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Doctor of Science
honoris causa

Mr Pro-Chancellor,

Professor John L Hennessy is a distinguished computer scientist, education leader, and entrepreneur. As Stanford University’s 10th president for sixteen years, Professor Hennessy led the university toward a path of extraordinary growth in research and teaching across all disciplines, including Arts and Humanities. Currently, he is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Stanford and the inaugural Shriram Family Director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, the largest fully endowed graduate-level scholarship program in the world.

Professor Hennessy holds a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Villanova University and Master’s and PhD degrees in computer science from Stony Brook University. He joined Stanford in 1977 and in a matter of few years had brought together a cohort of fellow scientists to focus on a technology called RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer). He then transferred this performance-enhancing and cost-cutting technology to industry, leading him to cofound MIPS Computer Systems in 1984.

Professor Hennessy’s innovative research on computer architecture continued in the following decades. His DASH and FLASH projects both pioneered concepts still being used today. He was appointed as the inaugural Willard R. and Inez Kerr Bell Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1987 and went on to chair the Department of Computer Science and later to lead as the Dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford. In 1999, he took over from Condoleezza Rice as provost at Stanford and was appointed as the university’s 10th President just one year later. He was the founding board chair of Atheros Communications, one of the early developers of WIFI technology, and has served on the board of Cisco from 2002 to 2018 and Alphabet (Google’s parent company), where he is currently chair of the board.

Regarded as a legend in the Silicon Valley, Professor Hennessy has received much global recognition and numerous awards and honours, including inter alia, the 2012 Medal of Honour of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the 2017 ACM Turing Award (jointly with David Patterson), the 2001 Eckert-Mauchly Award of the Association for Computing Machinery, the 2001 Seymour Cray Computer Engineering Award, and the 2004 NEC C&C Prize for lifetime achievement in computer science and engineering. Professor Hennessy is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the American Philosophical Society.

In my communication with Professor Hennessy, I asked him to define his passion. In crystal clear terms, he spoke of pursuing knowledge and conveying that knowledge to others. Naturally he sees himself as both an innovator and an educator. For such a career decorated with brilliant achievements, might there be any setbacks? Professor Hennessy then spoke of the 2008 financial crisis and how it impacted his university. In the end he drew upon his experience of the first start-up company to pull the university through the crisis toward a trajectory of extraordinary growth.

Like our other honorands, Professor Hennessy also underscored climate change as our greatest challenge: “The task of dramatically reducing fossil fuel use will require difficult steps on a cooperative, global scale.” For Professor Hennessy, the key to tackle climate change and other great challenges of our time is effective leadership. After stepping down as Stanford’s President, he became “increasingly concerned about the growing leadership void” and decided to take the matter into his own hands. Backed with a US$750 million endowment and fuelled by $400 million from Nike founder Phil Knight, Professor Hennessy created the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program to instil a culture of leadership among an interdisciplinary group of graduate students. It is his hope that this cohort of young people in due course will enter different fields and do great things. He has further elaborated the importance to build good leadership in his recent book Leading Matters: Lessons from My Journey. While his approach to leadership places more emphasis on the process rather than the ultimate goal, each chapter in this valuable guide discusses one important element that has helped shape his own career and philosophy. These elements include humility, authenticity and trust, service, empathy, courage, collaboration, innovation, and intellectual curiosity. To bring all these important elements together, good storytelling helps and Professor Hennessy has shared many good stories in this book. These stories are all in service of his goal to help usher in a new generation of leaders well equipped to tackle grave challenges.

For HKU students, Professor Hennessy has this clear and resounding message: “Be bold” and “take smart risks.” Speaking of his own experience of chancing upon administrative roles that eventually led to a new career path, he credited that successful transition to “a willingness to undertake challenges in new ways that often leads to breakthroughs and dramatic improvements.”

Mr Pro-Chancellor, it is my great honour and tremendous privilege to present to you Professor John L Hennessy, for the award of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Citation written and delivered by Professor Nicole Huang, Public Orator, the University of Hong Kong.

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