Blahut retires after 20 years with ECE ILLINOIS
According to Professor Richard E Blahut, a former department head of ECE ILLINOIS and the Henry Magnuski Professor, the best innovations are accomplished when idea-generators and administrators are a cohesive force.
He saw this to be the case in industry, when he was working for IBM Federal Systems in Owego, New York, and later, as ECE department head, he ensured that administrators and faculty were strongly aligned. Blahut retired this spring, after 20 years with the department and a 54-year career as an active electrical engineer.
“As soon as you push things up to higher levels of the organization chart, the people there really aren’t aware of the needs, and they can go off in directions that are not really important. The perceived efficiency of centralization is an illusion,” Blahut said. “Where the rubber hits the road is where the action is.”
As department head — a tenure which spanned from 2001 to 2008 — this belief encouraged him to build the department’s staff, creating a more robust advancement team for alumni and corporate relations, as well as communications. He also believed it was important for the department’s own administrators to meet with donors. As such, under his leadership, the department’s endowment more than tripled, including the addition of new endowed professorships and faculty chairs, as well as fellowships and scholarships.
“I took the view that the advancement function, the development function, the alumni relations, all of that, had to be inside the department. It couldn’t be done at the corporate level, or at the administrative [university] level,” he said.
In his perspective, however, the first and most important task of the department head is recruiting new faculty. “You have to hire people for what they’re going to do in the future, not for what they’ve done in the past, and I thought that I was able to see that in a candidate,” Blahut said.
“I look for intelligence and a curiosity, and I look for a diversity of interests, not a single-minded focus on one particular topic. I think too many of the applicants that I saw were focused very much on the research that they did for their degree and didn’t have a curiosity about other things. I look for a broad curiosity,” he said. “I look for some personal characteristics: the ability to communicate, a knowledge of the world.”
The faculty members, after all, are the primary individuals who train and inspire students. They are the individuals who define the departmental research trajectory, ensuring that the future innovations from ECE ILLINOIS continue to be at the forefront of technology. The department head, then, in this recruitment role, is vital not just to the day-to-day needs of the department but also the future.
Blahut’s own research pertains to coding theory and algorithms for signal processing and image formation. While at IBM, he pioneered passive coherent location systems, which are used for U.S. Department of Defense surveillance systems. He also established error-control codes that have been used in the high-speed telecommunications systems for military helicopters and long-range cruise missiles.
That research resulted in his first textbook, Theory and Practice of Error Control Codes (Addison-Wesley), which was published in 1983, while he was simultaneously teaching as a courtesy professor at nearby Cornell University, his doctoral alma mater. Over the ensuring decades, he has continued to publish prolifically. His 11th book, Cryptography and Secure Communication (Cambridge), was released this year.
“I am a compulsive writer,” Blahut said. “I think teaching helps me to write.”
When he joined the faculty at ECE ILLINOIS in 1994, after concluding a 34-year career in industry with the prestigious title of IBM Fellow, it was this interest in writing that inspired the transition. The academic venue offered the chance to work on research that wasn’t tied directly to “next-quarter profits,” but rather to longer-term technology developments that would be the subject of his books.
“You couldn’t do long-term kinds of things [in industry] that you can do at a university,” he said. “The kinds of things that I’ve been involved in have really been 50-year projects. The whole telecommunications development ... requires a lot of foresight.”
As a young teacher, in 1981, the cosmopolitan knowledge and curiosity that Blahut would eventually look for in new faculty members led him to China, where he taught a semester of electrical engineering at the South China Institute of Technology. This was in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and more than a decade of social tumult.
“I thought it was important to help rebuild China in that early time, to help educate them about modern technology,” he recalled. “The only real goal that I have is to make the world a better place, and I think the world is made a better place by having corporate success, by having technical leadership. I’m a strong believer in capitalism. I think economics makes the world a better place.”
Although the semester in China was brief, he has maintained relationships with students he taught there, and he has been encouraged to see some of them go onto “big careers in China and throughout the world.”
Three decades later, during his term as department head, Blahut and Associate Professor Minh N Do helped establish Illinois’s prominent role with the Vietnam Education Foundation, an initiative that provides opportunities for Vietnamese students to pursue graduate work at universities in the United States. Since it was established in 2003, more than 400 students have studied at various research institutions, and by the numbers, Illinois has been a top destination, with more than 50 participants.
Blahut’s contributions have earned him numerous honors. Next year he will be a quarter-century member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is a recipient of the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal — the institute’s highest recognition for achievements in telecommunications — and the Claude E. Shannon Award, which, likewise, is the highest honor bestowed by the IEEE Information Theory Society.
Now, in retirement, Blahut has moved to Pennsylvania, and he will teach at Princeton University and continue to work on book projects. He's planning at least four more.
Already, however, return visits to ECE ILLINOIS have been scheduled — first and foremost for the dedication of the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building in October. The event marks the culmination of a building campaign that began in earnest under Blahut’s leadership.
“I am excited about this building and the impact it will have on the department and the campus,” he said. “I am proud to have helped secure the lead gift that brought this project back to life. My remaining dream is that it will be named for John Bardeen.”
And even now, when Blahut’s off-campus, his commitment to the research community here is steadfast. “The ECE Department at Illinois is like nothing else in the world. It really is a terrific department,” Blahut said, yet the move to Pennsylvania has personal significance. “All of our family is here. Our children are here. Our grandchildren are here. Our nieces and nephews are here. Our brothers are here, friends are here. ... We’re going home.”