In Memoriam: Professor Emeritus Richard C. “Dick” Dorf

Dick Dorf, center, flanked by, from left: H. Rao Unnava, dean, Graduate School of Management; Jennifer S. Curtis, dean, College of Engineering; his wife, Joy; and Ken Burtis, faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost. (Fred Greaves/UC Davis)
Dick Dorf, center, flanked by, from left: H. Rao Unnava, dean, Graduate School of Management; Jennifer S. Curtis, dean, College of Engineering; his wife, Joy; and Ken Burtis, faculty advisor to the chancellor and provost. (Fred Greaves/UC Davis)

Richard C. “Dick” Dorf, professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering and of the Graduate School of Management, passed away on Thursday, October 22, 2020. He was 86. Dorf is survived by his wife Joy, a Presbyterian minister at the Davis Community Church in Davis, CA.

Dorf earned his Ph.D. from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, his M.S. from the University of Colorado, and B.S. from Clarkson University. He joined UC Davis in 1971 as a faculty member in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In 1972, he was appointed dean of Extended Learning and ran the program, which provided courses by correspondence, until 1982. His passion for entrepreneurship and technology management played a pivotal role in establishing the Graduate School of Management — then called the Graduate School of Administration — in 1981. 

Dorf’s research expertise was in control systems, robotics, alternative energy sources and technology policy. Dorf was a Fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the society, as well as a Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, for his contributions to engineering education and control theory. He published 30 books on topics ranging from control systems to technology management and entrepreneurship. His most recent book, Technology Ventures: From Ideas to Enterprise, a textbook exploring global technology entrepreneurship, is now in its fifth edition and used in college courses worldwide.

“Professor Dorf has had a profound influence on our department and on engineers throughout the world as a prolific and influential author,” said Andre Knoesen, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical Computer Engineering. “His textbook Modern Control Systems was internationally recognized for many decades as the leading textbook in the field, along with Introduction to Electric Circuits, which was also widely adopted. He became interested in the social impacts of technology in the 1960s and in his 2001 book Technology, Humans, and Society: Toward a Sustainable World, he wrote: ‘The concept of a sustainable world rests squarely on a global framework for economic vitality, environmental quality and social justice. The means of building, organizing and operating within such a framework depends on sound decisions, responsible actions, appropriate technologies and thoughtful governments, important advice to engineers today as it was then.”

Beyond his work at UC Davis, Dorf served as a consultant in engineering project development, commercialization, innovation, management and new business ventures. He co-founded six technology firms. He was also a mentor to many students and alumni of UC Davis who have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs and was highly esteemed in Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur circles. 

Dorf served terms on the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Executive Committee and the Graduate School of Management’s Dean’s Advisory Council. He also served as a trustee on the UC Davis Foundation Board.

Dorf with his UC Davis Medal.

In 2019, Dorf was awarded the UC Davis Medal in recognition of his contributions to UC Davis and to the fields of engineering, entrepreneurship and technology management. The UC Davis Medal is the highest honor bestowed by the campus, celebrating individuals for extraordinary achievements and contributions to the UC Davis community. Medalists foster a bold and innovative spirit in teaching, research and public service.

Honoring Dorf at a gala celebration in June 2019, Chancellor Gary S. May shared his connection to Dorf long before coming to UC Davis: “I have Dick Dorf’s control systems textbook on my bookshelf, properly highlighted,” said May. “He definitely made an impact on me, even before I knew who he was, when I was an undergraduate. UC Davis has a thriving culture of innovation and entrepreneurship and I can’t think of anyone who embodies this spirit more than Dick Dorf.”

Commitment to Philanthropy

The Dorfs have been supporters of UC Davis and the College of Engineering since 1975. The Richard C. and Joy Dorf Fund for Academic Excellence and Leadership is awarded to undergraduates in the College of Engineering who have demonstrated outstanding academic achievement and exceptional personal leadership.

The Richard and Joy Dorf Engineering Fellowship provides support for graduate students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, specifically those whose life experiences have provided them with personal perspective on issues facing gender or ethnic minorities. They also established the Richard and Joy Dorf Graduate Student Award in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

In 2019, the Dorfs donated $250,000 to create the Dorf Design and Communications Classroom in Kemper Hall. The renovated space is specifically designed for the undergraduate course Introduction to Engineering Design (ENG 3) taught by Jennifer Mullin, which emphasizes skills in design, teamwork and technical communication. The Dorfs also contributed generously to the new Engineering Student Design Center, set to open in fall 2022, which will use a client-focused, project-based approach to help students gain real-world experience and business acumen long before graduation.

“From teaching methods in the College of Engineering to the establishment of the Graduate School of Management to the introduction of entrepreneurship and innovation studies on campus, Dick Dorf’s lasting contributions to UC Davis are indisputable,” said Jennifer Sinclair Curtis, dean of the College of Engineering. “His legacy on campus will remain for years to come through his generous philanthropic support and he will be missed.”

Watch an interview with Dorf from 1999 here.