William F. Miller, former provost at Stanford University, died Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, in Palo Alto at age 91.
Miller was an innovator and entrepreneur who made early contributions to the application of computation in math, science and business. Over his career, he also was a business leader, entrepreneur, nonprofit founder, Silicon Valley scholar, wildlife conservationist and government adviser, while also serving as a faculty member and administrator at Stanford.
A founding member of Stanford’s Computer Science Department, Miller served as provost from 1971 to 1978, guiding Stanford through student protests, overseeing financial reforms and leading a successful fundraising campaign. Later in his career, Miller was an advocate for and scholar of Silicon Valley who shared his insights with countries throughout the world, particularly in Asia, to advance entrepreneurship.
“Bill was a great university citizen whose influence at Stanford and in Silicon Valley has been remarkable,” said John Hennessy, former Stanford president and director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program. “He was one of the earliest members of our Computer Science Department and went on to serve as provost and briefly as acting president under Dick Lyman. He was one of the initial investors in Mayfield, one of the earliest venture capital firms in the Valley. Mayfield funded both Silicon Graphics and MIPS, two transformative Stanford startups. He led SRI through a critical period of expansion and diversification and was an early advocate and champion for building bridges and collaborations among the countries and companies on the Pacific Rim.”
Miller joined Stanford from Argonne National Laboratory in 1964 to head the computation group at SLAC and to serve as professor in the Mathematics Department. When the Computer Science Department split from mathematics in 1965, he was among the founding faculty.
While at Argonne, where he was director of the Applied Mathematics Division, Miller argued that applied math should inform science and technology and that computers could serve a role in that hybrid space. As a result, he became one of the first pioneers in the field of computational science. His primary interest was in making scientific research more systematic and mathematical.
The ability to see connections among different disciplines was a hallmark of his career and ultimately led him to expand interdisciplinary research and undergraduate education at Stanford. Within the business world, this ability also led him to support the financial and intellectual property infrastructure in Silicon Valley. Miller understood that the development of Silicon Valley was as much about culture as it was about technology.
Kind, Generous, and Loyal
“While appearing to be a practical and unemotional man in his professional life, at a personal level, he was unfailingly kind, generous, and loyal to the people around him,” said Patricia Devaney, associate dean of research, emerita. “Bill and his wife fostered two orphan children who had cystic fibrosis. He gave away more than half of his wealth to charitable causes long before it became fashionable to do so. He was an astute judge of people and showed an extraordinary spirit of generosity with his time, help, money and wise counsel to so very many people.”
Miller was born Nov. 19, 1925, in Vincennes, Indiana, where his father ran a family farm and his mother taught classics at a nearby university. Miller joined the Army and became a second lieutenant — an experience that he credited in an oral history interview with teaching him discipline and leadership. Miller studied at Purdue University, earning an undergraduate degree in math and physics and a masters and PhD in physics. During that time, he married Patty J. Smith, with whom he had one child, Rodney. They were married almost 59 years until her death in 2008.
A Respected Provost
When Miller arrived at Stanford, he was tasked with developing computation capabilities at SLAC and interpreting experimental data. “That’s kids’ play now, but in 1975, that was cutting edge stuff,” said Ed Feigenbaum, a professor emeritus of computer science.
Miller predicted the importance for computation in both academia and industry and encouraged Stanford to invest in the field. As a result, he was appointed associate provost for computing in 1968 – the first such position among U.S. universities. Two years later, he was appointed to be Stanford’s first vice president for research, a position he held for one year before becoming provost under President Richard Lyman.
Miller’s tenure as provost spanned student war protests, which threatened buildings and academic programs on campus. Miller advocated ending ROTC programs on campus and moving classified research off campus to what was then known as Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park. He also oversaw removing the university’s enrollment cap on women undergraduates. As provost, Miller was also the architect of an economic model that has since been expanded and adopted by universities nationwide. The budget equilibrium model integrated academic planning, building needs, fundraising and annual budgets. Miller helped develop the Campaign for Stanford, which raised $300 million – among the largest academic campaigns at the time.
When Miller stepped down as provost, Lyman credited him with able management of the university’s resources, saying, “He was the one responsible for Stanford’s reputation as the university with the best-managed resources in the country.”
When he was provost, Miller also made the first of what would eventually be more than 50 trips to Asia. In 1976, he went to China to explore exchanges between Stanford and Chinese students, which led to the enrollment in 1978 of eight Chinese scholars in engineering and sciences departments – the first such educational exchange with China in any American university.
A Business Leader
After stepping down as provost, Miller joined Stanford Graduate School of Business as the first Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management. Soon after, he took a partial leave to become president and CEO of SRI International, where he opened the organization to international collaborations, particularly in Asia.
In 1990 Miller returned to Stanford and split his time between faculty positions in computer science and at Stanford GSB. Miller became a scholar of Silicon Valley’s development, speaking to audiences in Asia and other areas of the world as co-founder of the Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Miller became emeritus in 1997, but remained active. In 2012, when he was 87, he co-authored his last research article with Charles Eesley, associate professor of management science and engineering, about the economic impact of Stanford’s innovation and entrepreneurship. Eesley described Miller as a warm, gracious, curious, and exacting collaborator.
“Meeting with him was like touching a very important part of Stanford and Silicon Valley history,” Eesley said. “The high standards that he held himself to, and the excellence to which he strove made me realize the type of extremely high-quality, diligent people who helped make Stanford what it is today.”
Miller and his wife Patty were avid wildlife conservationists and photographers. Patty Miller, herself a Silicon Valley leader, oversaw one of the first family planning clinics.
Miller was a Life Member of the National Academy of Engineering, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Life Fellow of IEEE and a member of Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame. He received Japan’s Okawa Prize, the DongBaeg Medal from the Republic of Korea, the David Packard Civic Entrepreneur Award and many other awards. In 2009, Konkuk University, in Seoul, South Korea, established the William F. Miller School of Management of Technology and named Miller Honorary Dean. The Miller Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, was named for him.
Miller is survived by his son, Rodney, and daughter-in-law, Olivia Miller, of Redwood City; and his brother, James L. Miller, a farmer in Vincennes, Indiana.
A celebration of life is scheduled for Oct. 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Stanford Faculty Club. Memorial donations may be made to the Wildlife Conservation Network.
This story was originally published on Stanford’s News Service on September 27, 2017.