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Oral-History:David A. Conner

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About David A. Conner

David A. Conner, Ph.D., P. E. has been active in educational and professional organizations throughout his career and is a licensed Professional Engineer. He has taught at four universities and served as the founding chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Professional affiliations include Eta Kappa Nu, Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, AIEE, IRE, IEEE, and ASEE, among others. He remained active in a number of IEEE Sections throughout his career, and he was elected as the Region 3 director for 1992-93. He has held many offices in IEEE, including Institute treasurer. During the interview, he discusses his decades of involvement with IEEE, including his assessment of changes within IEEE over those years.

About the Interview

DAVID A. CONNER: An interview conducted by Charles E. Hickman, Region 3 History Committee chair, on July 19, 2012 in Hoover, Alabama

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

David A. Connor, an oral history conducted in 2012 by Charles E. Hickman, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: David A. Conner

INTERVIEWER: Charles E. Hickman

DATE: July 19, 2012

PLACE: Hoover, Alabama

Family and Education

Hickman:

Dave, as you know we’re starting a project to interview past Region 3 directors. There’s no question that you’ve had an outstanding career as an engineer both in education and professional areas, and we’ll go into detail about that later on. Let’s start off by talking about your family background and how your family influenced you to become an engineer.

Conner:

Well, my father was probably the major influence in my life. He was an educator in his first career and actually received his bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and was working on his doctorate when he decided he couldn’t make a living to support a family from a pre-college education environment. So he changed professions and became an accountant; however, his whole life was education oriented. He was what we truly called in IEEE a life-long learner. Besides having college degrees he was continuingly trying to teach himself new information. I remember in the late 40’s when TV was first coming out we had an early morning modern physics course one year. He would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and take that course 5 days a week, following the course religiously in order to learn something about modern physics. Later, in his early 50’s he was hiring some people who had calculus in college. He felt like he needed to improve his math foundation, so he actually went back to the local junior college and took a couple of calculus courses so that he could have a better math background. When computers came out, he started teaching himself how to program, even wiring boards. He actually set up his company’s accounting system on computers and developed the first utility computerized accounting system in the southeast. After he retired, when he would visit me, he would come to my office and scout my bookshelf to see what books were there, and quite frequently he would borrow books. I remember that one of his interests was improving his knowledge of electronics. So, education was a real emphasis there. My mother was also in education, but she was in the early childhood education arena. And, while she was not as active in continuing to become educated she did push education. For me personally though, as I was being educated and encouraged to be a good student I found that math and physical sciences were my favorite subjects and when I was in high school I had two teachers that really impressed me immensely. One was a high school math teacher, Mary Ann Hussey, and one was my physics teacher, Ralph Godwin. Both of them really inspired me toward the math and technical arena. So, engineering became a logical choice. Since my father’s second profession was in the public utility environment, I became very interested in the electrical environment. So, that sort of made me gravitate toward electrical engineering with my interest being reinforced through my physic courses in electricity and magnetism sections.

Hickman:

That’s interesting because when I was in high school one of my favorite teachers was a physics teacher, and perhaps that’s how I got involved in engineering also. Your engineering career starts in 1961 when you were a full time instructor at Auburn University. You’ve been at Auburn, Georgia Tech, UT Chattanooga, and the University of Louisville before coming to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Conner:

Yes, I had an interesting start though. I graduated in March of 1961 with my bachelor’s degree, and after looking at what industrial opportunities were available, I decided to stay around and get my master’s degree and became a graduate assistant. It happened to be at the right time for me to have a door open. I was in my summer term, at my second quarter of my master’s program, and it was right at the height of the Cuban Missile crisis and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. For those who are old enough to remember, that was the time that President Kennedy had frozen all the people in the military so they couldn’t finish out their tour and had to continue. He called up a lot of reserve units and National Guard units. As the fall term approached, the electrical engineering program at Auburn was short three faculty members. They had a desperate need to have at least a couple of more faculty members. So the administration agreed to allow the department to go down in the graduate student ranks and select two students to be full time faculty members, and I was one of two selected. The interesting thing was that less than six months after I had my bachelor’s degree I was a full time faculty member, as they say, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. That sort of got me started. As most people though in a career, you always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. So after two years in academia, I felt I wanted to make money and get into industry. So, after two years in academia, I went to work for IBM in the Federal Systems Division. But after a period of time, because I was actually still teaching part-time, this time for the University of Alabama in Huntsville I realized I needed to have a Ph.D. So, what I did then was to start looking at opportunities. Because I had teaching experience at two institutions and industrial experience, Georgia Tech was willing hire me as a full-time faculty to teach full-time and to work on my doctorate. That really got me started early in academia.

Early Involvement in AIEE, IRE and IEEE

Hickman:

The IEEE membership starts back, as it did for a lot of us when you were a student member, and I think at that time we had both AIEE and IRE.

Conner:

That is correct, and I joined both organizations in 1959.

Hickman:

I joined both of them too, and was there when they merged with IEEE. What did you do when you were a student member?

Conner:

When I was a student member I attended meetings. I was more active in Eta Kappa Nu, the electrical engineering honorary. I served as president and really focused my efforts there. One of the nice things at the time I was at Auburn was that the student engineering council was composed of two representatives from every student organization – the president and one elected representative. Since the electrical engineering student population was the largest, and, ironically, through the organizations in which we had members, we were able to actually more or less run the engineering council. We divided up which units we would work in so we could all have a strong formal presence at the school level whenever we were dealing with the administration and student affairs. My service commitment happened to be in Eta Kappa Nu.

Hickman:

Obviously, you then went on to the section activities, and held basically all of the offices as well as chairing a lot of the committees. Is this activity what led you into looking further and finding out more about the Region 3 activities?

Conner:

Yes it was. All of my time was spent in Region 3. When I became an IEEE member I was in Alabama Section. As my job activities changed I moved to the Huntsville Section, the Atlanta Section, the Chattanooga Section and the Louisville Section. It wasn’t until 1978 that I came back to the Alabama Section, and became very active at that point in the section because I felt like that was where the rest of my career would be spent. After spending a good bit of time in the Alabama Section and various activities, I was approached to become the Region 3 Area 6 chair. This area represents Alabama and part of Mississippi, and it was from that point that I began to get more active in the region.

Hickman:

You were elected as the Region 3 Director for 1992-1993, and according to the Region 3 history document those were two eventful years.

Conner:

Very much so.

Hickman:

One of the things that seemed to face you was the total membership in Region 3. Higher level members had been increasing but student members had decreased. What did you do to address membership?

Conner:

Well, I have to be honest with you. One of the observations I made as a delegate director after looking at all the duties, I felt that trying to work at the Institute level and region and section levels was more than one person could handle. And so, I decided that I would share the work with my vice-chair. At that time we didn’t have the director-elect. We had a vice-chair. My vice-chair was Debbie Powers, and she had been very active in the Florida council. So I asked her if she would be willing to be the focal point for all the internal regional activities and let me concentrate at the Institute level. We sat down and divvied up all the responsibilities that normally had been acquired by the director, and she assumed all the activities dealing with the local sections, dealing with student branches, and, very frankly, that became her responsibility as well as working with the committee structure. I have to give her credit. She worked very hard on these areas and did an excellent job. So I can’t take any of the credit there; I was just in the background. All I would say to her is keep going, keep going, you’re doing fine, and I was concentrating more on activities at the Institute level at that point.

Hickman:

You had some health problems at that time and apparently getting Debbie involved as much as you did made the transition, if you will, a whole lot easier and better.

Conner:

It was outstanding; she was right ready to jump in. Of course, her husband had been a director so she had seen firsthand what the duties were. Yes, in March of 1993 I had a medical problem, was in intensive care six weeks, and had a rather long recovery. There were two locations that she really filled in for me, one was at Sections Congress that year in Puerto Rico, and she completely handled all the Region 3 activities. At the IEEE board series meeting in August, which took place in Piscataway, she spelled me in several of the meetings so I wouldn’t wear myself out since I was still recuperating. And, in fact, I remember at one meeting at lunch- time I went and took a nap. The staff had actually set me up a cot in a side room so I could take a little rest after lunch. As a result, I was a little late getting to the after lunch meeting. Debbie was sitting in my chair at one of the board meetings and she was giving some people “down the road” for some of the decisions they had made that were adverse to Region 3. I really had fun watching that; when I walked into the room, I decided to sit down in the back and watch her operate. She really defended Region 3 very well. In what could have been a very difficult situation, the decision was revised to the point that it was more favorable to Region 3.

Hickman:

That was at a board meeting?

Conner:

Not the IEEE board meeting, but one of the entity boards. It was the Regional Activities Board (RAB), which is now the Member and Geographic Activities (MGA) Board.

Hickman:

SoutheastCon 1992 was very successful, and, of course, I’m proud of that because it was held in Birmingham. How were you involved in that?

Conner:

Basically, I just simply stood around as an advisor. I did not have to do a lot of work. I thought the Alabama Section had a very good approach. We tried to involve all of the senior members and get them involved in committee groups. Region 3 had an outstanding treasurer, a person who had come from the New Orleans Section, who had a lot of treasury experience. He was selected as the conference treasurer, handled the finances well and did not really need any guidance. But mainly the big effort was getting our senior members involved and lining them up. They really had a good time and worked hard. I thought that it was one of the high points of the involvement of our senior members at our section.

Hickman:

I believe it was in January of 1993 that you established a procedure using Bellsouth Communications to conduct an executive committee meeting. You had people all over the region involved in that. Tell us more about that.

Conner:

Bellsouth had just started having teleconferences, and they had teleconferencing sites at all of their major locations around the southeast. I put a proposal together and actually had Eric Hertz send the proposal on behalf of IEEE and the board of directors to the president of Bellsouth to set up a demonstration project allowing us to use the network one Saturday. We had about five locations around the southeast where we would meet. The only people that actually had to stay overnight were the people from Jamaica who I think flew to Orlando. But, we set the meeting up where it would start at ten o’clock in the morning and go until about three in the afternoon to allow attendees to travel to a local site in the morning and travel home at night. By using that particular technique, we were able to demonstrate the viability of using the Internet and using video. Even though it was compressed video it was very successful. We set up some very detailed ground rules of how we would proceed so we would not have people talking over each other; in fact, I would note that some of the teleconferences that I’m involved in, and I’m involved in one this afternoon, frequently have a lot of people talking over each other. I almost wish we could bring out some of those ground rules that we had set up to make teleconferences run more went smoothly. Every person felt like they had an opportunity to talk on every subject that they wanted to talk on. We videotaped it, and we sent it to the history center in New Jersey. I don’t know what type of medium it’s on now or its accessibility, but we actually archived the video of that teleconference so that it would be available for posterity. The only so-called hiccup we had occurred because of a lighting problem. There was a timer on the lights in the room in which we were meeting in Birmingham, from which I was hosting the conference. The lights timed off. After about thirty seconds, we were able to get them back on, but for a while we were operating in the dark without video. Fortunately we had sound.

Hickman:

SoutheastCon has been the major Region 3 conference every year. For a number of years there was a conference call Southcon. What did you think about that?

Conner:

I thought Southcon was a very good conference. We were joined with another society, but over time conflict occurred. Usually a director, upon leaving the directorship, would move to the Southcon board. Because I had some extra duties that were occurring at the Institute level and because of my professional responsibilities with my teaching assignments, I didn’t feel like I had the time to really devote to Southcon activities, so I did not take a tour of duty on the board of directors of Southcon. One of the other past directors, Vernon Powers, actually filled in for my slot. I felt like Southcon served a very useful purpose, but we finally hit a point though where, because of the economy, many of the professional meetings such as Southcon were not really drawing the crowd and were not financially viable. It became appropriate really for IEEE to bow out after going through several problem years where we were not having the income that we would have liked.

Role in IEEE Finances

Hickman:

One of your major IEEE positions was IEEE Treasurer. At that time, a number of members commented that Institute finances were totally incomprehensible. Some even called the finances “spaghetti.” How did you address these issues?

Conner:

Well, let’s go back in time to when I was on the board of directors as the delegate director in 1992-93. When I started in 1992, our region vice-president, Luis T. Gandia, from Puerto Rico, approached all the region directors and discussed the past conflict and lack of cooperation between region and division directors. He indicated that he and division vice-president, Fernando Aldana, from Spain, had gotten together and wanted to try to address some of the conflict issues. The two groups of directors were being asked to identify all major areas of Institute operation that needed to have director oversight and to pick a director from each side to be responsible for that particular group of activities and make sure that the fellow directors were up to date on issues and also would serve as a leader in developing a cooperative solution with the directors from the other side of the house in order to get the right kind of movement to improve IEEE. As we listed the different areas and divided them up, I became responsible for the financial area along with V. Thomas Ryan who was representing the division directors. At that time the Finance Committee was the IEEE Executive Committee, which was not operating as a finance committee. Almost all finances were left up to the treasurer who at that point was Theodore W. Hissey, Jr. So, Tom and I started working with Ted on finances and more or less became a de facto finance committee. As we began to try to work together we started calling the finances spaghetti. Things were so interwoven and so complex that the budget information was totally unreadable unless you had been spending hours on the financial staff working with it. You had to be an insider to know how to read it. That was when we started trying to make noises to get some of the changes made. We worked very hard at getting changes, but it wasn’t until 1993 when the current CFO retired and a new CFO, Richard Schwartz, was hired that we began to really experience changes in the way financial operations were developed and reported. It was more or less like a breath of fresh air because we were finally able to start getting information. At that point we began to think about what needed to be the future of financial reporting. We realized we needed to reformat the budget. So that became an issue that really didn’t evolve until around 1995. In 1995 I was asked to chair the Finance Committee Review Committee. At that time, IEEE reviewed every major committee every five years. In reviewing that particular operation, we came up with a proposal for an entirely new Finance Committee model that was separate from the executive officers of IEEE. At the same time, we also felt that there needed to be a new budget format that would be more readable for the IEEE Board of Directors. We went through a number of iterations over the next few years trying to get a more readable budget, more understandable budget. It wasn’t until 1999 when I became IEEE Treasurer that we began to really see a financial hole that we had in our operation. The history of IEEE starting back in the 1970’s was that at the corporate level, there was a reserve fund just as there was a reserve fund for societies, regions, and sections and that reserve fund at the Institute level was being depleted to fund all of the new initiatives for developing new products and making modifications to old products. However, the revenue that was generated by the new products and by the modified old products was going to the various entities such as societies and regions. As a result, the Institute level reserves were being rapidly depleted. The year 1999 became the break point when we all of sudden we had a depletion of Institute reserves and had to start coming up with the new model for how we funded all of the innovative things that we needed to do at the corporate level to help IEEE grow and be prosperous and maintain its market share in terms of intellectual property. That’s sort of a quick history there.

Hickman:

Do you think IEEE is handling the intellectual property problems well today?

Conner:

I think we’ve done an admirable job. Obviously, we have a lot of progress that we can still make, but I think we have the staff and leadership roles right now that are going to help move us in the right direction and continue to move us forward. I think the innovativeness that is being introduced is admirable; and, as long as we have volunteers that are willing to work with us, I think we will continue to be very viable.

Education and Awards Experience

Hickman:

As we noted right at the beginning you’ve been very active in educational aspects of the organization, and one of the society activities has been the Education Society. Tell us more about your activities there.

Conner:

Within the Education Society, I began by being active in society conferences, but more in a coordinator role. But I quickly gravitated toward working with the IEEE Transactions on Education. That area seemed to be where my activities were needed. So, I started off as a reviewer and then moved on to the publications committee as the co-chair and became manager and Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of the Transaction. When I finally terminated my activities in early 2000 as EIC of the Transactions, I then began a transition into activities of the IEEE Awards Board and the IEEE Fellows Committee. However, recently I’ve been involved in getting the most recent selection accomplished for our newest EIC editor of the Transactions on Education.

Hickman:

When you were associated with the Education Society, did you work through the Publication Services and Products Board?

Conner:

I worked with IEEE Publication Services and Products Board (PSPB) as one of the editors of the panel of editors. However, that was my only activity until I finished my term as EIC of the Transactions. At that time there was a group formed to try to improve the quality of editorial standards and look at some of the issues that were involved. So, a working group was formed, and for two years I served on that group. We wrote our report to the PSPB and that completed our responsibilities, so we were disbanded.

Hickman:

Over the years I was also involved in the Awards Board activities, and I note that you had a lot of activities associated with the Awards Board. Tell us about that.

Conner:

My awards activities have been more recent. I was not active in the Awards Board until I was appointed to the IEEE Teaching Award Committee - first as a member and then as chair. I then was elected chair of the Technical Field Awards Council. With that responsibility, I became a member of the Awards Board. By virtue of my technical fields awards role, I served on the Awards Review Committee and the Awards Operations Committee. Independently, I was elected to serve on the Awards Policies and Procedures Committee. So, I’m rather active in the awards board environment right at this point in time.

IEEE Foundation Board Activities

Hickman:

Tell us what the IEEE Foundation Board is and how that is associated with IEEE itself.

Conner:

IEEE Foundation Board is an arm’s length 501C(3) organization that, while it supports the philanthropic efforts of IEEE, has no governance relationship with IEEE. The thing that keeps this relationship is that foundation board members are required to be IEEE members, and many of the board members have had experiences on the IEEE Board of Directors. So, there is a relationship from just that personal experience standpoint. The IEEE Foundation was formed to take care of a number of philanthropic activities that IEEE used to perform. Currently, it handles many of the awards funds, but it goes beyond the awards funds with grants funding many technological and humanity initiatives. It supports a number of activities, even the pre-college environment. Additionally, the Foundation has started moving more closely with the IEEE Life Member Committee so that grants that are being made are coordinated between the two structures so they are each able to home in on the activities that are most appropriate for their venue and can best improve the service activities of electrical engineers.

Hickman:

What’s the major funding of the IEEE foundation?

Conner:

Donations.

Hickman:

From whom?

Conner:

Sometimes, when the awards are set up by a society or organization of IEEE, they will transfer funds from their reserve account with the approval of the IEEE Board of Directors to the foundation. Solicitations from members and from the public are made. The Foundation has also received grants from various entities, other foundations, and from federal agencies to accomplish certain objectives that are aligned with the overall objectives of the philanthropic opportunities that would be available to the environment of IEEE.

Member and Geographic Activities Board

Hickman:

Recently, the Regional Activities Board (RAB) has been renamed the Member and Geographic Activities Board (MGA). What led to that change and how is MGA different than RAB?

Conner:

Well, I was not involved with the name change and all of the discussion; in fact, it was well after the discussion had taken place within the RAB board and with some of the IEEE Board of Directors that I had even learned of the name change. I felt that is was a good name change from my own personal perspective. I felt like we had to give better focus to the needs of members and the diversity that we have within our geographic activities around the Institute. When I was on the IEEE Board of Directors, it was very educational to learn what was going on in the other regions and how the dynamics were different, how the parameters for operation were different, and looking at one or two of the regions that had so many diverse countries that were involved, I thought it was important to have a better member emphasis, so I supported the move wholeheartedly. Since that transition has taken place, I have not really been active in that environment, the MGA environment, so I would not be your best source to try to articulate what is good or what is bad, but from my perspective, I like the change.

Alabama Board of Licensure

Hickman:

Over and above some of the direct IEEE activities that we talked about I know you have been involved in the Alabama Board of Licensure. What have you been doing in that realm?

Conner: Well, the Alabama Board of Licensure Professional and Land Surveyors at the time I served on the board had five members. There were four engineers and one land surveyor. It was basically understood that there would be one board member that was an electrical engineer, one that was a civil engineer, one that was a mechanical engineer, and then one board position was to be occupied by somebody from one of the other disciplines. So, my first experience was to be nominated and selected by the governor to serve as the electrical engineer representative. After serving I felt there was an opportunity to keep active in relationship to the board; so, I looked for opportunities to serve. One of the problems that was established when I was on the board was with various engineering societies having a number of sections in the State. I use the word sections because that was the term we use in IEEE. Since there were three IEEE sections in the State (Alabama Section, Huntsville Section and Mobile Section), I recognized the need for a coordinator so that their diverse interests and concerns were brought before the board and to ensure that, when there was a vacancy, they were adequately represented in terms of the selection of the nominees that would go to the governor. I have served in that position since early 2000. In addition to that, I have had the responsibility of serving on working groups as they’ve been formed. I’ve also had the responsibility of helping the board when they would have a complaint against a practicing electrical engineer about competency to help the board in terms of a background check, especially from a technical perspective. I am still actively assisting the board in those areas.

IEEE Evolvement

Hickman:

You’ve been a member of IEEE since it was formed back in 1963. How has IEEE evolved over the course of your involvement over the years?

Conner:

Oh, it’s been amazing. Obviously, as I talked earlier about financial change, the budgeting process has changed, and the way in which projects are funded has also been changed. I served on the IEEE Executive Committee when I was Treasurer; that committee has been eliminated. We have a different governance structure because of that. We don’t have two level governance; we now have single level governance. I’ve seen the non-US members come into a greater play and a greater role of responsibility, a greater voice, and, as a result, I’ve seen their membership also increase to now where they are a very vital part of the Institute. When I joined IEEE, it was almost totally male dominated, other than a few ladies who had been active in the accreditation arena. Obviously, the computer society had a few women in leadership roles, but I’ve seen the total Institute grow more from the female side of the house, with more involvement in all levels of IEEE. I know, for example, right now within the Awards Board we are trying to ensure not only a very representative number of female members but also a very broad regional representation in all areas. In fact I will have a teleconference later this afternoon, and that will be one of the subjects; namely to see how we’re progressing. From a standpoint of our younger members, we need to get them involved in section activities. Unfortunately, when young graduates leave student membership to become a regular member, they must work hard and perhaps force their way into section involvement. Our Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) concept I think is aiding that involvement. I think that’s helped bring more young blood into IEEE, and I think it has been healthy for some of our Institute committees to have some younger insights coming there. I can remember in 1992 when I joined the board of directors, it was the first time we started using paperless board meetings, and I watched that fought tooth and nail by some of the old-timers. I mean they couldn’t operate without a piece of paper in front of them. Now we’re pretty much paperless. We get a CD that you can put on your laptop or computer to generate your own paper, but we’re pretty much software oriented. I think that’s been very healthy for our Institute. That’s another change I’ve seen.

Hickman:

You mentioned the fact that we want to get more members involved. As noted, one of the programs to encourage new members has been GOLD. What has been the role of industry in fostering IEEE membership?

Conner:

I agree that GOLD has been successful. One of the problems I am seeing is that with the economic times that we’re having right now, companies are getting, “leaner and meaner,” and companies are trying to do more with less people. So job responsibilities seem to be growing without bound, and, as a result, management is not pushing the young members to get out and get involved in professional societies as happened in our younger days. What they’re saying is put more time in on the job. It’s almost becoming a 24/7 situation on the job. Plus, one of the experiences that I have had especially in Region 3 is trying to invite some of the women, younger females or some of the graduates of my UAB program to become more involved in IEEE. I find that as they get married and have the family responsibilities, start wanting to grow a family and maintain a career, they really have to decide where to put the efforts. They don’t seem to have the time for the professional society. It’s a balance situation we have to work through.

Hickman:

We’ve covered a lot of areas and a lot of your involvement. Do you have any closing remarks?

Conner:

No, I just thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this project, and I look forward to seeing some of the other inputs that you get from other Region 3 directors.

Hickman:

Thank you very much, Dave, for your time.