Founders' Families, Pioneering Professors Tell of Early Days
Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science Celebrates Final 25th Anniversary Event
Jun. 14, 2012
Philip Jonsson (left) and his wife Diane (right), recently attended a 25th anniversary event for the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, which was named for his father. Trisha Cunningham, Texas Instrument's chief citizenship officer, and UT Dallas President David E. Daniel joined them.
Those who knew the three visionary founders of UT Dallas and Texas Instruments swapped tales of defying the odds to establish and build the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science during the final event marking the school’s 25th anniversary.
Family members of Erik Jonsson, Margaret McDermott, wife of the late Eugene McDermott, and faculty members who knew Cecil Green shared their memories of the founders’ quest to provide advanced training for TI’s engineers and scientists.
“My dad began to worry,” said Erik Jonsson’s son Philip Jonsson. The elder Jonsson, who also was Dallas mayor from 1964 to 1971 and a leader in the development of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, was concerned that cities with universities that were distinguished in technology would attract TI employees.
“‘I love Dallas,’” Philip recounted his father saying. “’I don’t want to move this company.‘”
Instead, Erik Jonsson decided to develop a university competent in high technology in the North Dallas area.
“‘So we can stay here and keep our people here and the scientists will have the company of each other,’” Erik Jonsson told his son. “’If they aren’t able to communicate with their peers, we’ll fall behind.’”
Philip Jonsson described the Sunday afternoon that his father took him to the location where he envisioned a high-technology university surrounded by high-technology companies.
Philip said he was skeptical as he scanned the farmland surrounding them, but in the decades since, he has seen his father’s vision fulfilled.
“It all came true,” Philip told current University leaders and original members of the Jonsson School at the recent dinner celebration. “It’s absolutely amazing to me.”
In the early days, opposition to an engineering school persisted for years because two other engineering schools existed in the area.
But proponents for an engineering school at UT Dallas doggedly, sometimes shrewdly, kept at it.
“I was hired in 1980 to start an applied physics program,” said Dr. Cy Cantrell, senior associate dean for academic affairs in the Jonsson School and professor of electrical engineering and physics. He soon met with University and TI founder Cecil Green and Jack Kilby, who later was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the integrated circuit he invented while working at TI.
“They left absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that they had zero interest in applied physics,” Cantrell said. “What they were interested in was engineering.”
So Cantrell and others kept themselves busy until an engineering school could be established. In 1985, state leaders granted approval of an engineering program with some conditions. To receive final approval as a school, $52 million had to be raised by 1991; enrollment had to exceed 700 students; and a contract had to be signed for an engineering facility.
A year later, most of the conditions were met. Leaders raised $49.5 million, enrollment stood at 745, and construction of a building was about to begin. UT Dallas was finally home to the state’s first new engineering school in 36 years.
“Erik Jonsson made essential contributions to helping us meet those goals,” Cantrell said.
The challenges continued when it came to building the school. What successful engineer would give up his career to help establish a school on a prairie?
“They wouldn’t even return our phone calls,” Cantrell said of potential recruits.
TI helped. Dr. Klaus Truemper, professor emeritus of computer science, said that before he came to the University, he was warned about TI being too involved in the school. But the company’s involvement proved to be a saving grace, and its practice of offering consulting contracts to potential faculty was a powerful magnet.
“TI gave and gave and gave and never came back and said, ‘If we give you that, we would like to see X,’” he said. “That is the thing that amazed me most in all these years.”
Dr. Simeon Ntafos, associate dean of undergraduate education, director of student services and professor of computer science, remembers joining the Jonsson School from the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics when there were only four faculty members in computer science.
“I was the fifth one,” he said. “At the end of my first year, I was the only one remaining.”
Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Jonsson School, lauded the perseverance of the early faculty members.
“It’s not just that they’ve been here a long time,” he said. “They’re the ones who created the academic curriculum, the research program, everything. They really helped the school grow and did it at a time when it was not as easy to attract students and faculty.”
The school’s founding departments - Electrical Engineering and Computer Science – consistently produce some of the most sought-after graduates in the country. The Jonsson School was the first in the nation to offer an accredited bachelor’s degree in telecommunications engineering and one of the first to offer a bachelor’s degree in software engineering.
Professor Emeritus William Pervin talks with Electrical Engineering Professor Cy Cantrell at the last lecture celebrating the engineering school's 25th anniversary.
Since Spong became dean in 2008, four new departments have been added – mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, bioengineering and systems engineering. The School has nine new degree programs and has experienced 33 percent growth in the number of students and faculty. Research expenditures now stand at $47 million.
“This is a great place for the Jonsson School to be,” said President David E. Daniel. “Even with discussions at the federal level about the economic recovery of the country and the price of tuition, it’s clear that the U.S. cannot get enough highly qualified scientists and engineers. Universities like UT Dallas give us more of these outstanding, well-qualified young men and women that our country and the world need to continue to progress.”
Mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science students teamed up to create robotic chess pieces for a senior design project. The students (from left) are David Chialastri, Clive Hsaing Liu, Jonathan Reeder and Michael Clay.
The theme that emerged from the stories and remembrances was clear as the evening concluded: Perseverance paid off.
“We’re celebrating the successful launch of an engineering school now recognized as being one of the top 50 public graduate engineering schools in the country. That’s hugely significant,” Cantrell said.
“We leapfrogged past much older, much better established engineering schools in Texas. We’ve gone from having about 600 students almost entirely in computer science in the fall of 1986 to having 3,600 students in all fields of engineering that we represent, as well as computer science. That’s an enormous achievement.”
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