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Engineering Academy Picks Wulf To Replace Deposed President

From Physics Today
December 1, 1996

By Irwin Goodwin

It has been a disturbing and divisive time for the National Academy of Engineering. Last February, seven months after he was elected president of the NAE in a combative campaign against the academy's anointed candidate, Harold Liebowitz was ordered by his governing council to resign. Liebowitz ignored the directive. In May, after polling the NAE's 1840 members, the council amended the bylaws with a new recall provision, enabling it to ask the members to vote on what to do about Liebowitz. By an overwhelming vote of 1179 to 179 in early June, the members chose to remove Liebowitz. A few weeks later, the council appointed one of its newly elected councilors, William A. Wulf, to be the academy's interim president. Wulf, AT&T Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia, took a year's leave to serve the NAE.

Wulf was clearly the center of attention at the NAE's 32nd annual meeting on 30 September. He exuded confidence and candor as he hobnobbed with members and guests at numerous receptions. But it was his inaugural address that gave members an inkling of the course he was setting: to restore order and engage more members in the organization.

Two weeks before the meeting, Wulf invited a small group of news reporters to lunch at the academy and told them his program as president is "to work out ways to get more input from the membership into the decision process of the academy." Among his first reforms: to replace a nominating committee appointed by the "inner circle" of council members with members from industry, government and academe selected by NAE's 12 sections, representing all fields of engineering. In the past, the academy's nominating system always came up with one candidate for each office, in the style of a banana republic. Wulf and the current council now intend to name a so-called blue-ribbon panel to propose at least two nominees for president, thereby ensuring a contested election. The panel also would review the criteria for electing NAE members, which has led some members to argue that some
great engineers and applied scientists have been overlooked in favor of some "good old boys."

NAE 'subservient' to NAS

Ironically, such internal reforms were also advocated by Liebowitz in the platform on which he was elected last year by a narrow margin of 697 to 660. But his campaign against the council's efforts to depose him raised other issues that rankled some members (see PHYSICS TODAY, April 1996, page 48). In May, Liebowitz, a former dean of engineering at George Washington University, sent each member a copy of his platform and a "Dear Colleague" letter asserting that the council was out to get him because he had proposed to put an end to the NAE's "present subservient position" in its affiliation with the National Academy of Sciences. "Because they disagree with my policies, I am incompetent," wrote Liebowitz. "Because they obstruct my platform, I am a failure."

Last March, in its communication to the members, the council had accused Liebowitz of creating "constant confusion and turmoil," demoralizing the staff to the point where senior staffers threatened to resign, and ignoring the council's policy mandates. Under Liebowitz, the council lamented, the "NAE fundraising program is moribund"-a serious matter, considering the independent studies and other functions the academy would like to engage in to gain the recognition and the endowment now enjoyed by the NAS. Equally deplorable, the council stated, "the NAE is leaderless, is in peril as an organization, and needs a new president to do the job that NAE presidents are elected and well paid to do."

The council then advised members on the details of its salary negotiations with Liebowitz. Upon his election, Liebowitz had rejected a compensation package identical to that of his predecessor, Robert M. White, a former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who had served two six-year terms as NAE president. White received an annual salary of $270 000, a leased car for business and personal use, and a $30 000 discretionary fund for expenses incurred while doing NAE business. Liebowitz, the council charged, asked for a total of $300 000 in salary and deferred compensation, and demanded a car and driver. The council also claimed that Liebowitz wanted the NAE to purchase a $600 000 apartment for his use in the Watergate complex where the NAS president, Bruce Alberts, now lives and where two previous NAS presidents had lived.

At his meeting with reporters, Wulf refused to discuss any negotiations over a severance settlement for Liebowitz. When the council notified Liebowitz about resigning, he had threatened legal action, but Wulf would not comment on any pending or proposed litigation. "I've been advised by the legal beagles not to discuss that," said Wulf. Instead, he talked about the relationship between the NAE and the NAS, a sore point in the position to Liebowitz by both academies. Since taking the helm at the NAE, Wulf said, his most important goal has been to regain the confidence of the members in the organization, of the Federal agencies that support studies by the National Research Council, and of the NAS in working with the NAE. Liebowitz had approached government agencies, including NASA and the Defense Department, to convince the agencies to sponsor studies performed exclusively by the NAE, in violation of a 1974 agreement between the academies to work jointly through the National Research Council.

The NAE was created in 1964 to elevate the engineering profession to the high ground of science and technology held by the NAS. After all, NAS had dozens of Nobel Prize winners on its rolls. By contrast, NAE elected many of the nation's corporate nabobs. At this year's annual meeting the engineering academy added three more notables: Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft; Paul A. Allaire, chairman and CEO of Xerox; and Gary Tooker, vice chairman and CEO of Motorola.

Maintaining academy ties

In his talk to members and in his meeting with reporters, Wulf emphasized the importance of maintaining close ties between the academies and stated that he and Alberts often discuss plans and programs after the staff has gone home.

Wulf's long hours are often matched by those of his wife, Anita K. Jones, who occupies a commanding presence in Washington as Director of Research and Engineering at the Defense Department. Asked why he left the University of Virginia to deal with the NAE's troubles, Wulf laughed and then said that he had been asked to do so by another councilor, Erich Bloch. Wulf had served as assistant director of the computer and information science and engineering directorate of the National Science Foundation when Bloch was the agency's director. "Anyone who's worked for Erich knows how persuasive he can be," said Wulf. Would Wulf run for the presidency of NAE? His response was an enigmatic smile.

Judging by the reception he got at the annual meeting and the reaction he received from NAS leaders, Wulf should be considered a candidate for the NAE's top job. His leadership has been hailed in NAE's time of troubles.


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