there, but when you have a visionary technologist, you understand how technologies can be applied to solve the right problems. Newton was a visionary technologist.”

“He had an unmatched capability of marrying technical insights with industrial needs,” said his close engineering faculty colleague Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, who also helped found Synopsys and Cadence, the two largest suppliers of tools for computer-aided manufacturing. “He articulated the electronic design automation roadmap 30 years ago — and almost all he said actually happened.”   — Dick Corten

Donations in Richard Newton’s memory will support the study of synthetic biology at Berkeley and graduate students in that field, through an endowed fund to be named for Newton.

More about Richard Newton

Connecting with students, formally or informally: the “benevolent tornado of a dean” congratulates new graduate Heena Patel at last year’s College of Engineering commencement.

(Originally published in The Graduate 2007)

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About Dick Cortén