UI engineering professor named to lead Discovery Partners Institute

UI engineering professor named to lead Discovery Partners Institute

URBANA — An award-winning engineering professor from the University of Illinois' Urbana campus has been tapped to lead the new Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago, anchor of a proposed statewide "innovation network" led by the UI.

President Tim Killeen announced the selection Friday of William Sanders, currently head of the highly ranked Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, as interim head of DPI.

Sanders, who also has directed two campus-wide research centers during his 20-plus years at the university, officially started his new role Aug. 16 pending approval by the Board of Trustees in September. He will earn $387,000 annually, which includes the stipend from his endowed professorship.

Sanders was appointed without a search, which is why his title is “interim,” at least for now.

“The project is moving fast and we needed an experienced leader as soon as possible to help guide it,” said UI spokesman Jan Dennis.

Killeen said Sanders will be in charge of all aspects of launching and operating DPI, a public-private research institute intended as the cornerstone of the proposed Illinois Innovation Network.

The state recently committed $500 million to the initiative, which is led by the UI and intended to spur economic growth through research and innovation and keep talent in the state.

In a release, Killeen called Sanders "an acclaimed educator, innovator and administrator" who shares the vision for the project to create new business, jobs and progress for the state.

Sanders called the chance to build upon and make real the vision for DPI a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." He said he is committed to fulfilling DPI's promise of becoming a new model for higher education that combines the strengths of industry, academia and government in a new way that drives both academic discovery and economic growth.

"DPI will harness the unique strengths and scale of the U of I System universities— together with academic and industry partners from Chicago, the state, and the world – to create an unstoppable engine for innovation,” he said in the release.

As interim director, Sanders will oversee all operations at DPI, including plans to build the new downtown Chicago institute, faculty and staff hiring, development of research and educational programs, and agreements with corporate and academic partners. DPI will operate as an executive office of the president within the UI system, and Sanders will work closely with the chancellors, provosts, and deans of all three campuses, the UI said.

Edward Seidel, vice president for economic development and innovation, will continue to oversee development of DPI and the statewide network, Killeen said. Seidel has led planning for the initiative since it was announced last October.

Sanders, 57, has been head of the electrical and computer engineering department since 2014. The department ranks third nationally for graduate computer engineering, fifth for undergraduate computer engineering, fourth for graduate electrical engineering, and sixth for undergraduate electrical engineering in the latest ratings by U.S. News & World Report.

He joined the UI faculty in 1994. He was founding director of the Information Trust Institute, and also has been director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory. Under his leadership the Information Trust Institute has grown to about 100 faculty members from 28 departments. And at the Coordinated Science Laboratory, Sanders and other professors created the Advanced Digital Sciences Center in Singapore, which has received more than $90 million in funding from the Singapore government to achieve its research vision.

As department head, Sanders created two new graduate degree programs — a professional master of engineering degree that combines graduate-level technical work with professional training and a combined bachelor of science/master of engineering degree program. He also created two new engineering undergraduate degree programs at Zhejiang University’s new international campus in China.

“Bill is an outstanding scholar and a very fine administrator,” Chancellor Robert Jones said in an interview Friday. “This is not his first opportunity to come in and to shape and put structure and flesh on the bone of a critically important idea. I can’t think of anyone that’s better suited to come in at this juncture and build on the very fine work that Ed Seidel has done thus far in bringing this idea to fruition.”

Faculty members, state legislators and community leaders have expressed concerns about DPI draining resources from the Urbana campus. Jones said the fact that Sanders hails from Urbana “doesn’t hurt,” but it’s not “the major driver.”

Sanders’s research focuses on computer system security and dependability. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan, where he also earned his masters and undergraduate degrees.

Prof. Wen-mei Hwu, a UI faculty member since 1987, will be acting department head. He leads the IBM-Illinois Center for Cognitive Computing Systems Research and is a principal investigator on the Blue Waters supercomputing project. Interim engineering

Dean Tamer Basar called Hwu “the epitome of an Illinois Engineering faculty member — gracious, collaborative, innovative, and incisive.”