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​Jim Gibbons ‘modeled what it means to be a dean at Stanford’

​At a recent event, colleagues, former students and other well-wishers celebrated this electrical engineer and former Stanford Engineering dean.
Jim Gibbons, left, helped lay the foundations of electronics at Stanford. | Jose Mercado/Stanford News Service

Members of the Stanford and Silicon Valley electronics community gathered recently at the Huang Engineering Center for “Gibbons Fest,” a celebration of the life and career of professor emeritus and former dean of the School of Engineering James Gibbons.

Featured speakers included Persis Drell, former dean of the Stanford School of Engineering and now Stanford provost; current Stanford Engineering Dean Jennifer Widom; and Professor Jim Plummer, who preceded Drell and Widom in leading the school. Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry also took to the podium, along with several engineers who had been Gibbons’ students dating back to the late-1950s and 1960s heyday of his electrical engineering lab.

It was a fete Gibbons himself was at first reluctant to accept.

“I don’t like to draw attention to myself, but Bert Hesselink said he was going to do it whether I wanted to or not,” Gibbons said with characteristic self-deflection.

Hesselink, the longtime electrical engineering department colleague who chaired and organized the event, explained why he wanted to do it: “Jim’s innovative thinking, deep understanding of complex issues and ability to translate difficult subjects into simple messages, always with incredible energy and enthusiasm, are legendary.”

Former PhD student Bill Johnson, who did his research under Gibbons in the late 1960s, likened his mentor to a river of boundless energy whose ideas came like the rapids. “If you work with Jim you learn to just go with the flow,” said Johnson, who helped Gibbons develop some of the foundational chip technologies of the 1960s.

Leader in Research, Education and Administration

Johnson worked with Gibbons in the nascent days of solid state electronics, when his Stanford lab pioneered a technique called ion implantation, in which silicon transistors are built by planting ions of phosphorus and boron into a silicon substrate to create transistor action. Gibbons and his graduate students later developed a rapid thermal processing method that, together with ion implantation, revolutionized silicon chip-making. Advanced versions of both inventions are in wide use today. Gibbons, who did much of this work in Stanford’s Solid State Lab, later helped found the Center for Integrated Systems (CIS) within the School of Engineering. Both the lab and CIS played pivotal roles in making silicon integrated circuits and the microprocessors that followed in the early 1970s ubiquitous tools of modern life.

After establishing his scientific bona fides in research, Gibbons solidified his legacy as dean of Stanford Engineering, a post he held from 1984 to 1996. Early in his tenure, he arranged for the computer science department to be moved from the School of Humanities and Sciences, where it had been founded in 1961, to the School of Engineering. He also oversaw the creation of an undergraduate major in computer science, which is today the most popular major at Stanford. This move added significantly to the blossoming of Stanford’s reputation as a center for innovation in semiconductors, electronics and computer science.

In her remarks, Provost Drell touched on the impact Gibbons has had as an engineer, as a teacher and mentor, as a fundraiser and as a key link between the university and industry.

“Jim also modeled what it means to be a dean at Stanford,” Drell said, crediting Gibbons’ sense of mission with helping to define Stanford as a “purposeful university.”

Dean Jennifer Widom recalled a recent event that featured Drell, Stanford president emeritus and former engineering dean John Hennessy, Plummer and Gibbons. Gibbons recounted his first days as dean, she said, and recalled setting his first goal after taking the helm of a school already in terrific shape: “Don’t screw it up.”

Humor aside, Widom recalled how Gibbons bolstered the foundations of Stanford Engineering, leaving it better funded than ever before, tightly integrated with the broader university community and brimming with faculty eager to make engineering responsive to the challenges of the times.

“Jim is a visionary and extraordinary educator,” said Widom.

Impacting Lives

Former dean Jim Plummer remarked on Gibbons’ facility for fundraising, particularly his work in establishing the Stanford Venture Fund. Through the fund, some of the biggest players in venture capital donated money to Stanford Engineering. The VCs then invested the School’s money, alongside their own, in Silicon Valley startups, whose commercial successes eventually poured new proceeds back into the Stanford Venture Fund.

“It was really an innovative model,” Plummer said. “It began about 30 years ago with $7 million and is now approaching a $200 million endowment. Everybody is trying to copy what Jim started.”

Gibbons’ passion for transforming lives through education transcended the confines of Stanford Engineering. Nearly 50 years ago, he helped pioneer long-distance education through what was then called tutored video instruction, or TVI, a technique that he and other Stanford colleagues developed in 1972 as a way to use the then-novel technology of videotape to help electrical engineers in the field learn up-to-date skills while remaining at their jobs.

TVI became a precursor of today’s Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), which offers a greatly expanded portfolio of career-refresher courses. SCPD further anticipated the current generation of massive open online classes, or MOOCs, that use the internet as a platform to teach thousands of students at a time.

Former Defense Secretary Perry noted how, to this very day, he and Gibbons are collaborating on a MOOC that is developing a global working group on nuclear non-proliferation. And Talia Pierluissi, a former CEO of Sera Learning Technologies, described how the company, with Gibbons as founder and chairman, used TVI to teach anger management and conflict resolution to at-risk teens and young adults at detention centers across the country. Sera launched that project at the Juvenile Hall in Santa Clara County and got good results there. Then, in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine school tragedy, the course was used to help youth in the local school district deal with the trauma that the event left. Over the next four years the program was used at over 400 sites nationwide.

Roasting Time

The humorous highpoint of Gibbons Fest came when six former protégés — Johnson, Wally Kleinfelder, Lew Davidson, Tom Sigmon, Roger Minear and Jim Sansbury — performed an elaborately planned skit that sought to capture the sometimes madcap adventures of their early days in the Solid State Lab.

In one scene, as Kleinfelder successfully produced the first ion implantation accelerator with an acceleration potential of up to 100,000 volts and only rudimentary safety precautions, Johnson said, “Looks like you didn’t read the OSHA manual.” To which Kleinfelder, sticking to his late-1960s role, responded, “What’s OSHA?” in reference to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which wasn’t founded until 1971.

Gibbons, who is spoken of but never seen in the skit, said he only learned about some of their hijinks at the event.

“I’m just glad they survived to tell me,” he said, adding, “you can never fully appreciate the impact you’ve had on others until you hear them describe it themselves.”