Professorship: Donald Biggar Willett 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: Janak Patel
ECE Professors Janak Patel was among the three College of Engineering faculty honored as the first Donald Biggar Willett Professors in a campus ceremony September 30, 1999. ECE Professor Ravi Iyer introduced Patel at the ceremony by describing Patel's career as one of steady innovation. "It is a characteristic of each of Janak's publications that each has had a major impact," said Iyer. "Janak is not satisfied with just a brilliant research idea, but he sees that some key aspect of this is transferred to industry. His early work on delay insertions in pipelines inspired software scheduling in compilers, which is very important in superscale microprocessors."
Among Patel's achievements are delta networks, which Iyer described as "arguably the first asynchronous interconnection networks," and the Illinois Protocol, a cost-effective solution for data consistency in multiprocessor cache memories. All of these innovations became important for industry.
In his remarks, Patel thanked his colleagues and family. "I have been fortunate to have a wonderful group of colleagues here at Illinois," he said. "I was lucky to have a very supportive family. My parents had very little schooling, but my father was successful in business. [He] had a reputation of being a very stingy person with money. But one important exception with his reluctance to spend money was our education."
Patel saw a similarity between his family history and that of the Willetts. "The key words to the story of my parents are `thriftiness' and `investment in education.' And the same key words show up in the biography of the Willett family. In the spirit of this investment, I will use the professorship to support more graduate students whom I hope will return the investment in the future to this institution."