Professorship: Donald Biggar Willet Professor of Engineering
Donald Biggar Willett (1897-1981) attended the U of I from 1916 to 1922, but left the university just a few hours short of earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. During the 1930s, Willett moved to Los Angeles and opened a tax accounting business. He died in 1981 at age 83. His wife, Elizabeth Marie Henning Willett, was an avid investor who accumulated a fortune. She knew that her husband admired the U of I College of Engineering for its thriftiness and honesty, so in her will she left a gift to the college for research in memory of her husband. Mrs. Willett died in 1993 at age 91. The purpose of the Willett Professorships is to increase the distinction of the College and its departments by recognizing and stimulating intellectual leadership and outstanding research.
Faculty: Narendra Ahuja
ECE Professor Narendra Ahuja was among the three College of Engineering faculty honored as the first Donald Biggar Willett Professors in a campus ceremony September 30, 1999. At the ceremony, ECE Professor Seth Hutchinson introduced Ahuja by describing Ahuja's ability to see research questions from unique perspectives. "Narendra's approach to research is not driven by the quest for new factual information," said Hutchinson. "Instead, it is driven by curiosity about nature, life, humanity and a love of beauty. I've heard him say things about poetry as compelling as anything he's said about technical matters."
Ahuja is the recipient of a Presidential Young Investigator Award, and he is both an IEEE and AAAS Fellow. He has been an ECE faculty member since 1979.
In his acceptance remarks, Ahuja described how he made his decision to come to U of I after he completed his PhD at the University of Maryland 20 years ago. "After a two-day interview...I realized that in addition to its academic reputation, I wanted to come to [U of I] because I sensed it had the right interpersonal environment to nourish growth."
The time since his arrival at the U of I has not altered Ahuja's perception of the atmosphere. "Some of the colleagues who hired me are themselves not here," Ahuja said. "The north campus looks vastly different than it did 20 years ago. But, while the trees have changed, the forest looks the same. My sense about the interpersonal relationships has become my experience. Collegiality lives on. Teaching innovation continues."