Ernest S. Kuh, Berkeley Engineering professor and dean emeritus, 1928–2015

Longtime college leader was a pioneer in electronic circuit theory

Ernest S. Kuh, dean and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering and an internationally renowned expert in electronic circuit theory, died on June 27. He was 86.

Ernest S. Kuh, on his 80th birthday in 2008.

Kuh joined the Berkeley faculty in 1956 and made pioneering contributions in active and passive circuit theory, electronic design automation of integrated circuits and engineering education. He served as chair of Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences from 1968 to 1972 and then as dean of the College of Engineering from 1973 to 1980.

“Ernest Kuh was instrumental in establishing the College of Engineering as a world leader in research, teaching and public service,” said S. Shankar Sastry, dean and Carlson professor of engineering at Berkeley. “He set exacting standards of excellence in everything he did, and he was extraordinarily devoted to the well-being of the Berkeley Engineering community. His legacy will shape our influence and impact for years to come.”

Ernest Shiu-Jen Kuh was born in 1928, in Beijing, China. His father was working as a government official and then in private business. With the political instability in the region prior to World War II, the family moved frequently, eventually to Shanghai in 1937. Kuh left China for the United States in 1947, on a slow ocean freighter carrying other students, to continue his education.

Kuh began studying electrical engineering at the University of Michigan in the winter of 1948. He endeavored to improve his English by taking a literature course, which he found more challenging than his mathematics and physics courses. He received his B.S. degree in 1949.

He then earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1950, where he met circuit theorist Charles Desoer. The two would later work together and were frequent collaborators.

Kuh started a Ph.D. program at Stanford in 1950, pursuing research in network theory. He completed his degree in 1952, after just six quarters, and saw his thesis published in the Journal of Applied Physics, a rare place to find student work, especially in electrical engineering.

In 1952, Kuh went to work for Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was the only place he applied to work, and he was the second Chinese employee there. At Bell Labs, Kuh worked in the transmission development division on issues related to telephone infrastructure, specifically transmission repeater designs and submarine cable design. His work was incorporated into the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable, which was laid in 1956.

Kuh’s friend from MIT, Charles Desoer, joined Bell Labs the year after Kuh was hired. For a year, the two, along with other Bell Lab colleagues, would meet after work for a study group, discussing new ways to write the differential equations that form the mathematical basis of electronic circuit function.

During an oral history recorded between 2004 and 2006, Kuh said, “So, in my career, Desoer was responsible for my research, and Pederson was responsible for my teaching.”

Ernie Kuh with family in Shanghai, 1944 Play

1944: Ernest Kuh (in glasses, front center) at the family home in Shanghai.

Ernest Kuh: A look back

Shortly after moving to Berkeley, Kuh met Bettine Chow at a party. They were married in 1957. Son Anthony was born in 1958, followed by Theodore in 1960.

Kuh took his first sabbatical from Berkeley in 1962, and held six-month appointments at Imperial College in London and then at the Technical University of Denmark.

By 1967, Kuh was completing a widely used book, Basic Circuit Theory, with Desoer (who had also joined the Berkeley faculty), and was asked to head the electrical engineering department, which had just recently integrated computer science. Kuh’s appointment as chair of Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences began in 1968.

The newly defined EECS department explored new domains of research under Kuh’s leadership, including bioelectronics, which laid the foundation for the future bioengineering department. Kuh credits his predecessor in the department chair position, Lotfi Zadeh, as being a valuable mentor throughout his career.

Engineering professor and dean emeritus David Hodges first met Kuh as a Berkeley graduate student, and then became his faculty colleague in the EECS department, recruited by Kuh himself. “Ernie Kuh was the best classroom teacher I ever had,” said Hodges. “His lectures were superbly well-organized, including clear presentation of fundamental principles and examples of their application in design. His textbooks have the same qualities of organization and clarity. In the 1960s, he was one of the first to apply digital computing methods to circuit design.”

While department chair, Kuh also began reaching out to companies and research organizations, such as Bell Labs, GE and IBM, to develop relationships. He held industrial liaison meetings, establishing a model that would be replicated elsewhere at the university and beyond.

Kuh was asked to be the college’s dean in 1973. He quickly established an assistant dean in charge of interdisciplinary studies, recognizing (this was during the energy crisis) that collaboration was key for finding solutions to big problems. Kuh also wanted to establish a larger engineering library, which at the time was in cramped quarters on O’Brien Hall’s fourth floor.

Kuh spent years developing relationships and raising funds for what would eventually become the Bechtel Engineering Center, complete with a new library. “Bechtel Engineering Center was the realization of Ernie’s dream, a monument to his extraordinary administrative skill and hard work,” recalled EECS professor emeritus Edwin Lewis. “I shall miss Ernie’s intensely serious approach to all matters intellectual.”

Out of the fundraising efforts, Kuh realized that in order to grow, the College of Engineering would need stable funding, so he formalized the Berkeley Engineering Fund and expanded the industrial liaison program he had started as EECS department chair.

“Professor Kuh possessed many of the qualities of a natural leader: a selfless dedication to duty, a nobility of purpose, flawless execution and an ability to inspire people of all walks and all ages,” said EECS professor emeritus Eugene Wong. “He brought together these qualities as an extraordinary dean of the college. He will be remembered with great respect and affection for his wise counsel and unstinting support by all those whose lives he touched.”

For the first time since leaving in the 1940s, Kuh returned to mainland China with his family in 1973, as part of a delegation of professors from Berkeley. The month-long trip was hosted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Kuh visited China many more times after that first trip. This was the beginning of over 40 years of collaboration and consultation with Chinese universities on improving engineering education throughout China.

In 1975, Kuh became a member of the National Academy of Engineering. At the time he was also working to recruit and retain more women and people of color to the engineering program.

When he returned to Japan on sabbatical in 1977–78, he took up the emerging field of electronic design automation (EDA), which would become a second, more applied, research interest.

By 1980, Kuh decided to step down from the dean’s position to focus more time on EDA research questions. His work laid the intellectual foundations for computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), which had numerous academic and industrial uses.

“Since the mid-1970s, Professor Kuh has been one of the key founding fathers of the EDA industry,” said Chi-Ping Hsu, who studied with Kuh and is now senior vice president and chief strategy officer of Cadence Design Systems. “In addition to his numerous research and technology breakthroughs in the most challenging EDA domains for several decades, his contributions went far beyond the technology front. Many of the early EDA companies were formed by his students and fellow researchers. His vision and guidance helped expedite the formation and maturity of the EDA industry, with over 30 years of continuous semiconductor advancements in all segments of the electronics industry.”

Throughout his academic career, Kuh mentored several generations of graduate students. In total he supervised 40 Ph.D. students, who today occupy leadership positions in academia and industry.

“From advising my Ph.D. studies to serving as a board member of my start-up company, Professor Kuh has been my lifelong mentor and role model,” said Wayne Dai, who became a professor at UC Santa Cruz and then founded VeriSilicon, headquartered in China. “His great vision of the ‘big picture,’ his brilliant mind driven by passion and persistence, and his deeply caring spirit that never faltered in generosity will be remembered fondly by all of us.”

Ronald Rohrer, professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, also studied under Kuh. “The world of electrical and computer engineering knew Ernest Kuh as a gifted researcher, teacher and administrator,” said Rohrer. “Those lucky to be his graduate students knew Ernie better; someone who provided great ideas to Berkeley and shared them generously. He provided mentoring and momentum that launched so many successful careers.”

In 1992, Kuh became a professor emeritus, continuing to maintain an active schedule. In addition to his duties at Berkeley, he was also a sought-after adviser and consultant. He served, in varying capacities, for numerous companies and organizations throughout his career. Most notably, he held leadership positions on committees for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the National Research Council, the National Institute of Science and Technology and on the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee.

He also advised other engineering schools and served on Berkeley’s budget committee. With his wife, Bettine, he endowed the Ernest S. Kuh Distinguished Lecture Series to bring notable scientists and engineers to campus.

“Ernie continued to be engaged with our faculty long after his retirement,” said Tsu-Jae King Liu, TSMC distinguished professor in microelectronics and current chair of the EECS department. “I am fortunate and very grateful to have had the benefit of his advice and support through many years.”

Kuh received honorary doctorate degrees from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 1997 and National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan in 1999. In addition, he was named honorary professor at six universities in China.

Kuh authored or co-authored six textbooks and several hundred research papers. He also delivered countless technical talks and presentations. At the time of his retirement from the Berkeley faculty, he held the William S. Floyd Jr. distinguished chair. Numerous awards, including the Communication and Computer Prize awarded by Japan in 1996, the 1998 Phil Kaufman Award given by the Electronic Design Automation Consortium and the IEEE Centennial and Millennium Medals recognized his impact on engineering education and the field of electrical engineering.

Kuh loved to travel and explore the world with his wife; they were patrons of classical music and opera. In addition he was an avid sportsman and enjoyed playing tennis and swimming. “My father also thoroughly enjoyed Cal athletics, particularly the football games, which he attended with his family and friends over many decades,” said son Theodore Kuh. He also liked to read, particularly books about China and biographies of prominent people.

Kuh is survived by his wife of 58 years, Bettine; their sons Anthony and Theodore; and grandsons Matthew, Jason and Evan.

An event to celebrate the life of Ernest Kuh is being planned for September 2015. The family requests that memorial gifts be directed to the Berkeley Engineering Fund, College of Engineering, 201 McLaughlin Hall #1722, Berkeley, CA 94720-1722, designated to the Ernest S. Kuh Distinguished Lecture Series. Donations may also be made to the California Alumni Association’s Professor Ernest Kuh Alumni Scholarship, sent to 1 Alumni House, Berkeley, CA 94720-7520.