2012 IEEE Medal of Honor Recipient John L. Hennessy


John LeRoy Hennessy , an American computer scientist, academician, and businessman was born in 1953. He is one of the founders of MIPS Computer Systems Inc. and the 10th President of Stanford University.

John Hennessy received his B.E. in Electrical Engineering from Villanova University in 1973. He received his Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from SUNY at Stony Brook in 1975 and 1977, respectively. Since September 1977, he has been a faculty member at Stanford University, where he is currently a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Prior to becoming President, Professor Hennessy served as the University Provost, the Dean of the School of Engineering and was Chairman of the Computer Science Department.

Professor Hennessy is the recipient of the 1983 John J. Gallen Memorial Award, awarded by Villanova University to the most outstanding young engineering alumnus. He is the recipient of a 1984 National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award, and in 1987 was named the Willard and Inez K. Bell Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In 1991, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is an IEEE Fellow, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He is the recipient of the 1994 IEEE Piore Award, the 2000 ASEE R. Lamme Medal, the 2000 John Von Neumann Medal, the 2001 Eckert Mauchly Award and the 2001 Seymour Cray Award. In 2001, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Villanova and an honorary degree of science from SUNY Stony Brook. In 2002, he received an honorary doctorate from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, and in 2004, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame.


In the 1980s, John L. Hennessy, then a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, shook up the computer industry by taking the concepts of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) to the masses.Hennessy wrote papers, gave talks, designed chips, started companies, and even, literally, wrote the book .

The RISC architecture, which focused on simpler, lower-cost microprocessors, was then thought to be an academic exercise with little practical use; today it plays a major role in the industry. He initiated the MIPS project at Stanford in 1981; MIPS is a high-performance Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC), built in VLSI. Since the early 1980’s, this technology has revolutionized the computer industry leading to the longest period of sustained performance growth in the past thirty years of computing. In addition to his role in the basic research, Hennessy played a key role in transferring this technology to industry. During a sabbatical leave from Stanford in 1984-85, he cofounded MIPS Computer Systems, a Silicon Valley company which specializes in the production of computers and chips based on these concepts.

He also led the Stanford DASH (Distributed Architecture for Shared Memory) multiprocessor project. DASH was the first scalable shared memory multiprocessor with hardware-supported cache coherence. More recently, he has been involved in FLASH (FLexible Architecture for Shared Memory), which is designed to support different communication and coherency approaches in large-scale shared-memory multiprocessors. Hennessy is also the coauthor of two widely used textbooks in computer architecture.


For these efforts, in June Hennessy will receive the 2012 IEEE Medal of Honor “for pioneering the RISC processor architecture and for leadership in computer engineering and higher education.”


IEEE Spectrum profiled Hennessy and his career as a computer architect and entrepreneur in “RISC Maker,” [November 2002]. This year, we checked in on Hennessy’s recent efforts to shake up higher education. Stanford has a long history in distance education, which in the 1990s moved from closed circuit TV to Internet delivery. More recently, the university explored offering online courses to a much larger audience with a programming class for iPhone applications, first available in 2009, that has been downloaded more than one million times. Since then, Stanford has been developing and testing tools for producing, distributing, and enabling social networking for online courses. This past fall, more than 100 000 students around the world took three engineering classes—Machine Learning, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and Introduction to Databases. Hennessy says that’s just the beginning. In fact, in his vision of the future, the lecture hall—those ubiquitous tiers of seats with fold-down writing arms, curving around a professor at a podium—will play a much smaller role.

Spectrum visited Hennessy at his office on Stanford’s historic quad and asked him about his educational vision. Here’s what he had to say:

I’m a believer in online technology in education. I think we have learned enough about this to understand that it will be transformative. It’s going to change the world, and it’s going to change the way we think about education. Institutions like Stanford should be willing to fund the experiments, to try different things, to think about different models. We can do what other institutions would be strained financially to do, and they can learn from our experience.

It’s going to filter down into high school, too, where we have an even more dramatic problem, considering the shortage of highly qualified high school teachers, particularly in science and math.

For us, it started a few years ago. One of my faculty colleagues, Daphne Koller, said, “You know, I don’t feel very useful when I stand in front of a classroom and give a set of lectures, 85 percent of which are the same as the year before. It’s not very rewarding for the student, and sitting in large lecture halls is not the way students want to learn, particularly this generation.” She pointed out that the large lecture hall is not a good learning environment, and it’s not a good use of her time. And she was right. I agree that physical presence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But it’s not really about what I think. The students are rewriting the rules for us. That large lecture hall with nice banked seating and 300 people sitting with their attention focused on somebody standing in the front of the classroom is a model that lasted for many years, but the students have made it clear that that’s not a model they find particularly attractive anymore.

Instead, this generation is completely comfortable watching a video online; for them, it’s not markedly different than having a person up at the front of the classroom. They are happy using technology. They know how to hit the pause button; they know how to speed it up a little bit, to watch it 20 percent faster and make the process more efficient.