David Lee (PhD '74), Trustee, Business Leader, and Philanthropist
Long before his great achievements in the worlds of accounting and telecommunications, David Lee saw his future in theoretical astrophysics. His journey to Caltech began in Taiwan where he grew up, and then at McGill University, where he quickly learned a new culture and discovered his talents in math and physics. At Caltech, Lee joined Kip Thorne's research group, where he conducted important and promising research in gravitational field theory.
Lee then made a consequential and even daring decision. Although he was certain to achieve prominence in physics, he realized that his truest potential lay elsewhere. When he shared the news with Thorne that he would study accounting after graduate school, Thorne's response was a study in the meaning of true mentorship. While Thorne was undoubtedly disappointed that Lee's career would take him in a different direction, his solid support and encouragement of Lee shows that a great academic mentor is really a great life mentor.
At Arthur Anderson, Lee established his skills quickly, and he was on the fast track to executive leadership. His subsequent appointments included the satellite company Comsat and the aerospace corporation TRW. As one of the co-founders of Global Crossing, Lee made historically important contributions to global networking, and at Clarity Partners he became closely involved in the world of private equity.
In the discussions below, Lee relates how special it was to return to Caltech as a Trustee, and the unique perspective he could offer given his background as an alumnus and business executive. During his tenure as Chair of the Board of Trustees from 2012 until 2021, Lee oversaw tremendous success as Caltech's endowment doubled, and numerous building and renovation projects revitalized campus. With his wife Ellen, Lee established the David and Ellen Lee Distinguished Fellows Fund, and a grant through the Lee Family Foundation helps to support Caltech's Center for Advanced Networking. In reflecting on his Board service, Lee speaks with particular admiration in his partnerships with previous Caltech presidents David Baltimore and Jean-Lou Chameau, and current president Thomas Rosenbaum.
Looking to the future, Lee sees bright prospects for Caltech, and he has high hopes that further growth of the endowment will ensure new possibilities for research at the cutting edge of science and engineering, and expanded opportunities to serve new generations of students hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, March 6, 2023. I am delighted to be with Dr. David Lee. David, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me.
DAVID LEE: My pleasure.
ZIERLER: To start, would you tell me your title and affiliation here at Caltech?
LEE: Well, I'm a trustee of the Board of Trustees at Caltech.
ZIERLER: Now, as Chair Emeritus, is that strictly an honorific, or does that come with any specific responsibilities beyond being a trustee?
LEE: It's honorific.
ZIERLER: When did you step down as chair?
LEE: End of last year.
Leadership at the Getty Trust
ZIERLER: Beyond Caltech, what are some of the other boards or philanthropic initiatives that you're a part of?
LEE: I am still the chair of the board of trustees of the Getty Trust.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the Getty Trust.
LEE: Well, the Getty Trust was set up to hold basically four operating programs: the Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Research Institute, and finally, the Getty Foundation. the Trust itself has an endowment that's close to $10 billion, and it funds all of these operations out of the payout every year.
ZIERLER: What are some of the things that are exciting to you that the Getty Trust makes possible?
LEE: As I described to you, it has a diversity of activities. The Museum is world-class. They deal mostly antiquities and old masters collections, a little bit of the Impressionist paintings, but nothing that's contemporary. In that sense, it's different than the other museums that are in town or in North America. In the Conservation Institute, it does conservation work on a worldwide basis. Basically, they choose World Heritage Sites that require a lot of conservation work, and they approach it from a scientific basis. They supply the technical know-how and financial support to train the local institutes so that after they leave, there will be people that can carry on the work. It's not always a one-shot deal. You get it started, you show the initial results, and you train the local people, and then you keep going back. And then, every now and then, they also hold worldwide symposiums.
They pick a particular topic, and then they develop an approach to fix some of the problems, and then they hold a symposium. They convene meetings by inviting all the experts from all over the world to come and focus on that particular topic. They share knowledge and expertise. In that sense, Getty is highly regarded. And they're able to do it because they don't require any outside source funding, so they pick and choose their own spots, basically. The Research Institute has one of the largest collections of literature, original source materials dating back 1,000 years or so. In a sense, it's a specialized library setup, they do a lot of research, but on the other hand, they also collect some things that you don't typically associate with a library.
For example, Getty recently collaborated with three other major institutions in the country to acquire 100% of the portfolio of the photographs of this Ebony magazine. It's owned by the Johnson Publishing Company. They used to publish Ebony magazine and several other magazines. Jet, and so on. They have a collection of all the photographs that have been taken over the last 50 years. In a sense, you can dig through all of that. And by the way, there are boxes and boxes of those. It's one of the best collections of original materials that portray Black lives in America in all different aspects. Hair salons, local bars, weddings, birthday parties, celebrities, and so on.
They are now digitizing all these collections. They also want to sponsor research projects. For example, people interested in this kind of material or information, or people taking undergraduate or graduate courses in those kinds of studies, can apply and get financial support from the Getty. They can then research through those materials and then, hopefully, out of that, draw some insights or observations that are worthwhile to share That's the mission of the Research Institute. But they also have the original journals–I think they call them journals–of all those transactions of major art by the largest dealer in the world dating back 200-250 years. They have meticulously kept records of all the sales, the buyer, the price, the description of the article, and so on.
If you want to check on provenance, who bought what at what time for what price, that is the original source material you go to. We acquired that, for example. [Laugh] But that's the kind of stuff that the Research Institute has. The Foundation is, like, the Mellon Foundation in a sense or like the Ford Foundation, but it focuses mostly on arts, both in terms of research and in terms of whatever activities new artists who require some kind of support need. That's what the Foundation does. They step in and provide it. You've got to apply, and then it goes through a process. But also, the Foundation looks for particular topics of the decade that require funding and coordinated research.
For example, you probably know that when the West started painting in oils, the first medium was actually on panels, not on canvas. They painted them on panels, and typically they were done for basically churches, chapels, and areas of worship. These old paintings are beautiful, some of them. But after a few centuries, they deteriorate, and it requires a lot of work. They crack, they warp. How do you fix those panels? Because if the panel gives you a problem, then the painting itself gets distorted. How do you restore them? It turns out that in major museums, particularly in the New World, they used to have very good woodworking technicians, who knew how to put additional support behind the panel and support them without destroying them. And different museums, we found out, have different approaches. Getty stepped in and said, "We should have a worldwide effort." And they, again, supported several institutions and had them basically go and bring out of retirement some of those old technicians, then work on some specific examples.
And then, after a year or two, they founded this international consortium, shared all the results, documented them, published them. All the other institutions that have panel paintings can draw on this experience and expertise. That's what the Foundation does. They look for this kind of topic of interest and provide financial support. And if you think about it, governments don't do that. Furthermore, many other philanthropic foundations don't have the connections or the expertise into the art world that can really spot this kind of opportunities or needs to provide the support, and Getty does that. It's kind of interesting and fun.
ZIERLER: Did you have an interest in art? Were you connected in the art world that provided a point of contact for the Getty Trust?
LEE: No. When they first approached me, I said, "Why do you come to me?" I didn't even take a single course in art history while in college. [Laugh] They said, "Yeah, but there's a lot of technology involved." [Laugh] I'm interested in history in general, and then I'm interested in how human beings learn to express themselves through art basically. I learned so much by just being around the Getty folks.
ZIERLER: What about the USC Keck School of Medicine? Do you still have an affiliation with the board there?
LEE: No, not any longer. I was drawn to it by this fellow who, in terms of Caltech history, played a very significant role, a fellow by the name of Si Ramo. He has since passed away. Si called me up, and he said, "David, the Keck Foundation is making a naming gift to USC to name the medical school. We're forming this non-fiduciary board of overseers. We'd like you to join that board." I said, "Si, I'm already busy. I've got a day job. And I'm already on the board of Caltech." And Si Ramo, if you know him at all, he's a colorful character. He paused, then he said, "Listen, David. I know you're busy with Caltech. I was one of the guys who got you there, who nominated you. But this USC thing is very important." The USC Medical School at that time was not doing as well as UCLA's medical school, and Keck Foundation really felt strongly that the city of Los Angeles should have at least two world-class medical schools. "I'd like you to join that. Besides," he said, "you're going to get sick one day, and it'd be nice if you got to know some very good doctors." I said, "All right, all right," so I joined that.
But it's non-fiduciary. I was happy going to the meetings, and providing some advice to them, and so on. All in the non-fiduciary world. Pretty soon the president of USC at the time started approaching me about joining the USC board. I said, "Come on. You guys all knew before I signed onto this medical school non-fiduciary board that I'm a trustee at Caltech. I can't be a trustee at both places. It would be a conflict of interest." They approached me three separate times, three separate years. And the president said, "David, you set a record. You're the only guy who's said no to me three times." But he called my bluff. He said, "I don't see any conflict. I'm going to talk to David Baltimore." He actually talked to David Baltimore. I said, "David, how'd the conversation go?" He said, "Gosh darn it. [Laugh] I wish you didn't raise it in the first place, but pushed to the wall, I really can't see any real conflict." That's how I joined the USC board. This time, it was fiduciary. There was no kidding. Then, a few years later, Caltech decided to make me the chairman. That was when I basically had the conversation with them and said, "This is getting a little bit too far. I've got to resign from the USC board." That was how that went.
ZIERLER: In the world of business, are you completely retired? Are you still involved in ventures?
LEE: I still have some passive private investments. People approach me when there's a "deal," and I look at some of those, but it's not active. I don't get involved in management. I'm way past that.
ZIERLER: What's interesting to you where you are involved to even a passive degree? What are the kinds of things that would spark your interest?
LEE: They're mostly technology-related, a new invention to solve a particular problem or a new way of doing things that's different than before. I don't get involved if somebody wants to open up a restaurant chain. I say, "That's not my area." I don't get involved.
The Pull From Science to Business
ZIERLER: We'll cover all things in their narrative place, but just a few overall questions about how you've balanced your expertise in physics with all of the things you've accomplished in business. Did you have a sense during graduate school that you would be bound for a life of business? How did you come to make those decisions?
LEE: It evolved as time went on. Ever since high school, I knew I wanted to really pursue physics. That was my one and only interest and my one and only goal. It took me only three years to finish my undergraduate. I was in a hurry. I did not take any liberal arts classes. I got a free pass, okay? They still gave me a degree. And then, I came to Caltech, and again, it was only physics. But when the end was in sight, I paused because I was still very young at that time. I said, "I was in a hurry to get here, and now that I'm almost here, I've been ignoring a lot of the stuff around me. Should I not be taking a little time to check out the alternatives?" Actually, I looked at doing something in the biomedical area. I knew nothing about it.
Then, I found out, for example, Feynman, in one summer, was very interested to really understand how ears are structured mechanically so they can hear all the different tones. Human ears are very sensitive, incredible mechanical structures. I knew it because I went to the library, and there was a whole shelf of books dealing with hearing and all that stuff. And I noticed that Feynman checked out all those books. [Laugh] Also, at the time, at Caltech, there was a professor in biology who came to Caltech as a professor in physics, Max Delbrück. He quit physics and became a professor in biology. He did his original research using fruit flies, something to do with how genetic coding passes from one generation to the other. He got a Nobel Prize in biology. Lo and behold, I went and talked to him. He looked at me and said, "David, two questions. One, are you too old to make a switch?" I said, "I don't think so. You made a switch."
He laughed and said, "But it took a lot of work. Are you prepared for that?" And then the second thing was, "Do you have something in mind?" I said, "No, I know nothing about other areas." He said, "It's going to take you some time to figure it out. You've got to pick and choose your spot. You don't know enough to figure out where to start." He said, "I don't know how to advise you how to do that." I thought about that, and I thought about business. I said, "I know nothing about business." I was taking the economics class at Caltech, and it was, like, 101. This is not the Samuelson standard economics stuff. I just went to his office. And he said, "David, we're going to talk about the automobile industry in the United States." I said, "Okay." He said, "You know they make cars." I said, "Sure." "You know there are three big companies, all in Detroit." "Yeah, I've heard of them." "You know how different they are from each other?" "Yeah." "What sets them apart, and why do you think they're successful?" I said, "I have no idea." He said, "Here are their annual reports. Go home and read them."
Once a week, I'd sit down with him in his office, and he would give me annual reports, I'd read them, then we'd talk about how to look at those companies. In the annual reports, they always have numbers. I'd try to compare numbers and all that. I didn't know how to do financial analysis. I sort of figured it out. And he kind of looked at me and said, "Stop, David. If you really want to know what makes those companies successful or not, you've got to know the people. You've got to know their management style, how they manage things." That was a whole new concept to me because I was given the annual reports, reading the numbers.
ZIERLER: You were strictly quantitative in your mind.
LEE: Yeah, yeah. I didn't know anything. I said, "How do you get to know the people?" He said, "You've got to move around. You've got to go meet up with them and talk to them." This guy was from Harvard and personally invested in stocks. He said, "I make it happen. I try to at least get to know directly or indirectly some of the CEOs, understand their style, their approach to things." Indirectly, he was feeding me all those intangible, management 101 kinds of things without telling me what that is. He said, "The numbers are a result of that." We want through industry by industry in a kind of organized way. Forestry, automotive, aerospace, oil and gas, all the different major industries in America. Then, I'd learn about those companies, learn about their financial characteristics, and that's how I got into it.
I said, "Hey, that's kind of interesting. It's much less structured than physics or engineering. Everything there is clearly defined, and if you know the rules and the formula, the results are the results. There are no hidden factors that would influence those, but in business there are a lot of intangibles behind the scenes. In that sense, it's very different." Then, I said, "How does one go about learning this stuff?" I thought that was kind of interesting. That was my first exposure. I talked to my professor, Kip Thorne, and he said, "Are you sure you want to do that? You're already on track to do physics." He was setting it up for me to go visit different places in the United States to give seminars about my research, sort of interviews for post-doc positions.
ZIERLER: Kip probably had high hopes for you at this point.
LEE: He said, "You're doing great. You should have no problem getting a post-doc appointment. Are you sure you want to try this?" I said, "Kip, listen." At that time, I was only 23. "I think I'm young. I can give it a couple of years, and if I found out I'm not cut out for it, and it's not the right thing, I can always come back." He said, "Oh, okay. You sure you want to do this?" I said, "Well, I'm not really sure, but I think I want to try it." He said, "You talk to your parents?" He kind of figured my parents were very proud to see their son finishing in physics, doing research in physics, Caltech, blah, blah, blah, all that. I said, "No, I haven't." He said, "You better talk to your parents." [Laugh] I talked to my parents, and my parents were very supportive. They said, "We know nothing about the business world." They'd always worked in the government.
They said, "But you're young. You do whatever you want to do." And then, I was getting ready to get married. I talked to my future wife, and she was supportive, and what did we know? Then, I said, "How does one get started?" One idea my professor said was, "You should apply to Harvard and get an MBA from there." Then, I went to talk to my economics professor. He was from Harvard. He said, "No, David, I would not advise you to do that." I said, "Why? That's the easy way." He said, "You've already got more than enough degrees to make your way in business. You don't need another Harvard MBA. Go and get yourself grounded." I said, "How do I get myself grounded?" He said, "Learn the debits and credits and then how the numbers add up in business. Become a CPA." I said, "How does one become a CPA?" He said, "Easy, go pass a CPA test."
I went back and talked to my professor. Kip said, "All right, if that's what you want to do. I'll support you. You'll be a post-doc in my group." I said, "No, no, I don't want to be doing that. I don't want to have any research application. I just want to earn a living at Caltech by doing some coursework." I was a teaching assistant. Lecturer. They gave me a title. I stayed on as a lecturer or one year, meaning I didn't have to do any research. I didn't spend any of Kip's research dollars. Actually, I published a couple papers while I was there. Then, I took some night classes at Cal State LA in accounting, debits and credits, and then sat for the CPA exam. I passed the CPA exam and became a CPA. I got hired by one of the big eight. That's how I got into business.
ZIERLER: Did you have a sense of what we now call quants?
LEE: No, I wasn't a quant. This is basic blocking and tackling, learning how the business actually works on a daily basis. Arthur Andersen had many clients at the time, so I was involved with large clients and small clients. They all had different businesses. You'd go in there, try to understand what they did. Every day, they'd bring revenues in, and you'd understand what they are and how they did it. I learned it from the ground up.
ZIERLER: But more generally, the idea that there were people who had advanced degrees in physics and math entering into the world of business. Were you aware of, for example, Jim Simons? Were you aware that there were people who had made this transition?
LEE: I sort of heard about them. I never really talked to any one of those people. Somehow, I was given this idea by my economics professors that, "You've got to dumb yourself down. [Laugh] This PhD degree from Caltech is going to scare a lot of people." [Laugh] At that time, if I had decided to go the quant side, and join one of the investment banking firms, and just kind of sit at a desk and pound on a computer, it would've been a totally different career. But this other track sort of exposed me to everything from mom-and-pop shops to corporate America, seeing different companies, large and small, how they're set up, how they're structured. I not only did audits for them, I also provided tax advice to them, helped companies do their tax returns, and also if they wanted "automate," I advised them how to set up computer systems for general accounting, revenue accounting, customer service, and so on. It was pretty good training for me.
ZIERLER: In what ways did your background in physics help your achievements in business?
LEE: Not directly, but the ability to have keen observation and try to draw generalized conclusions out of some of the observations helped, I think. And also, because of my background, they put me on the teams to work on more the technology-oriented companies that were thinking about going IPO, that required a lot of beefing up in their accounting systems, and all that. But when we'd go out to meet with those companies to propose them to hire our accounting firm versus our competitors, they figured pretty soon that if I was part of that team, it was easy for me to get on the same level and talk about the technologies of the company with the founder/proprietor. I started working on quite a number of those technology companies. That was a lot of fun. I helped them go IPO and stuff like that.
ZIERLER: Kip was so gracious and supportive when you made this decision. Do you think he was also disappointed?
LEE: I'm not sure. He's got a lot of students who are all very good. There are so many talents out of Kip's pool, I don't think he would miss me in that sense. I enjoyed being around him. I think he enjoyed having my presence, although I don't speak very much. I'm not the most talkative guy in a crowd.
ZIERLER: By the time of your election to the board of trustees at Caltech in 2000, in the intervening 25 years, were you connected with Caltech at all?
LEE: To some degree, I was always connected to Caltech. I live in the neighborhood, so there are events on the campus I would go to. But not to a lot of them, because I was busy with my day job. I was sort of connected in that sense, but not in a really active way.
ZIERLER: Did you have an idea when you made this decision to go into business that maybe someday, you would do something like join the board as a way to give back?
LEE: No. That was too far out to think about. Frankly, at that time, here was a young guy in his early 20s about to make this career change and get married. I had a lot of things on my mind. [Laugh] Rather than having the chutzpah to think that, "Far down the road, I'm going to be able to do this and that." Anybody telling you that is lying. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I wonder if you've ever considered, had you stayed in physics and gone on to the post-doc, what kinds of research would you have done in that alternate-reality career?
LEE: Well, I would've continued to work in gravitational field theories, gravitational waves, black holes, all that stuff. I would have stayed in that general area because that was where I did my original PhD work. It's the area I'm quite familiar with. That's not to say that if I'd stayed on the academic side, over 20 years, I wasn't going to pull a zig-zag and go do something totally different after I got my tenure. I'd probably move out and do something totally crazy. But I don't know. It's one of those thought experiments that's interesting to think about the what-ifs, but it's gone.
The Legacy of Si Ramo
ZIERLER: Let's move to 2000. What was the mechanism whereby you joined the board? Do you express interest? Are you invited?
LEE: I got invited. I think Si Ramo was on the board at the time, and there's a nominating committee. Actually, after my company went IPO, I already made a gift to Caltech before they nominated me. They invited me to lunch and asked me if I had interest in joining, and the answer was very quickly, "Yes." And that was that.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your relationship with Si Ramo. How far back does it go?
LEE: In my earlier career, one of the stops was a company called TRW, Thompson, Ramo, and Wooldridge. Ramo was the R. And there were some Caltech graduates at TRW that were really outstanding. And the CEO at the time was also from Caltech, Rube Mettler, also on the Caltech board. He would invite a small number of us on a monthly basis to have lunch with him. It was a big deal to get invited up to the headquarters in the executive dining room and have lunch with Si Ramo. He would come around and say, "Young man, tell me what you guys are doing. Anything interesting?" And we'd start talking. Pretty soon, he would take over the conversation. He would say, "Let me tell you." And then, boom, it became Si Ramo's conversation.
We enjoyed that kind of intercourse. After I joined the Caltech board, I interacted with him some more. And we kept our relationship up, even after his retirement. After he turned 101 years old, he was totally retired, obviously, still lived out in Beverly Hills. About once a quarter, I would go out with him, have lunch. His office would call my office and say, "Time to have lunch with Dr. Ramo." "Sure." Dutifully, I'd show up, we'd have lunch at Spago, and then reminisce about the old days, about education, about mathematics, how it's so important to get a strong grounding in mathematics to be able to do anything you want to do in science and technology. And he would tell me the good old days with Millikan. He came to Caltech in the early days of Millikan, I think in 1930-1931.
He would tell me the stories about Millikan, how he was a very accomplished violin player. He said Millikan would call him and say, "Ramo, get your equipment." This was on Sunday afternoons. He'd say, "I'll pick you up at the corner." Then, they'd drive out to one of the ladies' homes in San Marino. Millikan would talk to a bunch of ladies. She would host a small party, serve tea, and all that, and Ramo would play music for the crowd. [Laugh] This is the kind of thing Si would tell me and talk to me about. As one gets older, one likes to talk about some of the older things, earlier things. My interaction with him was very, very good. All the way until right after he came to the age of 100, Caltech decided that–we had this medal called the Millikan Medal, and now I guess they've changed the name. They would give out this medal not too frequently to someone that made an outstanding contribution to Caltech. And I think there's a rule that you can't give the medal to a currently serving trustee, so we had to wait until he was fully retired, not even a live trustee anymore. By then, he was, like, 100 years old. I think even older. We notified him, his son. I know his son as well. We said, "We're going to host a party." He said, "I'll gladly accept it on one condition. I'm not coming out to Pasadena to get this. You guys should come to me, Bel Air." I said, "Fine, name the place." "Bel Air Hotel."
Then, we hosted a very nice dinner party for him. He said to me, "The problem I have is, most of my friends are gone. They've died off." I said, "Come on, Si. You must know a lot of people and even their kids. Invite them." He said, "I'm going to invite my family and friends." I said, "Of course, invite your family and friends." We had a very nice ceremony for him. I remember telling him in front of everybody, "Si, this is such a unique and special award from Caltech. We had to wait until you were 100 years old to make sure you didn't do anything that didn't deserve this honor. Now, we're totally satisfied. Here it is. Here's your award." He got up, accepted it, and went on to speak for half an hour. No script, no paper. He stood up there and spoke for half an hour. It was so moving.
ZIERLER: Do you remember what he talked about?
LEE: Good old Caltech, what made Caltech special, all the exploits he had setting up companies, "The key is education. The key is people." He was speaking not just to us at Caltech, but also to his family, to all the people he'd invited to that dinner. I thought it was very moving. After Si passed away at 103, his son called me up and said, "Dying wish from the father." I said, "Okay, what is it?" He said, "We'd like Caltech to host the memorial service." I said, "Of course. We'll do it at the Ramo Auditorium." [Laugh] That's the kind of involvement I had with Caltech. They interweave into a very nice network.
ZIERLER: What was the dynamic of your relationship with Ramo? Did you consider him a mentor? Did he consider you a mentee?
LEE: He always considered me as a mentee. He always said, "Young man, let me tell you…" [Laugh] And then, he published several books, books about playing tennis, books about organizing a meeting, books about a bunch of stuff. And he would talk to me about the essence of the book. He actually had a script that was half-finished. He wanted me to talk to somebody in Hollywood to see if somebody would take the script, finish it, and make a movie out of it. That was towards the end of his life. We didn't get it to work.
ZIERLER: By the time you joined the board at Caltech, were you already familiar with how boards worked? Did you serve on other boards at that time?
LEE: No, that was my first board. I hadn't served on other not-for-profit boards before that.
ZIERLER: What about your contributions in philanthropy? Were they already well-developed by that point?
ZIERLER: Tell me about some of the key issues facing Caltech that you remember when you joined the board. What did you learn about?
LEE: Caltech was always running on the edge. Caltech always wanted to do more things than they financially were capable of. The president and the provost cannot take a very heavy-handed way to say no to people, so they've got to go through a process. Because these are all great scientists, and everybody respects everybody else. There is an aspect of financial challenge that should be evident to people. To contrast with USC, USC has a very large student body, they charge a lot for tuition, and the cost of buildings, professors, and teaching assistants to give out lectures is very small compared to the kind of revenue they can bring in from the tuition. They actually make a lot of money from education. If you look at Caltech's missions, one is education. No different than large or small universities or colleges. They all have an education mission. But because Caltech is so small, it's guaranteed to lose money on the educational front.
The overhead, the cost of running a lab, the cost of maintaining classrooms, the cost of having professors and teaching assistants. When you have a small class of five students, you don't cover the fixed overhead. Now, there are some popular classes that have 40, 50 students, but that's really more the exception than the rule. On the education front, taken as a whole, we only have 1,000 undergraduate students. We lose money on that. It's obvious. On the graduate student side, Caltech pays them via grants, professors' research grants.
On the educational front, it's a given that Caltech loses money. And then, on the research front, research grants come with overhead, too. And Caltech's overhead rate is in the same ballpark as Stanford. I think Stanford's was a little higher at the time. Or USC, or UCLA, one of those. If you look at the way the federal government defines the overhead pool, and out of that, they calculate the overhead rate that comes with a grant, the overhead pool excludes certain overhead, like the corridors, the bathrooms, and other buildings. You never fully recover the overhead. Say a whole building's dedicated to research, and all the research activities there are supported by the grant. You don't cover 100% of the overhead of that building because there are certain items that are excluded from the definition of the overhead pool. You lose money on research.
ZIERLER: Where's it going to come from?
LEE: Endowment payout. Thank God, we have endowment. However, when I joined Caltech, the endowment was low. It was, like, slightly over a billion. When you do capital campaigns, you raise money, but only a small portion of the money you raise goes toward the endowment. A lot of it goes towards current research activities, sometimes it goes towards a new building. By the way, they never cover 100% of the cost of the building. Caltech has to come up with more. And so, it's always behind the eight-ball. The endowment payout–5% of a billion is only $50 million. It's not a lot. And at that time, we also had JPL. The JPL contract at that time did not pay Caltech. It paid Caltech for what it did for JPL in terms of legal services and all that, but there was no extra stuff.
Now, there's a little bit of extra stuff in terms of internal research activities JPL will support and so on. We negotiated a contract, and thanks to Tom Rosenbaum, I think we're better off on that. I think we pretty much realized the way out of that. First of all, we're not changing our business model. We're not increasing our student body from 1,000 to 30,000. And we're not adding in things like business schools, law schools, and those other master's-degree programs that are money-makers for USC. I've seen the numbers. The only way to keep the machine going is to make sure you have a sufficient endowment to support this. The endowment payout fills the gap. That's the business model, by the way. I'm giving you business 101 on Caltech. [Laugh] I used to chair the Business Finance Committee.
ZIERLER: I wonder, when you joined the board, being a student of Kip Thorne, you were a real Techer, and then all of your accomplishments in business, did you see that you had a unique vantage point where you could help Caltech navigate these things?
LEE: Well, there are a lot of CEO-types on the Caltech boards also. The Caltech board is not just Techers. You need to develop a common language to understand and succinctly portray what we're going after or what we're trying to do. I think during my time, one of the key messages I developed for myself, and I tried to convey it to other trustees, was that, "We're not changing the business model at Caltech. It's a money-losing scheme, but still need to do it because of all the social good and the rest of the good that comes with it. But there's one way to fix the problem. We've got to significantly increase our endowment." I'm proud to say that I went through two campaigns at Caltech.
When I first joined, there was one campaign, and we ended up at $1.6 billion. Gordon Moore himself wrote a check for $600 million, so we raised the other billion from all the rest of the people. While it is good to have raised $1.6 billion, but less than half of it went to endowment. The rest of it went to spending. In fact, most of Gordon Moore's gift goes toward programmatic activities. In the next campaign, we decided to change the emphasis by focusing more on endowment. If you go and talk to the universities and colleges all across America, in a capital campaign, they'll tell you that the most difficult category to raise money in is endowment.
ZIERLER: Why is that?
LEE: Because if you provide funding to build a new building, your name is visible to everybody. If it goes into the endowment, you've got to read fine print to even know you're there. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Are there opportunities to have named honors within an endowment?
LEE: They can be created. There are ways to honor donors, but they're nowhere near as popular as naming a building. A building is tangible. You drive by, you see your name on the building. You tell your grandchildren, "Look at this." And by the way, it's not a bad deal because you basically only have to provide 50% of the funding for the building to get your name on it. That's the typical rule of thumb. We said to ourselves, "We're going to focus on the endowment." Tom will tell you, this most recent campaign raised over $3 billion, and more than half of it was towards the endowment. I think we're making very, very good progress. One more campaign, if it's as successful as this past one, I think we'll be in a very good position.
ZIERLER: As you said, the most difficult part of a capital campaign is the endowment. The focus was on the endowment, and the last capital campaign was a smash success. How did that compute?
LEE: Well, we went to extra lengths starting with all the trustees. We really kind of pushed them. I think the trustees as a body did really well to come forth with the support. And they got the message. A lot of trustees' contributions went towards the endowment. Once we had the internal support of the trustees–I'm sorry, I don't have the figures in front of me directly. Tom and people in the Development department should be able to furnish you with some of those figures. But the trustees as a body have done really well in terms of supporting the endowment. And it was a great example, a great testimony that we can show to outsiders, the non-trustees, potential donors. "This is what the insiders did because they really believe in the institution."
Big Goals for the Caltech Endowment
ZIERLER: You indicated that the next campaign gives us the possibility of really being in a state of financial stability. What would that look like? What are the benchmarks you would look for?
LEE: I think if the next campaign is as successful as the current one, the one that just passed, I think we could easily see the endowment north of $5 billion. On a $5-billion endowment, 5% a year is $250 million. That's no-strings-attached support for all the Caltech activities. Now, we have a lot of ambitious goals. What are the things Caltech would like to do? Caltech would like to be able to provide tuition free to all those who are good enough to get admitted to Caltech. You ask, "How much is the net revenue that Caltech gets, net of the existing financial support?" Probably $40, $50 million. 5% of a billion is $50 million, so if we have something less than that just focused on paying the tuition, then we can go tuition free. Don't forget, there are a lot of what I'll call hungry babies. All the faculty, every few years, will say, "This is a great exciting field. I'm going to need some startup funding from Caltech before I can get enough of a foothold and more fully develop my thoughts to be able to apply for a federal contract." All those things require Caltech support. The machinery continues. Caltech will always stay hungry, but I think if we get to $5 billion, we should be able to do very well.
ZIERLER: What will that mean for supporting undergraduate student education, the idea that students shouldn't have to pay?
LEE: I think by then, we should be able to say that.
ZIERLER: What do you think the impact of that will be on broader efforts to make the student body more diverse?
LEE: I don't think money is the issue towards that goal. I think it's the competition. The minority students who are STEM-oriented–we're not talking about different academic standards. There are only a small number of those in the minorities that qualify for the STEM education that Caltech holds. If you talk to the admissions people, they'll tell you that the people we admit are typically admitted by MIT, Stanford, Harvard, the usual. Then, it's a matter of what more you can offer the students. Financial support is always a key consideration, but we're already need-blind. We're saying, "If the family has needs, we'll support you." If we can say everybody is tuition-free, that's even better. Today, we're already need-blind. The other area is, what about student life? What kind of fun can the student have while on campus?
Some of the trustees–or some of the faculty, forget the trustees, may say, "This is like a boot camp. You join the Marines, and you go into the boot camp. Sure, we'll give you food, we'll give you sleeping quarters, we'll make sure that you have a normal life as best as we can. But you're going to the work your tails off. Parties? Yeah, we'll have some parties. But you're not coming here for the parties." There's always that tension, if you will, of trying to make student life "better," and I don't know how best to define that, versus keeping the students focused on the study part. And the research part, by the way. The more ambitious students that join the Caltech undergraduates, by the time they get to the third year, they're already doing part of the research team.
And for those that have interest, they can stay on with the research team in their fourth year. They still have to complete their coursework, tests, and so on. And many of those, by the time they graduate, if the research yields some results, their name is part of the paper that's published. This is the opportunity we provide to our undergraduates. That's different than many other schools. Competition with minority groups is always an area that we should do better on, and now that we have a slightly larger cohort of those people already on campus, we're trying to include them in our recruiting efforts. There's a number of minority students that we admit, but by the time they actually show up on campus, maybe one-fifth or one-quarter of them show up. The others are all joining our competitors. That's life. We have to do a better job.
ZIERLER: What about on the research side? If the endowment grows to the point that you're talking about, as science becomes bigger, as the experiments become more expensive–the famous story of LIGO and NSF, for example–are there opportunities for Caltech to do more internally funded research?
LEE: There's always a tension. I think the Caltech faculty, if you asked them, would say yes. For those that qualify, those that they think are worth the effort, for a much more ambitious research project, internal funding is probably necessary. If and when it happens, I think they will petition their division and provost to secure internal funding. But the thinking is, you've got to be able to tell management that this better be something in the future, three years, five years, whatever, when there are sufficient preliminary results of this research, they will be able to write a very cogent and convincing grant application for the federal funding agencies to secure federal funding. And it would take over from then on. There will never be a situation where Caltech will be providing funding all the way through. It's only the original seed funding.
ZIERLER: The idea is, this is research that might be deemed too risky to outside funding agencies.
LEE: At the time. Yeah. But then, as time goes on, you'll get preliminary results, and then you'll be able to de-risk it. You'll have preliminary results that are promising, with which you can hope to get federal funding.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the structure of Caltech's board. When you joined, what did you learn about the types of committees you could serve on?
LEE: There are standing committees. I forget the number, 9 or 10 of them. The typical ones, business and finance, investment, technology transfer is always a very exciting, interesting area, things like student life. I think over that period, student life sometimes gets merged with something else on campus, but it deals with really kind of how the students live, the environment, DEAI, and so on, and so forth. Then, there's always the development committee. There's a compensation committee. There's a whole bunch of standing committees, I would say, that are set up through the bylaws. I think we invite the new trustees to go and audition, if you will, or audit and attend some of those committee meetings.
Because if you don't know what you're interested in, go and attend some of those. And then, you put up your hand after a while, a few months, and talk to the nominating committee chair, and you say, "I'd like to formally join the following committees." Then, he or she will slot you in. That's how it works. The Caltech board meeting itself, because of the diversity of topics, and because of the limited time we have for the board meeting, very few topics are discussed for the first time at a board meeting. They're typically first fleshed out at the committee level, then some kind of initial consensus will be formed, and then it will be brought forth to the board meeting. There's a division of labor that's involved. That's the way it's supposed to work.
ZIERLER: When you came back to Caltech as a board member, you mentioned the Office of Tech Transfer. Did Caltech feel more entrepreneurial than when you were a graduate student? Was it more involved in business ventures?
LEE: Yes. Over the years, it has really done so. And it's paid huge dividends for Caltech. And I think it's the right thing to do. It's not just the monetary reward you get out of it. If you don't do it, you will not be able to attract the newer faculty you want to recruit. If you don't provide this opportunity or platform for them, they'll probably want to go to one of our competitors that has a better setup to support their entrepreneurial endeavors. It's both necessary and sufficient. You've got to do it.
ZIERLER: Tell me what you learned about the interactions between the Caltech president and the board. What's the best possible version of that working relationship?
LEE: The president is the president, runs the whole place, should have the respect of the entire Caltech community. And the president needs to be able to sort of develop a knack for knowing what to pass on to his or her delegates, what to kind of focus on, what the things that are important to Caltech are. It's all up to the president. If you pick the wrong president, no matter how hard the board works, it's not going to work. The key for the board is to find the right person and then get out of the way. Then, you have the right person in place. Then, the relationship between the board and the president is more on the support side. The president should come to the board and say, "I need your help to approach this potential supporter," or, "I need your help to host an event. Draw on some of your friends. Let me invite some of the faculty to come and give a spiel." All that stuff. It's a very collaborative relationship. The board works with the president and should really support the president in a capital campaign. I think the board has done that. They're much more active in that whole area.
When I first showed up, the board paid lip service to the capital campaign, but it was up to the president to figure out how to do it. And the faculty also said, "We need money to do X, Y, and Z. You're the president. You're supposed to go and raise the money for that." That whole equation has changed. I think, first of all, the faculty are getting mobilized and trained to be able to speak to the kinds of things they'd like to see support for. They're getting much better at this. And Caltech is actually providing some training for the faculty to be spokespeople for efforts. And then, they'll invite potential interested parties to come and visit, talk to the faculty in that particular area, have them do a dog-and-pony show. The faculty knows that if they want to do something, if they require support, Caltech will provide support for that, but they need to also speak up.
The faculty says, "Oh, we didn't know." It's actually fun for some of them to find their voices in that. Caltech is getting very active now in that, which I think is really wonderful. And the board is working with the president also, just in terms of making sure we don't miss the big picture. And it's a two-way street. The board has antennas out there in the world. They see things that are maybe slightly different than what a president sees because he always sees it from the Caltech point of view, projecting out to the whole world. In terms of, "What's going on in Washington D.C.? What's going on on a global basis? What's going on in terms of competition in our particular field of research?" I think the president and the board should really work together and make sure we don't miss any of the key things, make sure we're focusing on the right issues, and all that. It's a balance.
ZIERLER: Because you've been involved in presidential transitions, what is the best possible role that the board has to play in making that all-important selection?
LEE: The Caltech board is different than a traditional business board. What I'm saying of Caltech is really true of any academic setting. Typically, in the business environment, you also have very strong boards. Good companies have strong boards, and the CEO really kind of works for the board. The Caltech president also works for the board, but in a different way. The board can hire and fire CEOs in a regular business without really checking a lot with people in the company. Because they've got to keep it confidential. And a lot of times, they have a special board meeting, and boom, the news comes out, and half the company will be surprised at the news. In the academic setting, it doesn't quite work that way.
One of the things I think boards of academic institutions should really recommend–don't get me wrong, the boards are fiduciaries and have fiduciary responsibilities, no different than corporate boards. The board does not create the essence of the academic institution. What makes Stanford tick? What makes Harvard tick? What makes Caltech tick? The board really doesn't create that. If you talk about people groups, we had the board, 40 or 50 of us. Then, we have administration. That is a body of people. Then, we have faculty, slightly over 300 of them. Then, students, 1,000 undergraduates, 1,200 graduate students, and 600 post-docs. All those people groups need to be sort of involved in not the selection, but in the search for the new president, in my opinion. Why? Because eventually, what makes an academic institution in its own way–Stanford is different than Caltech. Harvard is different from Caltech. Harvard is different from MIT.
What makes each of those institutions develop their own unique characteristics? Is it a student body? Is it the faculty body? Is it the administration? Is it the board? Think about that. I'll say they all play a role, obviously, but the most important group of people, in my opinion, is the faculty. They set the tone. They set the tone in terms of what to teach the young kids coming in, in terms of whether to pass or fail the students, for research directions, subject to funding, of course. And then, you have administration. The administration in any of those schools can't tell the faculty what to do. Faculty are tenured. When you go and search for a new CEO, a new president, you've got to consult the faculty. That's something I learned very early on. They have their viewpoint.
That's not necessarily 100% congruent with what the board sees as the needs of the institution. But the two sides better talk to each other. The board really needs to kind of work out a way to deal with the faculty in terms of what their needs are, what type of person they should be looking for. The board should also give them feedback in terms of what they see. And hopefully, at the end, both sides sort of agree on the makeup of a new president they would like to have. You talk about inclusion. This speaks volumes about that. You need to manage it in a way that details don't get in the way.
ZIERLER: When did you have a sense that you would be elevated to chair of the board? What was that process like?
LEE: Kent Kresa was my predecessor. He was a chair. And then, one day, in one of the meetings, coffee break time, he said, "You ever thought about taking over my job when I retire?" I said, "Never thought about it, but that's an interesting proposition. I'll consider that." He said, "I'll get back to you." That was it. And then, in due course, it happened.
ZIERLER: How much more of a responsibility is it to become chair than simply being a regular trustee?
LEE: Oh, big-time difference. If I looked at what kind of time I spent as chair versus as a non-chair, I spent a lot of time consulting with the president. At least half of it is on the development side. The president would come and talk to me about some potential people he's meeting with, having discussions with, and so on. We'd strategize about how to approach it, maybe I could help, maybe a way to approach it. The problem with approaching people is, you need to size up the situation and say, "Am I asking this person for $10 million or $100 million?" That's the one key decision you need to make. If you go down the wrong track, you'll live to regret it. You can't say, "Always go for the max."
You go for the max, you turn off some people. It's always very sensitive. Sometimes you want to go get more intelligence. But this is the kind of thing the president should work with the chair on. The president has nobody else to go to. The president has a development staff that presents him with options. The president may have second thoughts. Whom does he talk to? The chair should step in and at least provide a sounding board. It's not like the chair has direct knowledge that can help specifically in that situation, but it is the sounding board. At least make the president feel better. It's almost like confession in that sense. [Laugh] That's one aspect. The other aspect is more on the relationships point of view.
The National Institutes, the other institutes, what kind of research relationship or corporate relationship to think about having. Then, also, the key points, for example, in the NASA contract on JPL. Those are the things that the president may have some preliminary thoughts on, and he'd like to implement some of those, but he'd like to have a sounding board to talk it over. The third aspect is, sometimes there'll be some key personnel issues he wants to have somebody to talk to about for whatever comes to his mind. To have someone that's there always to be used as a friend and a sounding board, I think, is very productive for him or her, and I hope the president finds that as well. But the chair doesn't tell the president what to do. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Of course. Now, you said that the Caltech Board of Trustees was the first board that you joined. As you began to join other boards, what did you learn was unique about the Caltech board, and what are some of the universalities of all board assignments?
LEE: There are some universalities like DEAI, the topic du jour, the topic of the decade. All boards have to deal with it. Each board has its own unique characteristic. I think mostly, it's because of the way it's been founded and developed to fit the institution's unique place in the society. Not all boards work the same way. The Getty board is very small, 12 people, now down to 11 or 10. We'll fill it up, but no more than 12 people. Compared to the Caltech board, everybody on the Getty board has a fixed duration. 12 years, you're out. With Caltech, it's different. There are characteristics that are very, very different. But, when you are there as the board, when you're there as a committee chair, or when you're there as chair of the board, you've got to deal with the CEOs in a way that is really kind of the same.
You need to also, while you're providing support and being a sounding board to the CEO, talk to the CEO about performance expectations, about things that are really strategic that the CEO should focus on implementing over the next 12 months, and then towards the end of the year, a self-evaluation about how they think they've done. This kind of governance situation may get implemented slightly differently, but the approach is the same. The mechanism is in place. Somehow, I didn't have to read any of the books. I think I have a very clear view of what the board chair should do vis-a-vis the president or the CEO, or should not do at the same time. There's a clear line. You don't step over that. I think some of the less-experienced board members may sometimes not think that much about it. And it's the job of the chair to make sure that both sides don't step over the line. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: It's a delicate dance.
LEE: It is. But listen, everybody's doing this because they want to see the institution do better. The starting motive is actually not a bad one. Sometimes you just need to make sure that things are done the right way to give you the result you hope to get.
ZIERLER: Tell me about developing the Lee Family Foundation and if you had in mind Caltech specifically as the object of your philanthropy.
LEE: We've always thought about giving back. When I got to the point where I had some disposable wealth, one of the first things we did was set up the Foundation. Our foundation is not as big as the Ford, the Mellon, those kinds of things. But I thought that by setting it up this way–and also, our kids can get involved. Now, they're still young in their careers, but I hope that as they mature and get more established, they can also focus on some of those things. We're the fortunate ones. Society has provided a lot for us, and we've benefitted a lot from the great society, so it's time to give back. There's always a way of giving back, but giving back is not an easy thing. Talk to Bill Gates, he'll tell you it's not easy. How do you know your money is being spent the most effective way, that it isn't being wasted?
That reminds me of a conversation with a fellow trustee. I also worked with him while he was on the Getty board. He was on the Caltech board, great supporter, one of the largest donors. He would always pull me aside. He termed out on the Getty board. He would shake his head and say, "Those guys have such an easy time. But Caltech is different." While Tom was talking to him, proposing to him for a major gift, I had to go out and have lunch with him one-on-one. I've got to do my part. [Laugh] He said, "David, I'll give it to Caltech as an investment. You just can't go wrong giving money to Caltech." I told him, "I feel exactly the same way." There are 100 other organizations that all want money. But how do I know the money's going to the right places and being spent the right way? You don't. You have zero control over it.
ZIERLER: Did you have specific areas in mind when you thought about giving back to Caltech, or is the value more in unrestricted funding?
LEE: I think originally, we got started because in the area of networking, I happen to know a little bit about the technology–okay, digression. This is how the internet still works today. All the messages we send are chopped up into little packets, and there's a coding on the packets called TCP/IP. In other words, a sentence gets chopped up into maybe a few hundred packets, and each packet is like a pill with a coating. There's a header, and there's a footer, and they do self-checking. It's called TCP/IP protocol, and it was invented 40 years ago by the Army, way before the internet. Guess what? Still today, we're using TCP/IP. And all those packets are running around. When you send a one-sentence email and hit send, probably 1,000 packets get shot out. They find their way through the internet, and they all end up in the right place at somebody else's computer at a new IP address. And then, they do self-correcting. If they see an error, they'll ask the sending organization to resend that packet. All this happens without the user knowing about it. It all happens automatically.
You've got a zillion packets running around the world. That's the way the internet works. I was in that business, providing the connections, the routing of those packets, and all that stuff. I said, "Surely, somebody that's good in mathematics should be able to figure out a more elegant way of coding those packets to ensure a higher volume of transmission as we try to send videos." Just imagine, you've got to send it, and resend it every time there's an error. It takes a delay. Then, I found out that the Deep Space Network from our rovers on Mars, when they send images back, it's the same coding. I said, "Oh, come on." Because when they get sent, it's seven minutes one way. I provided funding for somebody that's good in networking and good in mathematics to see if they could come up with a new scheme to code the future of the internet. I thought that was kind of interesting. Now, nothing came of it yet, and they've written some papers, some different ways of doing it, but it hasn't been adopted by the industry. I thought that was a very fascinating topic to at least provide some mathematical grounding to what they're trying to do.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the timing of your decision to step down as chair. Did COVID have anything to do with that in all of the ways that impacted how the board met and all the challenges Caltech was dealing with?
LEE: I think the timing is driven mostly by the campaign. I really believe that chairs should be associated with a campaign. The campaign was successfully finished, so my job was done. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Go out on a high note.
LEE: There you go. [Laugh] I could hang around another year or two, but for what purpose? There's always going to be some new issue that needs to be dealt with. Instead of me dealing with it, let somebody else deal with it. People are just as capable. I've done my part. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: In the way you narrated the story about how Kent Kresa came to you, did you do the same thing with Dave Thompson?
LEE: No, no, it was a much more formalized process. Like I said, I developed a process. The board secretary now has that process. Actually, back to Kent, I said, "Kent, how did you pick me?" He said, "Hell if I know, I talked to a couple guys, and we all thought you would be the right guy." I said, "Did you have to check with other people?" He said, "Hell no," I said, "Let me ask you another question. How did they pick you at the time?" He said, "Hell if I know." [Laugh] I said, "No, this is not transparent enough. We need to have more transparency, more of a process." I'm a process guy. I said, "Let me think about it. I'll propose a process." And it worked this time. It actually worked pretty well.
ZIERLER: What aspects of being chair did you enjoy the most? I'm thinking specifically the public things like commencement. What did you like in that regard?
Actually, back to Kent, I said, "Kent, how did you pick me?" He said, "Hell if I know, I talked to a couple guys, and we all thought you would be the right guy." I said, "Did you have to check with other people?" He said, "Hell no," I said, "Let me ask you another question. How did they pick you at the time?" He said, "Hell if I know." [Laugh] I said, "No, this is not transparent enough. We need to have more transparency, more of a process." I'm a process guy. I said, "Let me think about it. I'll propose a process." And it worked this time. It actually worked pretty well.
LEE: Commencement is always very rewarding. Personally, I dealt with all the PhD candidates. I had to approve them. I personally went through that process, and the kind of joy and sense of accomplishment is indescribable. Then, I see all the undergraduates coming up, I see the smiling faces. It's like the end of boot camp. They're getting sent out into the world to go and accomplish wherever their dreams will take them. It's indescribable. That's why I thought being in the education business is actually very rewarding. It's not just like running a school district, you get paid and worry about the teacher's union. Here, you're educating a lot of people who want to change the world. And we provide them with the right kind of background, and training, and hopefully some perspective. Right or wrong, it's the Caltech perspective about how the world should work.
ZIERLER: Do you feel like as far as the Caltech board is concerned, we're in a post-COVID situation? Do things feel back to normal for you?
LEE: Back to normal, yes.
ZIERLER: What are the obvious benefits to that? And are there any lessons you've learned from remote communication during COVID that are worth keeping, that the board would find valuable going forward?
LEE: I thought one thing we learned to do, and we found some benefit from, is to be able to do a lot of meeting by Zoom. We had no choice. But thank God for Zoom. The timing couldn't have been better. I think that's good. I said the same thing to the Caltech board and to the Getty board. There's no substitute for human interaction. On some occasions, I think you should be able to get together, see each other, have that sense of camaraderie and common purpose. I think it makes you feel good as human beings. We're all humans. The human contact is important. Zoom meetings can be very, very effective for committee meetings and so on.
ZIERLER: Last question for today. We'll end looking to the future. What are you most excited about as you survey campus in terms of the research, in terms of the student experience? And how are you also excited that the Caltech board is in the strongest possible position to support these things?
LEE: I think Caltech will continue to do well because the faculty believes in the students. And they all love to have great students. One of the greatest rewards for faculty is to have great students, and Caltech has not let them down. Caltech, over the years, has brought in a lot of good students to work with the faculty. They'll continue to do well in that regard. Only their own imagination can limit how far they go with that research and teaching. And I think that many of the Caltech faculty would say that they also take it very seriously to provide not just the research support to the students, but also the way to look at life, the way to look at their career. They, themselves, are a good example for the students. The way I learned from Kip, for example. I could never be a Kip. I knew I could never be a Kip. I said to my wife, "Listen, I can't stay in academics. I know I'll do okay, but I'll never be as good as Kip."
ZIERLER: That's a very high bar.
LEE: [Laugh] But that's what Caltech provides, and I think we as the board should really kind of treasure this. We as the board should also kind of learn to erect fences around it to protect it. It's a very fragile situation, actually. I talked a little bit about having the endowment, having the money in the bank to be able to support this. It's kind of fragile if you look at it. You need to be optimistic, and at the same time, you've got to be cautious.
ZIERLER: It's almost a miracle that it exists in the first place, right?
LEE: Well, by definition, it's not supposed to exist. [Laugh] But somehow, Millikan, I think, sowed the seeds, and then over the years, this has taken place. That's what's amazing about Caltech. It's a miracle.
ZIERLER: I can't think of a better note to end on that for our first conversation. In our next talk, we'll go all the way back to Taiwan, learn about your family background, the odyssey of how you got to the new world, and we'll take the story from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Thursday, March 9, 2023. I'm delighted to be back with Dr. David Lee. David, once again, great pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much.
ZIERLER: In our first conversation, we did a great tour of all of your interests and responsibilities in academia and philanthropy. Today, let's go all the way back to the beginning. Maybe we could start with your name, your middle name, L-I. What does that mean, and is it a similar version of your last name, L-E-E?
LEE: Well, in Chinese, it's pronounced Li also, but in Chinese, it means standing up. Erect.
ZIERLER: And is it your middle name?
LEE: No, in Chinese, my name is Lee Li. The first one is the family name, the second is my given name. My parents said to me, "We wanted you to be able to stand up straight." [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Was your birth name David? Or you took that on later?
LEE: No, my mother picked it for me when we moved over to Malaysia, an English-speaking environment. She said, "It's better to have an English name," so she gave it to me.
ZIERLER: What was your given first name when you were born?
LEE: Lee, the family name.
The Family Move from Mainland China to Taiwan
ZIERLER: Your born name was Lee Li. Got it. Tell me about your parents. Tell me where they're from?
LEE: They were both from the central part of China. Both of them were educated as chemical engineers. Their generation actually went through a very tough period. It was a generation of dislocation because the Japanese were invading China. While they were graduating from high school, they both left their families and hiked their way all the way to the hinterland, away from the Japanese. And they attended college in the Hinterland. Went through a lot of hardship. Wasn't easy at all for them. When the Japanese surrendered, they graduated from college, and they were the first to volunteer to go to Taiwan. Because the Japanese were giving back Taiwan to China. They were sent over, if you will, by the China Civil Service to "help with the takeover." Because they had some basic industries in Taiwan. They needed to go figure out what was there and what could be done about it to get it restarted after the war. It wasn't an easy thing. They were lucky because they went over there early, so they didn't have to make another forced migration when the communists swept through China. A lot of families we know had to drop everything and just kind of go out with one suitcase to Taiwan.
ZIERLER: They were in Taiwan before the nationalists, before Chiang Kai-shek?
LEE: No, they were in Taiwan sent over by the nationalist government. They were in Taiwan before the communists took over China.
ZIERLER: Where were you born?
LEE: I was born in Taiwan, a city called Taipei. It's the capital.
ZIERLER: What were your parents' professions? What did they do there?
LEE: They were chemical engineers, worked for the government. Eventually, my father ended up being in charge of operations of a major rice wine-making operation. They took it over from the Japanese. There was a facility in Taiwan that had been used in this brand of rice wine for close to 100 years. The Japanese ran it, and my father was asked to be responsible for that, restart operations, make it, sell it, all that stuff. That factory is still around today to my understanding. And then, my mother said, "Well, I'll go wherever you go." Because that factory is outside of Taipei. It's in the middle of Taiwan, in the middle of nowhere, basically. My mother said, "I'll go over there, and I'll teach." She taught in high school, which I attended.
ZIERLER: Did your family adopt a Taiwanese culture? Did they maintain their mainland culture? Was it a blend?
LEE: No, it was mostly the old traditional mainland culture. We spoke Mandarin at home.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your early schooling. Where did you go?
LEE: I was born in the capital city, but when I was 3 years old, our family moved to the middle of nowhere where the wine factory was. I grew up there in the countryside.
ZIERLER: Was there a city, a, town? How big was it?
LEE: It was a town.
ZIERLER: What was the name of the town?
LEE: It's called Puli. If you Google it, you can find it.
ZIERLER: I'm sure it's much bigger today.
LEE: Slightly bigger, yeah. It's right in the middle of Taiwan.
ZIERLER: How big was your primary school?
LEE: It was the one and only primary school for not just the town, but the vicinity. Each year, we had about seven or eight classes, each class with 40 or 50 students. It wasn't a small school.
ZIERLER: Were you interested in science even as a boy?
LEE: Science, mathematics, all that stuff. My mother was a science teacher in high school, so I guess it's part of the family. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: It was the same school all through high school?
LEE: Yes. I stayed with the high school in that town as well. Our relatives who still live in Taipei told my parents, "David should be sent over to Taipei, the capital city, to attend a 'better' high school." And my mother just said, "No, I want to keep him close so I can watch over him," so I didn't go. [Laugh] I just stayed in that countryside high school.
ZIERLER: Did you have any English-language education?
LEE: Yeah, in Taiwan, I think you start learning English in junior high school, ABCs. They learn the alphabet, a, few words, and all that. Actually, our whole family then took a turn, and before I could graduate from junior high school, my parents said, "We're going to Malaysia." We packed up and went to Malaysia. And then, I got dropped into a Catholic school, wearing all-white uniforms, very colonial. And I had to really, really pick up my English. It took me a few months, but I got around to it.
ZIERLER: What prompted the move to Malaysia?
LEE: My father got a contract to help start an alcohol industrial operation in Malaysia. They found my father in Taiwan, they said, "This guy knows what he's doing," [Laugh] so we all went. That was how I learned my English, in Malaysia.
ZIERLER: Was this a short-term responsibility for your father?
LEE: It was a three-year contract. My childhood years were different. I went from Taiwan to Malaysia for three years, attended an English school for junior and senior high. By the way, in Malaysia, when you graduate from junior high, they have this national examination, different subjects. But one subject that was compulsory was Malay, the national language. I had a little over a year to pick up Malay, because if you don't pass that, you don't get into high school. I had to really pick that up to be able to get into high school. my student days were a little bit different than other people's. I stayed on in Malaysia for three years, didn't get to graduate from high school there. My parents said, "The contract is up. Let's go back to Taiwan." We went back to Taiwan my second year of high school. I got dropped into what was, at that time, reputed to be the best high school in all of Taiwan. All boys. Each year has about 25 classes, big school, all the students studied very hard. I got dropped in. I had to fit myself into that environment out of Malaysia.
I somehow coped with it, and then before I was able to graduate from that high school, my parents said, "We're emigrating to Canada." Moved to Canada in the dead of winter, February. I still remember this. It was so cold, it's not even funny. Taiwan is sort of sub-tropical. We got into Canada in February, and I had to graduate in June. The one thing that happened to me was, they had French. You have to pass French also. I attended a French class, and the teacher said, "You're hopeless," so they waived me. I didn't have to learn French. But other than that, when you graduate from Canadian high school, there's national matriculation, 10 subjects. I did not take French, but math and science, I had no problem. North America geography was totally different than what I studied in Taiwan or Malaysia. And then, you have English North America history. All these different subjects, I only had from February to June to prepare for. Well, I passed. I was able to get into college. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: You must've been amazed.
LEE: My student days were a little bit different than most people's. Totally different environment. In hindsight, it demonstrated to me that I'm kind of flexible and can easily adapt to different situations. One thing my mother did for me, which I still recall with a lot of fondness to this day, she was one of those who didn't typically follow even the textbooks. I remember going to Malaysia. I was plucked out of this middle high school in the middle of Taiwan. My mother said, "It will be a totally new environment." She had no idea what the syllabus was going to be. Surely, there would be a lot of English, history, geography, all that standard stuff. She said, "Math and science, I've got to make sure you don't fall behind." She had no idea what was being taught over there. She spent some time in Taipei before we left, and she bought a whole trunk load of books in math and science. Not textbooks, just different books. She also bought a bunch of English-language classics.
She said, "I don't know what they're going to teach you there, but you need to read these." She gave me those books when we got to Malaysia. In addition to all the standard stuff they teach in the schools, my mother made sure that when I came home, I'd read the stuff that she spent a lot of money on to buy for me. She said, "I went to extra trouble to bring this trunk load of stuff. You better read it." [Laugh] She said, "If you don't understand, you and I can sit down and try to figure it out." Included in there, the math would be what at the time was not generally taught in high school. Things like set theories, group theories, calculus, all those subjects that are not typically taught in any high school in any country. I have to kind of pick up the book, read them, try to do some of the problem sets, and work my way through.
When I got back to Taipei to attend that high school, which was highly competitive, one of the most competitive high schools in Taiwan, in physics, chemistry, mathematics, I had no problem acing all the exams. Normally, they thought if you were from Southeast Asian countries, you didn't know as much math or science. But they said, "This kid from Malaysia was different." I was cheating a little bit. To solve an algebra problem, sometimes I'd use calculators because that was a shortcut. I was learning this stuff in a very unstructured way.
Whatever it took to solve the problem. I think in hindsight, that provided a new way for me to learn things, so I never had any trouble wanting to read about things to figure things out on my own. That really helped me when I got to Caltech, trying to do some research. I spent a lot of time in the library, reading up on all the articles, publications, different theories of gravity, all that stuff. Very fascinating, actually. In hindsight, I think my mother was very wise. To this day, I still thank her for it. I try to do that with my grandchildren. They fight me all the way. [Laugh]
From McGill to Caltech
ZIERLER: When you got to McGill, did you have a sense that you or your family were not going back to Taiwan?
LEE: Yeah. We knew we were going to settle down in Canada. My parents decided to stay on in Canada and settle in the country as a citizen. As it turned out, I came to the United States and became a US citizen, and I brought my parents over. They were getting too old, and there was nobody to take care of them, so I moved them down to Southern California. But they stayed in Canada long enough to become Canadian citizens. I didn't because I only attended McGill for three years.
ZIERLER: Did you graduate early?
LEE: Yeah, I skipped a year. I got in there first year of physics, which they called honors physics, and I looked at the stuff, and I said, "I know this stuff." My mother said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I want to talk to someone." I think I talked to one of the faculty members in the physics department. I figured it was a similar language. I spoke to the person in the physics department and said, "I think I know all this stuff in the syllabus." The guy looked at me and said, "Are you sure?" Because McGill at the time was supposed to be one of the better universities in Canada, and I was in what they called the honors physics program, which is more advanced physics. He said, "All right, next week, you come to my office. I'll talk to administration. We'll figure out something."
The following week, I showed up, and they said, "We decided to give you the final exams of the freshman physics honors courses." And not just in physics but in math and whatever. "You just kind of prepare to spend a day and a half with us in that corner." [Laugh] I took all the exams, and I passed. They said, "Okay, it's only been three weeks since the new year, so you can enroll in second-year physics classes." By the time I got to the third year, I said, "I want to take some graduate classes in physics." They said, "Oh, not again. Okay." I took some graduate courses also. That's how it happened for me. I was able to graduate in three years.
ZIERLER: Did you have any idea that you had this talent in physics growing up, or was it really only at McGill you realized this?
LEE: It's lucky, you never know what you have. But I didn't understand why some people had problems solving exam problems, in physics in particular. For me, it just came very easy. And it's not because I memorized a lot of the answers. I was just able to kind of do it. The other thing that happened to me when I was in Canada, I was studying for this national matriculation in order to graduate officially from Canadian high school. My mother said, "All right, here's your present." She bought me the Feynman Lectures. How did she know about the Feynman Lectures? I still don't know. She bought me the big books, three volumes. She said, "In your spare time, read them." I was fascinated by Feynman. That's why when I got to McGill and looked at the first-year syllabus, I said, "Come on, I know all this stuff."
ZIERLER: Did the Feynman Lectures plant a seed?
LEE: I was good in physics. Math, too, but math is sort of like a tool. Physics, you solve real problems. I was good in that, so I never stopped. I didn't understand why people around me were having problems solving physics problems. I was able to kind of get to it relatively unchallenged, if you will. I never stopped. I just went my way. I said, "Wow, this is not too bad." I kept going. Nothing was there to stop me or to kind of pause and say, "No, no, David, you're doing the wrong thing." In hindsight, one thing I didn't do was, in college, I did not take a single liberal arts class. I had to talk to the registrar again and get a waiver on that because I was in a hurry to take all those other science classes. They said, "Oh, come on, not again. You're creating all kinds of challenges to the system." [Laugh] But I was in a hurry, I was on my way, and I felt good about it. I never took a liberal arts class. In hindsight, I wish I did. It is what it is. No looking back.
ZIERLER: What did you do during the summers? Did you do research, did you work?
LEE: I worked fast food, and then there was one research project in the physics department, and I sort of was one of the gofers. All kinds of stuff. I just worked.
ZIERLER: Being a college student in the late 1960s, first, was McGill political at all? Were there campus protests, things like that?
LEE: It was very peaceful. You'd walk on the campus especially in late spring, early summertime, people were laying around on the grass, and you could smell the stuff. [Laugh] Don't forget, that was the period. And also, I think the Vietnam War was going on, and there were a lot of protests in the US. And some of the Americans actually went to Canada to run away from the draft and so on. In the physics department, the classes I took, some classes had only four or five students. They were never big classes. Very few students were crazy or stupid enough to want to take those hardcore physics classes. That was the environment I grew up in.
ZIERLER: As a college student, did you appreciate the divide in physics between theory and experimentation?
LEE: Oh, yeah. I knew.
ZIERLER: Did you always know you wanted to gravitate more towards the theory side?
LEE: The theory side was attractive to me because it didn't take a lot of equipment. The experimental side I knew would require setup of equipment, and you typically work as part of a team, and it takes you longer to get the results, to prove something. There was one summer I worked actually on campus, and this is near the end of the life of–right after World War II, I think Canada worked with the US government and had cyclotrons, the early setups where you have particles zipping around with huge magnets. And then, they smash into each other, and they create radiation, they break apart. This was the beginning of high-energy physics. And cyclotrons are radioactive because after all those high-energy applications, they're radioactive. But you need to do an overhaul on it. That was the summer where everything was shut down, and we all had to wear radiation badges. We had to go in there, tear out the equipment, do whatever repair we needed to do.
And I was one of the gofers on the team. I didn't know what I was doing then–well, I was told. I saw the setup, and I saw that this was the beginning of the research. McGill, being one of the leading universities, actually had that setup. Then, our team actually went over to another university on the hill, and it was called University of Montreal. That was French-speaking, being in Quebec, but their cyclotron was much more modern and had larger scale of energy, so you were able to get different results because you had higher energy. When you bombard the–they call them atom smashers.
Then, you have different results, you're in a different regime. "Look at those guys, white coats, all that stuff." I said, "There's no end to this. It'll get bigger and bigger. The first year, it's a few hundred million dollars, then pretty soon, it's a billion dollars to be able to do this kind of setup." I wasn't going to wait around for the politicians to decide to spend the money. Doing the theory part, you sort of get the answers to the problems you pose for yourself faster. You're limited only by the pencil or paper that you have. I decided to go with theory rather than experiments.
ZIERLER: When it was time to think about graduate school, where were you considering? Did you get any advice from your professors at McGill?
LEE: Yeah, I did. There were a couple professors at McGill who sort of took me under their wings. They took an interest because I was a little bit unusual, to say the least. I was taking some graduate classes already. They did a couple things. One, they came to me and said, "Have you ever heard of this Woodrow Wilson setup?" I said, "No." I was a dumb Canadian. "What do I know about the Woodrow Wilson setup?" They said, "No, it's a very nice fellowship. But you need to go to Boston to get interviewed." Obviously, nothing was going to stop me from doing that. He said, "All right, if you're interested, I'll write you a recommendation. At least, it'll get you an interview." I went, and there were three or four faculty, there were other people showing up for the interview, had a nice dinner in the city of Boston. I came home, and nothing came of it. I had no idea what it all meant.
They basically said, "This is set up with some kind of endowment in connection with the Woodrow Wilson Institute, and it funds students from North America, including the Canadians." I said, "All right, good." Nothing came of it. Then, before I graduated, they notified me, "Congratulations, you are a recipient." What good did it do for me? Basically, at the time, I didn't think much of it. They basically said, "Here's a stipend for the next five years as a graduate student." You get to spend it only if you're actively enrolled in a bona fide university as a graduate student. And you can go anywhere. When you show up at the school, you just tell the registrar that you have this setup with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation or whatever, and they'll send the money directly to the school to pay for whatever the costs are, and on top of it, you get a stipend. I was one of the richer students at Caltech as a graduate student. I didn't have to get any of the tuition, assistantship, TA, RA setup. I got paid by Woodrow Wilson. That was the first thing.
The second was, graduate school, the physics faculty, there were two of them. I said, "I want to apply to a few." They said, "What schools?" The standard. MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Caltech. They looked at me with a smile and said, "Are you sure?" I said, "Yeah. Why not?" Because I needed them to write recommendations. They did. I got into all five of them. And by the way, we were promised a scholarship or whatever, but they didn't know I already had the Woodrow Wilson. Or after I applied, actually, I was notified I got the Woodrow Wilson, so the scholarships from the universities weren't an important consideration for me. Then, the choice was, "What do I do? Where do I go? A-ha. There's this Richard Feynman that's kind of special at Caltech. I want to go to Caltech." I went and talked to some of the faculty from the East Coast, MIT, Harvard, all that stuff. They said, "You want to go to the West? It's kind of wild there. Feynman is good, but I'm not sure he actually spends a lot of time with his students. If you really want to go, with our blessings, good luck. Go." That's how I came to Caltech."
Meeting Kip Thorne
ZIERLER: Did you know about Kip Thorne at all before you got to go to Caltech?
LEE: No. I got to know him after I came to Caltech and spent the first year bumping around. Caltech physics, first year, you're a physics graduate student, so you get to know some of the faculty, you take some classes, and then there's a key threshold. At the end of the first year, there's a qualifying exam. If you don't pass it, you can't do research. You get a second chance the second year. If you fail it twice in a row, you're out of there. What did I do? I came here, and my parents were very proud, by the way, and I was so glad to have made them proud. Most of the first-year physics graduate students were taking refresher courses. These are the subjects you get tested on for your qualifying exam. I think there were four or five subject matter courses you can take if you want to brush up on what you had learned, so you can pass your qualifying exam.
What did I do? I didn't take any of those as a graduate student. I started taking more of the research topics and that sort of stuff because I found it to be more exhilarating. Towards the end of the first year, people were studying very hard for the qualifying exam. I said, "I better go pick up the books and brush up." That's when I started having nightmares. The nightmares were, "How stupid was I that I didn't really take the time to review those subjects? What if I don't pass it? How would I face my parents?" [Laugh] I had nightmares.
But obviously, I passed it. Then, it was time to go talk to professors about joining their research groups. And Kip Thorne was doing very well at the time, obviously. I think at that time, it was his heyday. He built it up after I joined his group, but he'd already started a fairly sizable research group, graduate students and post-docs. And it was in the area of general relativity. Sometimes we called it gravitational field theories, and sometimes we called it general relativity. General relativity, I think, is a subject matter that, if you talk to most of the students in physics, they'll tell you that it's really weird. It's counterintuitive. I said, "Kip is a very approachable person," so I was happy with it. That was how it went.
ZIERLER: Do you remember specifically what Kip was working on when you first connected with him?
LEE: He was working on several things, all connected with gravitational field theories. This was, like, the second or third year after I joined, when the topic of black holes all of a sudden became very fashionable. The research group was scratching their heads and saying, "What happens when things fall into the black hole? Do they give out radiation? If so, what kind of radiation would that be?" Radiation meaning gravitational waves. And general relativity, obviously, if you solve the field equations, will give you chapter and verse about the type of gravitational waves you can expect to get. Nobody was able to detect it at the time because the scales were just too small. The other thing that was fascinating at the time, Kip collaborated with two other research groups.
One actually was a Russian group based in Moscow. And the Russians are good at mathematics. He collaborated with them on solving some of the field equations and so on. He didn't get most of his graduate students involved with that. It was mostly him. He would come back and publish his papers, and we knew where it was heading. It was all trying to solve some mathematical problems in the field equations. The second, which was much more fascinating, was this guy, Stephen Hawking. So much so that in the final two years I was a graduate student, Caltech fixed up one of the houses right on Wilson and California, put up a ramp outside the house so wheelchairs could get inside, and in the summertime, he'd bring out his research group, five, six, seven graduate students from Cambridge and spend the whole summer with us. There was a lot of excitement about all the ramifications of black holes and stuff like that. We'd sit and talk, and pretty soon, everybody would go off and try to do something with black holes. It was exciting times.
ZIERLER: Did Kip ever talk about the influence of John Wheeler?
LEE: Oh, of course. We all know John Wheeler. I didn't know this at the time–and John came to the Caltech campus and gave symposia and stuff like that–but Richard Feynman was also a student of John Wheeler. Obviously, Richard Feynman is much older, so it was the students of John Wheeler. And then, Kip was his student. Kip, at the time, also decided with John Wheeler and another person called Bardeen to write a textbook on gravitation. And it was a major effort, a big treatise. Took a lot of time. Today, I think it's still the textbook on gravitational field theories. And John Wheeler is one of those who had this great intuition. The better theoretical physicists somehow have this unique intuition. They may not be able to prove it right away. It will take time and painstaking effort to mathematically prove what they thought, but it's the intuition. They have this idea, given certain situations, certain conclusions should hold true. And then, it's up to them to prove it down the road. They would postulate something, and then they would seek the proof. This is how you make progress in theory. Wheeler has done it. Feynman has done it in space. Kip will tell you, due to his modesty, that he does not have as much intuitive power as those two giants.
ZIERLER: Well, that's a high bar.
LEE: That's a high bar, and Kip is being modest. And Kip, between you and me, has very good intuition as well. Kip works very hard to prove out things. And then, later on, I think on one of those occasions, way past my days as a student, Kip said, "You always thought Feynman had great intuition." I said, "Sure, he's Richard Feynman." Kip said, "But do you know that I found out later that in his desk drawer, near all those papers, all written out longhand, calculations and notes on certain problems that were driving Feynman mad? He sat down and worked it all out himself with a pen and paper. That's why when he would go out in one of the seminars or meetings on that particular subject, he'd say, 'I know the answer. It should be this.' He had already done the homework. We just didn't know about it." [Laugh]
ZIERLER: He wanted to make it look easy.
LEE: Right. Looking back, more than 50 years ago, I was so fortunate to be able to at least spend some time around those giants. The other thing I did when I was a physics graduate student, my second year, after I passed my qualifiers, thank God, Feynman was teaching. And the class he'd taught two years in a row was Current Topics in Physics. Beginning of the year, seven students all sitting there, and Feynman would come in and say, "No textbooks. No homework. Congratulations. No midterm. One final. You've got to do a final." But, he didn't tell us what the final was. We'd go, and he'd get up, sometimes with scratch paper, he'd have some notes. The current topics were the things that had been running around in his head. He would talk about this situation or that situation. "What do you think is going to happen? Why do you think it's going to go that way?" He would then go through some of the explorations with us. And by the way, there were two professors in the back taking notes. Later on, I found out they would publish those as transcripts of the class notes. Three weeks before the final, Feynman said, "I'm sure you're all curious about what the final's going to be. Let me tell you. Here's a piece of paper. I've put down time slots. Sign up for a time. That's the time you come to my office for a one-on-one oral exam." Oh my God. Seven students dropped down to four or five.
ZIERLER: You stayed in?
LEE: I stayed. Why would I give up that opportunity? I didn't know any better. All through my younger years, I didn't know any better. I'd just kind of walk right into it. You'd go knock on the door, and Feynman would sit you down. He'd have his desk and two chairs. "Take a seat."
ZIERLER: Where was Feynman's office?
LEE: In one of the physics buildings. The high-energy physics part, the Lauritsen Building. It probably has a different name now. We went in there and sat down, and then Feynman would come and say, "All right. Imagine we're doing an experiment. It's high-energy physics. There's the accelerator, I'm bombarding something with protons, and it's about this kind of kinetic energy. What do you think is going to happen? You measure it, obviously. But what do you think the results are going to be?" I thought about it, and I had to explain what I thought was going to happen. He said, "Mmm, interesting. Tell me, why do you think that is going to happen?" [Laugh] That was the extent of his oral exam. I passed.
ZIERLER: What did you? What was your answer?
LEE: I started explaining different energy levels, the makeups of the particles. I have no idea what I actually said, I don't remember the details. But he thought I did okay, so he passed me.
ZIERLER: What was the dynamic between Feynman and Kip? Did they work together? Were they friendly?
LEE: They were friendly. There was this unspoken rule I found out later. When you get ready to defend your thesis, you have a committee, your professor has some input, and you find three other faculty in addition to your advisor to be on your defense committee. Then, you, as the PhD candidate, go and defend yourself on your PhD thesis in front of the committee members. They would have all read your thesis before they came into the defense. The unspoken rule, and I've seen it applied to all the Kip students that I know, was that all of Kip's graduate students automatically would have Feynman sitting on the committee. Now, Feynman was not an easy person to deal with. If you could get away without him there, you'd probably have an easier time.
There was one time, one graduate student who had a tough time defending himself in front of Feynman. Feynman said, "Let me play this back. Your first paper said this, and your second paper retracted it and said, 'In hindsight, it shouldn't be that; it should be another way.' And the third paper on some other subject." Feynman looked at Kip and said, "What gives here, Kip?" Kip said, "The third one is worth its weight in gold. It's really good." Feynman said, "Okay, it took him three shots, and then he got it. I agree." That's how it played out dynamically in the physics defense. In my case, I had Feynman also. I didn't know what to make of it because my thesis was a little bit unusual.
And in addition, there were two other people on the committee. One was somebody from JPL who used to do physics but was more of a classical physicist than anything else. During my defense, this guy basically put his stuff down and said, "Let me ask you something basic." He started asking me something that's right in our parlance, thermodynamics, classical physics. I was sitting down, but I started explaining it, and as it was getting more complex, I looked at Kip and said, "May I go to the blackboard?" I wanted to write down some formulas to basically explain what I was trying to say. Kip just smiled, and Feynman, in typical fashion, said, "No, David, you sit down."
He turned around to that other person and said, "Stop it. This is a PhD defense. This is not the first-year qualifying exam. I'm sure David knows the answer. Let's change the subject. I didn't know what to do. I've got those guys clashing with each other. I just sat there and smiled. I looked at Kip, and Kip just smiled. [Laugh] And then, after about an hour, Kip looked at Feynman, Feynman looked at Kip, and Kip said, "All right, please go outside." I said, "Oh my God. It's only been an hour. It's scheduled for three hours. I don't know what happened. Maybe they're not happy with what I'm doing." After a few minutes, Kip came out all smiles and shook my hand. "Congratulations." That was my experience with Feynman and Kip.
ZIERLER: We haven't talked about how you developed your thesis topic. First, maybe as an entree to that, what was Kip's style like as a mentor? Did he give you problems to work on? Did he leave you alone?
LEE: No, he never tells anybody what problems to work on. But he would have weekly seminars. All his graduate students and post-docs would attend the weekly seminars. We'd take turns. We basically had to explain to people what problems we were working on. And Kip would give you feedback. The seminars were open-ended. It wasn't like you already had a great conclusion. Maybe you had some preliminary results. Kip knew how to motivate us. Every now and then, he'd come in with a smile and announce, "There's this big symposium in Chicago," or some place in the country. "The good news is, you're all invited to go. My research funding will pay for airfare and hotels. We can all go."
As a poor graduate student, it was good news. Exciting times. Everybody was excited. But he didn't say the second part. After the announcement, within a couple days, you'd get a call from his executive assistant. "Kip wants to have your draft synopsis. He knows you didn't have a paper yet. You haven't done enough. But there needs to be a synopsis, one or two paragraphs, basically framing out the problem or question you have and some potential approaches to solve it." And you publish all those synopses in the proceedings of the conference because you're basically telling the people in the conference, "This is the problem I'm tackling, and this is my approach. Stay tuned. I'll have results later on." He made sure that students all had this. You couldn't go to the conference without a synopsis of one of the current problems. And each one would have a different one. That was how he made sure you were making progress towards basically fundamental research. Because we were all theorists, so we needed to define our problems and sort of come up with ways of trying to get to the answers.
Black Holes and Gravitation
ZIERLER: What were the most interesting problems to you in gravitational field theory? Where did you think you could make your mark?
LEE: It wasn't obvious. Gravitational field theory is something you can't touch or see. The effects, we couldn't imagine at the time. Now, we have LIGO, we can actually measure them. But if you're Newton, you saw the apple dropping from the tree, so you knew there was gravity. How do you reconcile this, and how do you come up with problems you think you can solve? Over the years, there have been hundreds of different postulates, mathematical constructs, of different theories of gravity. One of the games we play at our group is, "Look at this recent publication by that guy out of that university back east. Let's try to shoot holes in that paper." We all believed that ultimately, Einstein's theory of general relativity would withstand all those tests. That was sort of the general atmosphere within the group. Contemporaries of Einstein go back to the early 1900s and into the 50s and 60s.
There were different crazy people with crazy ideas, and they all had different mathematical constructs. I just said, "Surely, there must be a way to classify it. Then, as you can begin to do different kinds of experiments that can give you more precise measurements on certain things–for example, I think at the time, when astronauts went to the moon, they actually put a laser on the surface of the moon, and from the earth, we could receive it. Based on that, we could sort of kill out some of the relativity theories. We call it first-order effects, second-order effects. And then, as you go beyond the first and second order at the time, there were no experimental measurements that were even technically possible.
But it was there, so if you made progress down the road, you could have more precise measurements, and you could kill off a bunch of those classes or families of theories. Forget the logic, and forget the beauty or the philosophical approach, all that stuff. You could use brute force and say, "No, you yielded a different experimental result, and you got disproved, so you're out." I thought that was a very direct, objective way of looking at this rather than debating–sometimes it borders on philosophical argument. I began to think about it and play with it. Kip always has that smile. He's just amazed at what some of his students would be crazy enough to think about. That was how I did it.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your interactions with Alan Lightman. When did that start?
LEE: We shared the same office since he was the same year. Now, Alan came to Caltech with a totally different background than mine. We were each different than normal people. In contrast with my background, I think he had a good dose of liberal arts background. He came from Princeton, I believe. We collaborated, we shared the same office, we would talk. And then, we said, "Let's work on a problem together." I didn't care, if people wanted to work on the same problem, that's great. "Let's solve the problem." And Kip is always good at giving credit to everybody. Alan and I collaborated on some papers, and he went on his way. I saw him a couple times. He got divorced from his wife when he was a graduate student. He was from the South, so he actually had a car, and we piled into his car, drove all the way up to the Canadian Rockies for summer school. [Laugh] He brought his wife along. The rest of us were all bachelors. We piled up in the car, and we had a good time together. That was my interaction. But then, there were times where we'd just go off and do our own work. Because when you do theoretical stuff, you've got to be able to concentrate, focus on the formula, and do that.
ZIERLER: Did you collaborate with him formally? Did you write papers together?
LEE: Yeah, we published papers together. When I write a paper, it's very matter of fact. My prose is very straightforward. It is what it is. Because of Alan's liberal arts background–he turned out to be a writer, he wrote some novels and stuff like that–he would say, "Do you mind if I change some of that?" I'd say, "Sure, by all means. If you can make it better or easier to go down for readers, by all means." And by the way, the best writer of a scientific paper is Kip.
ZIERLER: He's a wonderful writer.
LEE: No mistake about that. Kip is the best. Because Kip is a little bit more straightforward than some people brought up in the arts, but he can smooth out language so it goes down easier. You read my paper, it's very straightforward, to-the-point. I just want to make the point and move on. Kip would smile and make some minor corrections or changes. Not the results, just the way things are discussed.
ZIERLER: What about Ni Wei-tou? Did you work with him?
LEE: He's several years older than I am. He was part of the group, but I didn't work with him on any papers.
ZIERLER: Did you see your research as challenging Einstein's theory of general relativity, adding to it?
LEE: Supporting it. In science, there's deduction, in which you start with something, a general action or thesis that you accept, and you deduce ramifications from that. That's deduction. Most of the mortals can do that. But to be able to come up with something totally out of the blue takes intuition. And by the way, when you postulate something like that, not everybody will accept it. Because it's so out of the blue. Einstein's general theory is that he didn't get there by deduction. It just came out of him. And that's the difference between a great creative theoretical scientist compared to a normal mortal. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Was there anything in the world of experimentation that was relevant to your thesis research?
LEE: No, because there was not a lot of money to construct this setup. Because it would require a measurement precision that was beyond the reach at the time. I was not like Kip. The idea of measuring gravitational waves was around at the time when I was there, but me as a mere graduate student, we gave up because we kind of figured out that it would require an improvement in several orders of magnitude of precision to be able to measure out the minute impact of the gravitational wave by the time we get it. As it turned out, it required five orders of magnitude, so 100,000 times more precise measurements than what was available at the time. It was going to take years and a lot of money.
Frankly, me, as a graduate student passing through, I didn't have the patience, nor the fortitude, nor the foresight to know that that could happen during my lifetime. Now, Kip is different. Because we were all looking at so-called gravitational wave experiments. At that time, there was a group in Maryland that claimed to have measured something, there was another group out in the Midwest that claimed to have measured something, there was another group in Europe that claimed to have measured something. And we all looked at the description of the setup and the kinds of instruments they had, and we said, "This is impossible. There's no way they could've measured that."
ZIERLER: You're saying Kip had that vision even when you were in graduate school.
LEE: Well, he never said it out loud with a strong conviction, but I think the seed had already been planted in his mind. It was after I left the group that I understood. In the early 80s, the ideas kept coming back. By the way, the way to set up the experiment was something we sort of all figured out, that that was the setup. The actual instrumentation obviously was different. But there was the theoretical setup. We sort of knew what it would be. But the technology wasn't there. Kip did a very smart thing, he did a paper exercise and convinced himself that the precision could be improved by 100,000 times within his lifetime. Because if that is possible, the black holes colliding into each other should generate a gravitational wave that would be measurable when it gets to the Earth. And he convinced himself, and later on the physics department, that investment should be made to try to prove that. That was very ballsy of him.
ZIERLER: When Stephen Hawking would visit, and they would work together, did they treat black holes as real physical objects?
LEE: They believed they were real.
ZIERLER: They were not just mathematical concepts.
LEE: No, they believed they were real, and they were out there somewhere. But then, their research and curiosity was really around what would happen when things fell into a black hole and went past the point of no return. Surely, there would be gravitational waves that would be generated, other stuff that would be affected by black holes, the presence of the black holes. All those things were beginning to get figured out.
ZIERLER: What did you understand about gravitational waves that might've filled you with a sense of conviction that ultimately, we would be able to detect them? What was so rock-solid about the theory?
LEE: The impact of getting hit by a gravitational wave is very straightforward. It may stretch different dimensions, and there's oscillation frequency. When things get stretched, you should be able to measure the boundaries if you are looking carefully and precisely enough. That's the challenge. Where we now need to have the light going four miles, that's the distance that stretches, by a very, very minute fraction to detect that gravitational wave.
ZIERLER: Were there any women in the graduate program in physics?
LEE: At my time, I don't recall any in theoretical physics. France Cordova was a graduate student, but she's astrophysics. We sometimes got together as part of the larger PMA group, physics, mathematics, and astronomy. But theoretical physics, at the time, no. It was all-male.
ZIERLER: This might seem like a question for a very long time ago, but did you use computers at all during your time at Caltech?
LEE: I did not, but other people in the group did. I did my exercises on paper with pencil, very old-fashioned. Other people would say, "Oh, that equation's too hard to solve," or, "It's unsolvable." They needed to use a computer to solve the equation, numerical approximations.
ZIERLER: You saw computers as a crutch?
LEE: It's a tool.
ZIERLER: But one you felt you didn't need to use.
LEE: I picked research topics in such a way that I didn't need that. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I wonder if you could walk me through an equation you're able to do just with a pen and paper, not having to use a computer. What does that look like?
LEE: You can look at my thesis. It would have many different symbols, different things, tensor calculus, all that stuff. Frankly, I've forgotten most of it. But at the time, these were the tools you'd use to try to solve the problems.
ZIERLER: When you speak about your time at Caltech, there's a sparkle in your eye. Just generally, what did you love about just being on campus?
LEE: You walk around on campus, you know everybody's as smart or smarter than you are, we all have questions running around in our heads. It was an environment where we'd be encouraged to pursue those kinds of questions and come up with explanations or solutions. What could be better than that? You could float freely, ask any questions you want about the universe, and pick anything that would be of interest to you. And you know everybody is good. They went in different dimensions, but they're all very good.
ZIERLER: A topic we picked up on from last time, but we can go into more detail now. Those early ideas you were developing that you would not continue on in physics. It's the big turning point of your career, your life. When did that happen?
LEE: Well, it happened in my first year. If you remember, I told you I hadn't taken any liberal arts classes, even in my undergraduate time. I was in a hurry. Three years, and I was out of there. When I got to Caltech, I sort of said, "It wouldn't hurt for me to understand a little bit how people make money. The closest thing Caltech has is economics." What did I know? I don't remember how, but I was introduced to this professor who was teaching some kind of economics theories, and we decided to do it. It was he who said, "Just come and do self-study. I'll be your advisor." I said, "That's wonderful. It's almost like doing physics." I took the class from him, and he basically led me down the path to understand how things work out there in the world, how big corporations make money, how people form companies, all the work towards the business plan, the micro and macro aspects of economics."
It was a hodgepodge. He didn't try to stick to any textbooks, which is tough. It was about industries, the environment the US businesses were in, the key role that management plays in setting the overall strategy in the direction of the business is important. I find it to be fascinating because it's unlike science or mathematics. Not a clearly defined boundary, and not a clearly defined set of rules. We used to say, "You don't violet the first principles of physics when you try to do scientific problems." In business, people can come out of left field, and create a big business, and be successful. If you're a student of that, you want to know what makes it tick, what makes it work. This guy didn't teach me everything, but he basically set the stage for me to get curious and to understand that. There was no syllabus in his class. He only had one student. This is the beauty of Caltech, that I was able to get that kind of education.
ZIERLER: And you said last time, Kip was gracious and supportive.
LEE: Yeah. Unusual. Not any student would do that. I was the first one, I think. But he always has this wry smile. He'll just look at you and smile. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I think that's a perfect place to pick up for next time, a real narrative turning point. When you made this decision, did you feel like you jumped in with both feet? Did you feel like you could always go back to physics if you wanted to?
LEE: I sort of convinced myself that I could always go back if things didn't work out. That was my excuse, and that was the way I explained it to my wife-to-be so that she would be supportive. But I knew that I had to commit to it, otherwise it would never work. You can't be half in and half out.
ZIERLER: On that note, we'll pick up next time. We'll see what happens as Dr. Lee enters the world of business.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Friday, March 17, 2023. I'm delighted to be back once again with Dr. David Lee. David, once again, a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much for joining.
LEE: My pleasure.
Pivot to Accounting
ZIERLER: Today, we're going to pick up right at this important transition in your career when you decide to leave physics and pursue business. When you finished at Caltech, what opportunities were available to you? What were you considering?
LEE: None was offered to me. I was exploring a potential path forward. I decided to take the path of becoming a CPA. I realized it was going to take me a little bit of time, so I figured I'd go sit for the exam before I could avail myself with one of the accounting firms. But in order to do that, for economic reasons, I convinced Kip to appoint me to become a lecturer. I was giving lectures to Caltech undergraduates, and for that, I'd get paid enough to sustain my family. And I was taking night classes at Cal State LA in economics and business. And I sat for the exam. I officially graduated in the summer. I started taking classes, and I sat for the national exam in March, so I had a few months to prepare for that.
While all that was going on, since I registered to take classes at Cal State LA, which was nearby, there were some on-campus interviews, all with the accounting firms, the big eight at the time. Now, we're down to, like, four. Through the on-campus interview process, I got to talk to four, I think, accounting firms. Some of them said that I wasn't the typical accounting student they were looking for, but there was one firm that felt I was kind of strange and that perhaps there was some value in continuing the conversation. They took an interest in me. Eventually, I think in June, before I got the results of my CPA exam, they decided to hire me. That whole transition took, let's just say, 12 months. I became a permanent employee of this accounting firm named Arthur Andersen. Then, a month after I joined the firm, the exam results came out. I actually got national honors. The partner who was in recruiting me felt very much vindicated. I remember he threw a big party, invited a whole bunch of colleagues, and we celebrated that in a big dinner.
ZIERLER: Do you think having a Caltech PhD in theoretical physics was useful for doing so well on the exam?
LEE: No, nothing to do with it. I sat for the exam, and I had no idea what the exams were going to look like. I took this review course at the time. You pay money for it. And I had these night classes in downtown LA. They handed out the exam questions of the last five years from the real exams. And then, they handed out the model solutions, if you will, of those last five years. I figured that was enough for me to study, so I stopped going to the night review classes. It was in the middle of downtown, it was run-down. It was just spooky to go down there. I just studied that stuff. And out of that, I sat for the exam, and I passed. That was how I got launched in Arthur Andersen. The first year, they call you an Inexperienced Assistant, IA. [Laugh] And everybody's treated the same way.
But one thing that's good about Arthur Andersen is, when you first get started, they ship you to a centralized training facility outside of Chicago. That was how the firm made sure everybody got indoctrinated in a consistent manner. It was a three-week or one-month class, I don't remember now. We went through basic accounting, basic auditing, all that stuff. This is how I learned the trade, by the way. Even though I passed the exam, I never really learned the trade. But having attended the class, I felt I knew something. Then, I started getting assignments. We'd go out in a small team to visit the clients and do the audit. I still remember this. I show up in the office in the boiler room.
Everybody hung out there. And one of the more experienced guys said, "Hey, newbie, come over here. Practice on this." They called it a 10-key. It's an adding machine. On the righthand side of your computer pad, you'd have the numbers zero through nine, and you'd do adding and subtracting. One of the doctrines was, you do not trust your client. Whenever they gave you a big schedule with all their numbers, you'd do the footing and cross-footing and then cross-check to make sure the numbers add up to the number they say. You'd use a red pencil to do a checkmark on it, meaning that you've done it. That was the whole thing I did. That's how I learned auditing. [Laugh] Everybody's got to start somewhere, right?
ZIERLER: Did you like it from the beginning? Did you realize this would be an enjoyable pursuit for you?
LEE: Well, I had no idea when I got started. I figured I might as well go through the process and start the journey, if you will. I kept telling myself, "I'm going to give myself two years and see where that will lead me." I started out doing the same grunt work as all the other newbies, and then in six months, they started giving me some special assignments. I felt being treated a little bit special. Not that much, just a little bit. I stayed with the firm. I got promoted rather quickly within the firm. Then, in a few years, they started asking me to go out, not on audit assignments, but potential client calls.
In other words, somebody would call up the firm and say, "I'm such-and-such firm, this is my business, and I'm thinking about going IPO. I need to hire an accounting firm. Why don't you send out a team to come? Let's have a talk. Give me a proposal." What I realized was, if they included me as part of the team in front of the high-tech companies, I had a way of talking to the proprietors because I tended to understand what they did better than the typical CPAs. They had no idea what widgets were and how advanced it was. But for me, it was curiosity. I could ask questions. It would typically surprise the proprietor to see that, "On this accounting team, there's somebody that seems to understand my business." I thought that was kind of interesting, so I stayed.
ZIERLER: What do you think some of your talents were where you got promoted, you were treated nicely, you did have these opportunities?
LEE: I work hard. They're not talents, it's just a matter of discipline. I did what I was supposed to do. Then, I had some other intangible things like being able to talk to some of the technology-based proprietors. These were key clients they were trying to get, so if I have a way of talking to those people, they felt I was bringing value to the equation as compared to somebody who majored in accounting and graduated from Cal State LA. I brought something different.
ZIERLER: Did that allow you to develop a specialty, that you would begin to start working with particular kinds of clients?
LEE: No, it was very broad-based. Could be any industry.
ZIERLER: What were some of the key industries that Arthur Andersen worked with? Who did you get to meet during those years?
LEE: The big one was MGM, which was a big entertainment company. These were big companies, and some of them were small proprietors, they made widgets, aerospace parts. There were a whole bunch of them. You stayed very busy working from one assignment to another.
ZIERLER: What aspects of the work were on site at the clients' offices, and what did you do back in your own offices?
LEE: In a typical engagement, I think most of the time, you're out at the client. They'd give you an office or two, or a conference room. They'd give you all the schedules you'd ask for. You'd go look at the schedules, test them, and then you'd work with their CFO, their accounting team, and interview their head of operations, proprietors, and other stuff.
ZIERLER: Was it mostly local to Southern California? Would you travel nationally?
LEE: No, Arthur Andersen had offices in every city, so it was just Southern California.
ZIERLER: What was your promotion track during those years?
LEE: The typical promotion is, you go from staff to seniors. They called them seniors. It's like a master sergeant, you tell the newbies what to do. [Laugh] Then, from the seniors, you became a manager. A manager basically does all the planning, the managing, administration, all the engagement. Then, a partner comes around and looks at all the conclusions that the team has come up with, and he says he agrees or doesn't agree. A partner doesn't do a lot of work, but the partner signs on behalf of the firm, so it's a big deal. The managers do the work. I got promoted very quickly to a senior to run the individual audit teams, and then to a manager. Then, I was on partner track, meaning they were going to make me a partner, which means you share in the profits of the firm. But I was made an offer I couldn't refuse, so I quit the firm. They were sorry to lose me, but they understood.
ZIERLER: How long were you with Arthur Andersen before you made that decision?
LEE: I think five or six years. It typically takes 10 years to make partner. But in my case, they hinted that it could take a shorter time.
ZIERLER: You were on the fast track. What was that offer? What lured you away?
LEE: I became a CFO of a high-tech company that was my client. They were based in the Westlake area. The proprietor was somebody who was hands-on, was a mentor, and he always looked at me and said, "You're more than just a typical CFO," which is true. Eventually, I began to run parts of his business. I ran one of the divisions for him.
ZIERLER: Is this a common career track, for people in accounting to work in-house for clients?
LEE: I'd say 50% of the time, yeah.
ZIERLER: What was the company? What was the special relationship you developed with its founder?
LEE: They made communications components. Their clients were defense-related, DOD. Their parts went on fighter jets and stuff like that. And eventually, they also made components that–this was back in the early 80s, so satellite communications was a big deal. They made components that enabled satellite communications.
ZIERLER: Was any aspect of this work classified relating to national security?
LEE: The DOD portion, yes.
ZIERLER: What was attractive to you about becoming CFO?
LEE: Well, I wanted to become a CFO, but I wasn't satisfied being just a CFO. I wanted to run the business. That was why the guy said, "Hey, you're more than just a CFO. I know that." Given the right opportunity, I got to run one of his businesses. But then, the business took a turn, actually. It was a very interesting migration. Back in the 60s, by an act of Congress–this is very rare–the US federal government decided to set up a corporate entity called COMSAT. Communications Satellites Corporation. The intent of the COMSAT Corporation was to represent the United States to join international partners to launch communications satellites to enable, if you will, international communications. Back in the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, most of the telecommunications were done via satellites. This technology company, because they made components that enabled satellite communications, was bought by COMSAT and became an operating subsidiary of COMSAT.
I had a chance to go and interact with headquarters, if you will, back in Washington DC. Since those people represented the United States in dealing with, like, British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom, each one representing a country in this international consortium that builds different generations of communications satellites, it's a big deal. I saw a portion of that from the inside. That got me very interested in finding out how those kinds of setups actually work. Technology-wise, I could handle it, but also the business setup. I found out, it's actually a monopoly. Well, it was a monopoly. AT&T was the monopoly for telecommunications in the United States. This is before MCI and all the other companies were allowed to exist.
But to go international, AT&T had to rely on COMSAT. That was the only way they could have their calls go internationally. It was a big deal. It's not very well-known. When I got exposed to it, I said, "Oh, I didn't know this. [Laugh] Very interesting." And COMSAT also had a research lab, very large. It was not quite the same scale as AT&T Bell Labs, but they had a very decent-sized research lab out in Maryland. Being in physics and all that, I was attracted by it because I was also responsible for making the components that enabled the existing generation of satellite communications. I had a chance to interact and talk with those guys about some of the next-gen stuff. My field of view, if you will, broadened because of those opportunities.
ZIERLER: How long did it take from that initial agreement where you would start as CFO to actually taking over the business side? What was that process like?
LEE: It was, like, two or three years. It wasn't a big company, so it was basically between me and the proprietor.
ZIERLER: What were some of the big learning curves for you in taking on this new position?
LEE: Well, you began to deal with operations people. There's a schedule to meet, there's quality to maintain, there are cost targets to meet. Accounting only deals with the results, it doesn't deal with how you make them happen.
ZIERLER: Was it during this period, however you would define it, that you felt like you were starting to make a really good salary, that you were financially secure?
LEE: Secure is a matter of definition, but I was getting fairly well-to-do, enough to sustain the family. I had three kids, and I had to do quite a bit of traveling. I had to go to Washington DC and other cities. But it was the beginning of a career. It was kind of busy. There were always balls in the air that you had to try to catch to make sure you didn't drop them.
ZIERLER: What kinds of issues would bring you to Washington?
LEE: Dealing with headquarters.
ZIERLER: The branch in Los Angeles was just one aspect of the overall company?
LEE: Yeah, because it got acquired by this big COMSAT Corporation.
ZIERLER: Did you ever think about relocating to Washington?
LEE: Headquarters was talking to me about relocating to Washington. I even invited my wife to join me on one of those trips, and then she was out there, spent a day or two with the realtors to look at the housing situation in Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, all that stuff. But we decided at the end it was too much of a move. I wanted to stay here.
ZIERLER: Do you think that affected your career?
LEE: Not really. Who would have known? You go down one path, you can never decide, "What if I chose the other path? What would've happened?" No idea.
Ventures in Telecommunications
ZIERLER: What were some of your interactions with AT&T?
LEE: AT&T is a funny thing. While all this was going on, AT&T was getting deregulated. The US, in 1996, I think, opened up for competition. There was a breakup of AT&T. Before then, it was the monopoly. Companies like MCI, Sprint, and all that eventually came into being. I was dealing with AT&T obviously through several iterations while all that was happening. And there were other journeys and all that. But eventually, AT&T became one of my best partners. Because while it was a carrier, it also had an operating unit–turns out it was one of the three, and the best of the three of AT&T, Alcatel, which services France telecom, and the other was in Japan. In contrast to satellite communications, there was this new technology called fiber-optic communications.
You can see, I began to sort of play in the peripheral of all the different new technologies involving communications. AT&T told me, "Satellites are a thing of the past. Back then, there was DirecTV broadcasts, and two or three satellites covered the entire United States, so it was point-to-multipoint. But if you want to do point-to-point communications, the more efficient way is not with a satellite, it's fiber optics." I said, "Are you sure the fiber optics has gotten good enough to allow you to communicate in a way that's highly competitive to the cost of using satellites?" They said, "Yes. If you'd like, I'll set it up for you to talk to our technical experts at Bell Labs." Who would pass up this opportunity? They couldn't figure out if I was a business guy or a technical guy. Anyway, here was David showing up at Bell Labs with a badge and all that. And I went in there and spent a day talking to the experts that were directly involved in the research and development of the latest fiber-optical communications.
And I was convinced that was the new way to do it. Then, eventually, from a business point of view, AT&T said, "I'm sort of being pulled back by my counterparts in Europe." Because they were copying the old model of satellites. AT&T still had to deal with British Telecom, Deutsche Telecom, France Telecom. They formed a consortium, and then they had to all agree to build an undersea cable using fiber-optic technology. You could tell that AT&T was doing the selling, the convincing that the technology was good, it could carry the capacity of such-and-such, and the cost is such-and-such, and all that. But the consortium moves very slowly. AT&T has this operating subsidiary whose only job is to build a cable and help manage the operations of the cable, a contractor. Why did AT&T have that?
Back then, they were the monopoly, so they had to have everything. The subsidiary's job was that of a builder. They've got to get contracts for new projects, or else there P&L is really bad. They found me to be a sympathetic potential investor. Eventually, the guy in charge of the business unit said to me, "Enough talking already. The cable is going to cost you about $700 million from the US to Europe. If you can go find your friends and raise that money, I guarantee you AT&T will build a cable that is actually 4 to 10 times better or more productive than the current one that's being built by the consortium."
ZIERLER: Why did he believe that?
LEE: "Why do you say that? Why is it so much better?" He said, "You don't understand. The consortium took four years to agree on the technical design. By the time they'd finally agreed on the technical design, AT&T and Bell Labs has gotten the next generation on the drawing board, but the consortium will not even consider it because it took them four years to get everybody to agree on that configuration. They said, 'We'll push it out for the next generation.'" They didn't anticipate there was going to be any competition. Competition wasn't allowed until 1996. I said, "Are you sure?" That was the start of my next venture. I had my payoff on Wall Street, pitching the idea using PowerPoint. And these were financiers. They'd say, "How do you know? How can you say this to us? How do you know the technology works?"
This is where my PhD from Caltech helped. [Laugh] Not that I knew exactly how it worked, but to the Wall Street guys, it was a step closer. It helped. And then, long story short, we launched the company, we raised the money, and lo and behold, we put our cable on top of their cable and completed around the same time, I think within around three months of each other. But ours had a lot more capacity than theirs. That meant on a per-unit capacity basis, we could underprice them based on their cost. For the same amount of money, we built something that had four times more capacity. On a per-unit capacity basis, our cost was a lot lower than theirs. We began selling ours at a price that was below their cost. Pissed them off to no end. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: When you say you built on top of theirs, literally, it was one resting on top of another?
LEE: No, it was the same route. But the ocean is big. By the way, this is the same equipment, same ship that laid the cable. It's actually very interesting. They have a big ship that goes from New York to the UK with spools of cable, all the electronics on it, and then they slowly, slowly, slowly drop the cable from the back side of the ship. It eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, and it goes all the way to the shore of the UK. When they get close to the shore. They have scuba divers and all that who eventually haul the cable, which is about this thick, to the shore. Then, you build a cable station to do all the interconnections. That's the business.
ZIERLER: What was the overall goal for building this? Not just for the company, but for telecommunications.
LEE: The overall goal was to be reduce the unit cost of making international communications. I don't know if you remember back then, making international calls were $2 or $3 per minute. Today, it's, like, zero. It's all thanks to competition in fiber-optical technology, the internet, TCP/IP.
ZIERLER: What about the internet? Was everyone focused on phone calls, or were people thinking about the internet also?
LEE: People started to talk about internet. TCP/IP was first tried by the Department of Defense, DARPA. For me, as a business, there was nothing for me to do. The protocol was already established. We just had to be able to provide the pipe, the channel for the packets to travel in. Then, you don't charge very much for it. In other words, the cost of the infrastructure was getting lower and lower, and that allowed for a lot of traffic. Today, you send emails or internet-based phone calls, and it costs you nothing to make those communications. Within one lifetime, it totally changed the equation.
ZIERLER: What were some of the big lessons for you from this experience?
LEE: You've got to be ballsy. When there's an opportunity, you've got to step up to it. But I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. First of all, the monopolies were getting deregulated. If the monopolies didn't want to do it, there were going to be a lot of new upstarts, if you will, that would be willing to raise money to compete against the monopoly players. And we've seen that in the US and in Europe. When we were selling that capacity, it was not just to the old monopoly players, the national carriers, but also to all the upstarts.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you ever got specific satisfaction, the benefit that this had for scientific collaborations. For example, CERN and all of the research groups in the United States.
LEE: Yeah, but that was way down the list, if you will. At that time, the goal was to leverage the new technology to build the infrastructure to allow something like this to happen. It was a major change.
ZIERLER: How did the company change as a result?
LEE: Well, the company initially was doing very well. This was the only game in town. Then, eventually, there was a lot of competition. At that time, I was traveling like crazy. Not just the US, I had to go all over the world. Europe, Asia, all that stuff. At that time, our banker primarily was Merrill Lynch. Someone at a very senior level at Goldman Sachs insisted that they wanted to have a private reception for me and my partner. They were going to do it in London, and they asked us to pick a date. We picked a date. During the one or two days I was going to be in London, we showed up at this private place. It was a reception. I had no idea what kind of reception it was going to be.
There were 20 senior bankers from Goldman Sachs and just the two of us. I thought they were going to have a lot of luminaries, socialites, and all those fun people around. I figured I'd go in there for cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and then I'd be out of there. No, those guys had us cornered. They wanted to know how we did it, and how Merrill Lynch got in, how they missed the boat. They said never again would they want to miss it, and they wanted to work with us on the next financing we did. I said to myself, "This game is getting too dicey. A lot of crazy money is going to get thrown into it. There are going to be a lot of projects started, and some people are going to get hurt. Time to sort of get out." You've got to always have antennas out there.
ZIERLER: Did that turn out to be true, the feeding frenzy that you predicted?
LEE: Yeah. Big frenzy.
ZIERLER: Why was that not attractive for you? Why did you want to stay away from that kind of business environment?
LEE: Because it would be hard to make money. When there's a lot of cheap money around looking to fund projects, you know some of those projects are going to be bad, and it's going to be difficult to make money for everybody.
ZIERLER: What did that mean for you? What options did you have at that point?
LEE: I wanted to basically pull the plug and just quit, but my partners wanted to stay on because they figured the going was still very good. We overextended eventually. It was against my personal feeling. We actually bought a lot of operating companies. It became a big company. I stopped running the company, I was the president and chief operating officer. Eventually, the company went bankrupt because they overextended.
ZIERLER: You saw that also. That was part of the challenge that you wanted to avoid.
LEE: I saw that. There was too much crazy money. It got to such an extent that the CFO's office was next to mine, and I was hardly in the office, but the CFO was spending most of the time in the office. I came by the office late afternoon one day, and he poked his head in and said, "We just did another drive-by." I said, "How much this time?" Drive-by meaning you don't even go to Wall Street to pitch. You do a PowerPoint, you send it out to 20 bankers, and have them respond within two hours, and they'll tell you how much they can raise. You don't even need to show up. They were talking about billions of dollars. This is back then, 20 years ago. I said, "No, no, no, this is not my game." [Laugh] Here's a kid growing up in Taiwan, studied physics and all that. I figured my first phase of my life, I was pretty well-grounded, feet on the ground, if you will. But towards the end, there's this high finance, crazy money, drive-bys and all that stuff. It just scared me. By the way, you see this repeating every 10, 20 years in high finance. Human beings just don't learn the lesson.
ZIERLER: A feeding frenzy is a feeding frenzy.
LEE: Except the magnitude is bigger each time. Anyway, that was my experience.
ZIERLER: What did you do as a result? What options did you have?
LEE: Well, I made enough money to be able to retire comfortably for the rest of my life. Now, I'm not crazy enough to want to go buy an island or that kind of stuff, but enough for my family. I have simple needs. I figured, "I'll concentrate on the not-for-profits because this is where I can get more grounded, be surrounded by real things rather than all this high finance and talk of who shows up at what cocktail." That's not my cup of tea. I just became more and more grounded.
Philanthropy and Board Service
ZIERLER: Were you already involved at this point in serving on boards and philanthropic activities?
LEE: Not a lot. My first exposure to that kind of window, if you will, actually was a call I got from this fellow, Si Ramo. I knew Si from the good old TRW days. Si said, "David, I've been working with Robert Day at the Keck Foundation, and Robert just decided to make a $300-million gift to USC. It's a naming gift to name the medical school and a medical enterprise. But in connection with that, USC agreed to set up this board of overseers," he called it. I said, "What the heck is that?" He said, "It's not fiduciary, but we're getting involved with the strategy and the planning. But we're not fiduciaries. I want you to be on the board." You can't say no to Si, so I got involved with that.
Prior to that, I had enough money, so I made a gift to Caltech. And eventually, Caltech approached me and said, "Do you want to sit on the board?" To me, it was a great honor, obviously, so I started serving on the board of Caltech. By that time, I had Caltech, then I had the USC Medical School. other people approached me about this and that, and I turned them down. But eventually, Getty approached me. I've not taken a single class in art history or the humanities in my undergraduate. I rushed through it in three years. But it fascinated me. And my wife loves to paint. I mentioned it to Ellen, and she said, "It may not be bad. As you get older, you appreciate a little bit of the humanities. Otherwise, what are you going to do? You're going to go crazy, and you're going to drive everybody around you crazy." I said, "But I know nothing about humanities."
She said, "Let's talk to them and find out what they want or what they see in you." I had an interesting meeting with them. Some of the people in there, I know. They told me that Getty is more than an art museum, it actually does a lot of work in conservation, which is scientifically based, and it does a lot of work in research. Research in the humanities, so they have a huge library, they dig up the old stuff, then try to understand what the thinking was back then. Those areas fascinate me. And just in terms of projects they were doing at the time that were very active, there was a conservation project in China. This is the caves project. We knew a little bit about that, actually, from just me being Chinese. I was fascinated by what they'd done. I didn't realize they'd been working on it for 20 years. Every year, they go and help the Chinese government restore the place. I signed on to join the Getty board as well. That's it. I'm not joining other boards.
ZIERLER: What about Clarity Partners and Global Crossing?
LEE: Global Crossing is the undersea cable company. That was the beginning of Global Crossing. That's eventually become a big company. After that, I basically got out of the day-to-day running of the business. Then, a couple friends in Beverly Hills said, "Let's go raise some money and make investments in media and communications." They know media, I know communications, and we invest in companies. We don't go in there and run them, but we make investments. This is a little bit like venture capital, but it's private equity, they call it. I said, "Well, I know the people," so I said, "Fine, let's do it."
ZIERLER: I know you stepped down from Global Crossings, but how long did you stay with Clarity Partners?
LEE: We're still winding Clarity Partners down, so I'm still involved with that. We stopped making active investments, so the existing portfolios, we're harvesting. We're at the very tail end of that. We're not doing any more.
Becoming a Caltech Trustee
ZIERLER: We can now focus on when you're elected to the board at Caltech. First of all, what was it like just to be back on campus?
LEE: Great. I was on the campus as a student, but being back there as a board member, first of all, it exposes you to a whole bunch of different things you're not used to, that you have not seen. And people have changed, the challenges have changed. But Caltech has stayed consistently near the top all those years since I left. Nothing has changed in terms of reputation and the state of excellence. I was happy to be back, and I feel privileged to be part of that history. One assignment, they say, "Well, you have this finance background, and you're used to big money and all that. Why don't you join the Business and Finance Committee?" I figured that was one thing I could sink my teeth into.
The fellow that was chair of the Business and Finance Committee was a wonderful gentleman. He just passed away about a month ago, Dick Rosenberg. He was a chairman of Bank of America. Prior to that, he was also involved with other banks. Somehow, they connected him to Caltech, and he served on the Caltech board for a long time. I still remember him taking me under his wings. He said, "You came from a real accounting background." Not-for-profit accounting rules are very funny. We all know that. And being an ex-CPA, I sort of appreciated that. But he said, "Cash is king." I said, "Amen to that." When I took over, I couldn't figure out if Caltech was making money or losing money. Because I asked the question, and they said, "Meaning what? Losing real cash, or losing money on the accounting basis?" I said, "No, I mean losing real cash. You're running out of cash." That's why I asked for the budgets to be prepared on a cash basis. It's not a generally accepted accounting principle. Since then, even today, I think it's done that way.
ZIERLER: What were some of the challenges in setting that up, and what have been some of the benefits since?
LEE: Well, it brings people into a sharper focus on whether or not we're losing cash or making cash, whether or not we're tight or in a fairly comfortable zone. Caltech is a little bit different than other large universities. Being an academic institution, you have a mission in education. But Caltech has limited itself to only 250 undergraduates a year, less than 1,000 for four years, the whole population. You don't make any money because you've got to provide all the classrooms, all the labs, all the professors whether you have 1,000 undergraduates, 3,000 undergraduates, 5,000, 8,000. Incrementally, you may need to have more classrooms. But you can see easily that you can collect a lot more tuition if you have a larger body of undergraduates. We don't. That's something we impose on ourselves, so we're guaranteed to lose money. By the way, we provide a lot of financial assistance to our students. The net tuition we charge is very little, net of all the financial support we provide to the students.
The other thing is, on the research, you get government contracts to pay for that. Sure, they allow you to recover overhead, but the definition of the government overhead excludes things like bathrooms and stuff like that. When you build a building, you know there are certain parts of it you cannot recover from government research contracts. You're guaranteed to lose money on that. By the way, that's true for us, for UCLA, for Harvard, large or small research institutions. But we're different from them in that we also don't make money, we lose money on the education front. How do we deal with it? We know we're going to lose money, so how do you run the Business and Finance Committee? After Dick retired, he tapped me to run the Business and Finance Committee. I continued the tradition. We sharpen our tools, we look at the problems, and we understand exactly where we are. It's not, "Woe is me," where you're in a position that you're afraid to do anything. Quite the contrary. It's better to know where you are so that you can plan out exactly what you want to do.
ZIERLER: Were you involved at all in the board's conversations with Gordon Moore and the enormous gift that was made as a result?
LEE: I was involved only on a peripheral basis, not directly. Sure, there were a group of us that were flown out to Hawaii to go visit with him and Betty. But I wouldn't say I was leading it. I was just there.
ZIERLER: When the gift came through, just from an accounting perspective, what did that mean for Caltech's books? How did that change things?
LEE: The money showed up, and then it showed up in the endowment, pretty much. Then, there was some that funded the projects. As projects got done, the money got drawn. You have revenue that offset the expense. It doesn't show a big profit, in other words. Some of the money went into funding the projects, some of the money went into endowment that you have a 5% payout.
ZIERLER: Besides finance issues, what other kinds of topics did you get involved with when you joined the board?
LEE: Eventually, I got involved more and more, so I was drawn in. Then, I began to look at successions of the various committee chairs, nominations of new trustees, all that stuff. One gets involved, especially when one becomes the chairman. All this stuff happens. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: I know September 11 fell during one of the board meetings. What was that day like for you? How did the board respond?
LEE: One of the things is liquidity. What if the financial system shut down? We didn't know what else was going to happen. The stock market was crashing, so we had to really worry about liquidity. That's another discipline we put in place, the liquidity of the investment portfolio.
ZIERLER: How do you make sure that Caltech can stay solvent during financial crises?
LEE: You look at what you invest in. Caltech can invest money in stocks, can invest with private equity firms, can buy government bonds. You kind of ask yourself, "If I really needed the cash"–and by the way, there could be another big earthquake, and we'd need the money. Liquidity is important, so we always ask ourselves, "How much cash can we sweep out in five days, 30 days, six months, two years, three years?" It all depends on the type of stuff you invest in. You know when you can draw it out without really doing a fire sale and selling at fire sale prices and losing value that way. That was one of the disciplines we put in place.
Working with Caltech Presidents
ZIERLER: Did you get to know David Baltimore during his time as president?
LEE: Yeah. He was the president when I joined the board.
ZIERLER: What were some of his interactions with the board? What was it like working with him?
LEE: Typical board versus the president. I think some of the board members may have felt that he was a great scientist, and today, people still hold him in great regard as a scientist. Personally, I know both him and his wife. They're great people. And by the way, David Baltimore is also what I'd call a humanist. He knows a lot more about artists and literature than I do. He's an all-around intellectual. But he's not, if you will, really cut out for managing finances, the numbers, that sort of stuff. Everybody's got positives and negatives. It is what it is.
ZIERLER: From your vantage point, what were the most important initiatives for him during his presidency? What did he want to do as Caltech's president?
LEE: He wanted to push the frontiers of research. He wanted to push the research, particularly in what I'd call the life sciences area. Caltech has gone through this evolution. The first 80 years of its existence was mostly in physical sciences. But then, towards the end of that period, Baltimore came in, and this is when life sciences became a real science. People are going to kill me for that. But before that time, the technology wasn't good enough for it to be scientifically replicable in the lab, that you could actually measure it, observe it, apply the physical-sciences discipline to really understand biological phenomena. Like genetics. We talk about genetics. You inherit traits. What causes that to happen? People didn't really understand the DNA structure until much later. Then, what do you do with that? All that happened much, much later. It takes time for the technology, tools, and instrumentation to be developed. I think Baltimore was at the right place to help Caltech really get into this new area of research. If you look today, even though Caltech is still very small compared to our competitors, the life sciences area is really thriving at Caltech. And more and more important discoveries are going to be made at Caltech because of that. Which is great.
ZIERLER: When David Baltimore announced that he was stepping down and it was time to choose a new president, I wonder if you can talk specifically about what role the board plays in that and if you had a specific role.
LEE: Yeah, this is a Caltech tradition. I was on the committee. Kent Kresa was running the committee, he was the chairman at the time. The process at Caltech is different from other institutions. The faculty actually form a committee, so they elect among themselves representatives from each of the divisions, and they form this committee. They call it a search committee. Don't pay attention to the nomenclature, it's a search committee. But it's a faculty committee. They have a leader, and they sit together, and they put down on one piece of paper the key attributes of the next president they, as faculty, want to see. At the same time, the trustees also put together a committee called the Selection Committee. And we also put down the key attributes. Then, the two groups actually get together and compare notes.
And eventually, we negotiate with each other, argue with each other, and we end up with a commonly agreed set of attributes in order of priority. You can't get the perfect person, so what's more important for Caltech for the next 10, 12, 15 years? That was agreed upon. Then, the faculty knocks on the doors of their counterparts, talk to about 100 people, and they report back to the trustees. The trustees don't do a lot at that time. Then, they come to the trustees with three to five candidates and say, "We're happy if you pick from this short list of three to five. We'd be happy to have him or her as our next president. Also, by the way, we've got no problem also making that person faculty." It's a big deal. To go through the faculty appointment is a separate process. They've got to go through that as well. You can't imagine having a president of Caltech, who has some research, that you say, "You're not good enough to be faculty." That's a non-starter. And then, the trustees take over and make the final choice. That's the process at Caltech.
ZIERLER: In comparing notes between the faculty and the board of trustees, what were some areas of similarity, and what were some areas of divergence?
LEE: Back then, David Baltimore's situation, the faculty started to say they wanted tighter financial management, no surprises, better investment operations, and ability to raise funds. Even the faculty said that. And by the way, the trustees pretty much agreed with that. Each time you do a search, depending on where Caltech sits, the key attributes may shift a little bit here and there.
ZIERLER: Based on those points of convergence, what kinds of candidates was Caltech considering?
LEE: I don't want to get into that.
ZIERLER: Tell me about when you first met Jean-Lou Chameau. What was that like?
LEE: He's a great human being, lots of enthusiasm, understands what it takes to run a big place. He's got all the requisite discipline. Because I was working with him also when there was the financial crisis, we talked about cutting back on Caltech's operating budgets. We agreed on the approach, and he basically executed on that. It really didn't take a lot of pushing on my part to get him to do that.
ZIERLER: What was the approach? How could Caltech continue doing world-class research given how tight the financial situation was?
LEE: He basically volunteered that, "It doesn't make sense to cut research. It doesn't make sense to touch the faculty. I can freeze their salaries, but I can't cut them." I said, "Enough said. I totally agree with you." He said, "I'll take a cut in my salary, but not the people doing actual research. I'll freeze them." I said, "Fine." But he said, "I'll do a wholesale cut in institutional supports, particularly in development." The development office at that time was undergoing transition, there were people going in and out. He said, "I'll just cut it by 60%." He basically eliminated a whole bunch of positions within development or institutional relationships. He said, "We're hunkering down anyway over the next three years, and when we restart, we'll hire the right people in the right places." That was his approach.
ZIERLER: To clarify, to not cut in these vital areas, does that mean that Caltech is spending money it doesn't have? Does it mean it's dipping into reserves it never thought it would need to dip into? How does it do this?
LEE: We've got to manage it all the way through. But don't forget, if the faculty's tenured, you can't cut them anyway. [Laugh] That's the nature of the beast. You can freeze their salary. And thank God our research grant level stayed relatively high, so they were pretty well-supported by the research grants to do what they were doing.
ZIERLER: How did Caltech come out stronger from the crisis, both financially and on the research side?
LEE: I think people felt we were a team. We'd been through it. And they also appreciated that where the muscle was cut was in corporate, not in faculty. The key audience is the faculty. They felt the institutional loyalty to the faculty was in the right place
ZIERLER: Some of Jean-Lou's most important initiatives were high-impact research and sustainability. What did you see change as a result of his leadership?
LEE: I don't think there were a lot of results that were very convincing in such a short time. It takes time for it to come out. I think eventually, it came around when we got that big gift from the Resnicks, $660 million or whatever the final number was. You need to have the money, the heft, to go with the idea, or else it's just talk. [Laugh] We were making headway, making small changes, setting up institutes that had operating budgets of $30 or whatever. Those were all incremental initial steps that led to the final big push. Now, we're in the big leagues.
ZIERLER: Were there particular committees you were on or conversations you were in that led you to believe somebody would ask you to serve as board chair next?
LEE: No, the only guy who counted was Kent Kresa. [Laugh] He was the chair.
ZIERLER: And it was as simple as that, he asked you to do it?
ZIERLER: What year did you take over as chair?
LEE: 10, 12 years ago, something like that.
ZIERLER: When Jean-Lou announced that he was stepping down, I understand that this was something of a surprise to Caltech.
LEE: Yeah, it was.
ZIERLER: What role did the board play in ensuring stability and that there would be a smooth transition to the next president?
LEE: Well, I was made the chairman only, like, three or four months before he called up and said, "David, I'd like to come and see you." I said, "Sure, let's meet at the Athenaeum." We always meet at the Athenaeum. I live very close to it. And he said, "No, no, no, I'd like to come to your home." "Uh-oh." He came and said, "I don't know how else to put it, but I'm quitting." I said, "Where are you going?" And he told me, no surprise. And then, we talked about how we were going to do a transition because you can't just pick up and leave the next day. We talked about a transition, and I mentioned this in a special session to the board. I told the board, and we talked about a transition plan, the announcement, which wasn't going to come out because we had to coordinate that with the announcement from his new appointment. That's a public announcement, but privately, I told the board. The reactions from the board were all over. Some wanted to say, "Good luck to him, let's move on." Another extreme was, "How could he do that to us?" It is what it is. We just had to deal with it and move forward. The most important thing is, we had to go and do our own search. We came up with a schedule for the search, and we did the search, and then we found Tom Rosenbaum. I had to manage the whole process. I wasn't looking forward to that drill, that baptism by fire, but it is what it is. You get put in the position, and you've got to deal with it.
ZIERLER: Given the response from the board, as you mentioned, obviously, the idea was that Jean-Lou Chameau was doing excellent work, and the expectation and hope was that he had many more years ahead of him as Caltech president.
LEE: Yes, indeed. There was no inkling of it.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the decision to name Ed Stolper as interim president. Why not just go direct from one president to the other? Is it just a matter of taking the appropriate amount of time to find the right person?
LEE: Yeah. For the president, we need to do a search. By the way, the Caltech tradition is that very few internal people become presidents. Presidents come from the outside.
ZIERLER: Tell me about Ed Stolper stepping in at this very important moment.
LEE: He was already the provost. He stepped in, and he obviously worked very closely with me. We established some ground rules so he and I knew what to talk to each other about, how to do it, frequency of communications. He knew I was always there, so he could just drop me a note, and I could react to it if it was important. He and I developed this working relationship. He was trying to figure out how to do that along the way, so it's not like he knew day one how to do it. Actually, in hindsight, I think he was using me a lot as a sounding board. He was dealing with something that's not totally academic, but he just wanted to have somebody to talk to. He couldn't talk to his academic people about it. I was there as his sounding board. Together, we sort of breached that space. I'll tell you, I wasn't looking for those kinds of experiences. I didn't ask for it. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Before we get to Tom Rosenbaum, on the science side, Kip Thorne and LIGO. Things were really starting to get exciting with the detection of gravitational waves. Were you in touch with Kip? Were you appreciating how exciting things were getting?
LEE: I wasn't really that close to Kip at the time. Every now and then, he would publish something, and I'd read it. But the first detection, obviously the entire campus celebrated. It was a big, big deal. And then, Kip and I sort of reconnected with each other. Things haven't changed. It was just a matter of making an effort to reach out and reconnect. It was an exciting time at Caltech to be able to do that.
ZIERLER: What was campus like during the Nobel celebration? What did that feel like to you, both as the board chair and as Kip's former student?
LEE: Caltech didn't really go out of the way to have a huge party and stuff like that. It did it in the typical Caltech understated way. The people showing up for those receptions and celebrations were mostly people I knew from my earlier days, so I felt more like an insider, if you will, than the board chair. By the way, after the prize ceremony, all Kip's graduate students and post-docs planned a surprise party for him. Obviously, I was part of that. It was a lot of fun to get reacquainted with people I hadn't seen in a long, long time. That was fun. It reminds me that you're part of this big family, and everybody's excellent, and everybody has high respect for each other, for their work, for their brain power, if you will. It's a unique place.
ZIERLER: Tell me about meeting Tom Rosenbaum for the first time.
LEE: He flew into town, and we had dinner together. He was being very polite. He was fighting a slight cold. But he flew in, and we had dinner together. There was a group of us, and there were faculty representatives from that committee and me. Because the first time around, it wasn't the trustees interviewing him, it was the faculty. But I got invited to that. We sat and talked about running an academic institution. He shared with us some of his experiences in Chicago. I called it intramural sports. He picked up on that. He looked at us, and he said, "How many budgetary units do you guys have?" I said, "Well, we've got six divisions plus some other entities. Fewer than 10." He said, "I've got 26. I've got to balance all the books, make sure the money goes into the right places. Nobody is satisfied, everybody wants more, blah, blah, blah." In other words, he's very experienced at balancing the balls. There are a lot of hungry mouths out there that he has to deal with. That impressed me, frankly. He was a little bit under the weather, but he made a point, a big point, right there.
ZIERLER: When he arrived, what were some of the most important initiatives? What was he expressing as his vision as Caltech president?
LEE: One of the key things was, if you looked at his experience and all that, we knew that he could get along and be respected by the academics. Because he's one of them. The thing we wanted to make sure of, which he said he aspired to do, was on the fundraising side. I met his president at the University of Chicago. They've done a great job doing development and fundraising. But I said, "Of the key relationships you guys have at the University of Chicago, how many of those are you directly involved in?" The answer was few, a small number. Not a big number. But the ones he did, they were very important relationships to the University. We wanted to make sure he could step into the shoes and really kind of up the game at Caltech, which he did. To all of our pleasant realizations, he actually did a very good job to really set up the development effort. For the very first time, Caltech has got a professional development team in place, and it's approaching the work in a very professional way.
ZIERLER: Do you think that's at the heart of why the Breakthrough Campaign was such a smash success?
LEE: That, together with the fact that we got stymied or delayed because of the changeover from Jean-Lou. We asked for a long quiet period. During the quiet period, what do you do? Do you slow down and do nothing? No, we turned our attention to the trustees. We said, "Last campaign, we had Gordon Moore give us $600 million. But the rest of the trustees, in terms of participation, not that many." This time, the head of development, his name is Brian Lee, my cousin–he's Irish, but they have the family name Lee also. He's now head of development at Harvard. He got recruited out of Caltech to go to Harvard. It's a long story with Brian Lee, but he and I basically decided to have him call out the individual trustees. Brian really put the effort in to approach the individual trustees. The trustee participation in this campaign, before we went public, was phenomenal, one of the highest in the country. That really set a good base, if you will, to ensure the success of this campaign.
ZIERLER: What was your response to Tom Rosenbaum's emphasis on diversity and inclusivity at Caltech?
LEE: I thought it was all very well and good. Listen, we're in the people business. If you want to attract the best talent to ensure your success, you want to make sure you have the largest potential of people that you can draw from. In other words, if you self-limit yourself to a subset of the potential pool, you're not going to do as well. You need to be diversified, you need to make sure you're as open as possible to as large a potential pool as you can. That's your business. That's how you succeed. Look at the faculty of Caltech. Many of them are first generation today. They come from all over the world. And they're good. They come to Caltech because they think Caltech is good. Tom Rosenbaum certainly sees that and wants to maintain that as well. I'm totally supportive of his efforts in diversity and equity. But he also insisted on what I call the Chicago principle. Basically, that we're all humanist, we're all smart people, and we respect each other, so we don't need to hold back when we have different opinions. We need to interact in a civilized way. We cannot cancel people. [Laugh] That's the Chicago principle.
ZIERLER: On that basis, when in the summer of 2020, students began to agitate about renaming Millikan Library, what was your reaction? How did you want to respond?
LEE: My response was, I have great respect for Millikan, him being a physicist. I walked past his bust as a graduate student every day. But I didn't know that he was involved in all this. Tom and I talked about it and said, "Let's appoint a commission to really understand what's being done at Caltech." It was more than just Millikan, it was a whole bunch of other people who had also made naming gifts to Caltech. I said, "We cannot hide away from this. We should look at history. But we shouldn't judge anybody based on today's standards. We should understand what they did in the context of the prevailing opinions and thoughts, what was happening to society at that time." We formed this commission, and I had this stroke of ingenuity. I said, "How about appointing Kent Kresa's predecessor, Ben Rosen?" Tom didn't know Ben Rosen that much. He knew him because he approached him for some development efforts, he visited him in New York. But I knew Ben Rosen. He said, "Isn't he from the South?"
I said, "That's all the more reason I think he would be perfect for this." I called up Ben Rosen and told him this was happening on campus, and our thought was to form this commission that would have trustees, faculty, graduate students, community people. We wanted to really do a deep dive into all this and figure out once and for all what the right thing to do was for Caltech. Ben listened very carefully. If you know Ben, he's not very quick in terms of jumping in with his opinions. Very measured. He paused, and he said, "David, you know I grew up in the South." I said, "That's why I'm talking to you." He said, "Up until I was, like, 12 years old, I didn't realize that the Blacks were sitting in the back of the bus, and us other kids were sitting in the front of the bus.
And then, when we'd go to the drug store fountains for ice cream, again, there was a Black counter, and there was a white counter." I said, "Yeah, Ben, but things have changed. And you recognize this." He said, "Okay, I'll take this assignment." He chaired that committee. Once they got going, I think they were having Zoom meetings. They got hit by the pandemic. They were having Zoom meetings, like, once a week and doing real work. Then, they had a committee report to the board. We debated on it a couple times, a couple board meetings. And then, we basically adopted their recommendations. I thought Caltech dealt with its past history the right way. By the way, I joked, I said, "Since when am I not being counted as a minority?" [Laugh]
ZIERLER: It's a fair question. Not just one, but two crises, in getting our conversation closer to the present. When COVID hit, what did it mean for Caltech, what did it mean for the board, what did it mean for you?
LEE: I think along the way, we'd been talking to Tom about setting up a system for Caltech to deal with unforeseen disasters, emergency response disasters. He had a whole network of people, they knew who should be on that network at what level and all that. As soon as the pandemic hit, obviously, I was on the phone with Tom, but Tom activated his network of people, and they had conference calls every evening to figure out what's going on. Obviously, there's a whole scientific curiosity aspect of it. Is it really going to spread? How quickly is it going to spread? How deadly is it going to be? There was the whole scientific/medical aspect of it. But in the meantime, what do you do with the campus? All those decisions were made by Tom and his team, and I give him kudos for all this, that Caltech was able to manage itself. I think we were leading the pack compared to some larger institutions.
ZIERLER: Now that we're hopefully putting the pandemic behind us, what are some ways that the board might retain some COVID-era procedures?
LEE: Well, one obviously thing is the meetings, the format of the meetings. There's talk that maybe not every meeting will be done in person. Once or twice a year, you have in-person meetings, and then the other times, maybe it's optional attendance by Zoom versus in-person. There is a tradeoff. In a close-knit environment like Caltech, I think you lose some of the personal touch. It worked well at Caltech because the trustees all pretty much know each other, other than the few brand new ones. The old ones, we've known each other for 15 or 20 years, so getting on a Zoom meeting is not a big deal. But for new trustees coming in, it's kind of funny. They don't know the people, they don't have that sense of interaction, the chance conversations out by the coffee pot and stuff like that. There's a tradeoff. There's always a tradeoff. Some in-person meetings and some by Zoom to increase the efficiency, so people don't travel as much.
ZIERLER: When you made the decision to step down as chair, do you call a meeting with the board? Is there an opportunity to reflect on what you helped accomplish?
LEE: No. It's like, you pull the finger out of the lake. The next second, the ripples are gone. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: You said in a previous conversation that you're more process-oriented. You wanted a system that was more formalized than you simply hand-picking the next chair.
LEE: Oh, yeah, that, I put in place. I worked with some key board committee chairs, and I put that process in place. We used that process, actually, to pick the next board chair. It's all very well-documented.
Strengthening the Institute
ZIERLER: What are you most proud of in your service as board chair?
LEE: I think I strengthened the organization of the board committees, defined some of the processes, brought in some good new trustees to the portfolio. And also, this time, the board actually played a very significant role to help really complete a successful capital campaign. First time ever in Caltech's history that we've done this.
ZIERLER: What will that mean for the board going forward?
LEE: I think it's going to get better. It's only going to get better. I'm sure they will find areas to improve, and I'm counting on them to improve. That's the nature of the beast.
ZIERLER: On that positive note, now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, to wrap up this excellent series of sessions, I want to ask a few retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. Are there any lessons you might share with students, graduate students who are on the more technical or scientific side who are thinking about alternative career paths? What might you reflect in your own experiences about lessons learned?
LEE: I would encourage them to step out and try. Don't be timid. There's a whole wide world out there. Don't be timid. Step out and try. Have confidence in yourself.
ZIERLER: In the way that you thought to yourself, "Maybe I can go back to physics," in reality, do you think that was true? Or that was just sort of an emotional crutch?
LEE: That was there to make my wife more comfortable. [Laugh] But she had faith in me. She only asked the question, "Are you sure you really want to do it?" and I said, "Yes." Then, boom, that was it. No looking back. I guess one of the things I've learned in my life journey–I'm towards the end now, in my 70s–is that you can look back with some fondness, but there's no regret, no looking back in regret. "What if I did do that? Would this be better?" No, no, no, don't look back with regret.
ZIERLER: In all of your business adventures, what was the most rewarding for you? Where did you have the most fun or gain a sense of purpose?
LEE: Towards the end, it wasn't about making money anymore. It was really the people you come across, you help develop those people, and they begin to see their own potential. And it's much to their pleasant surprise. I told them they could succeed in it, and they didn't believe me. And they tried it, and I helped them, and then they became successful. And that's the greatest joy.
ZIERLER: Is serving as board chair at Caltech something that you would recommend to your friends?
LEE: Some of them are not cut out for it. Let's be realistic. You've got to have a little bit of thick skin, and you've got to be able to hold fast to what you believe.
ZIERLER: What are you most proud of in terms of all of your service to Caltech, the research that you've enabled, the stability that Caltech finds itself in? What's most important to you?
LEE: It's to see that Caltech as an institution is making progress. And a lot of times, it's in uncharted waters. What do faculty want Caltech to do? A lot of times, it's stuff nobody else has tried before. It's uncharted waters, but as a team, we've got to hold hands together and say, "Are we really sure we want to do this? Let's go." [Laugh] That's the fun. That's the excitement. And Caltech is good people.
ZIERLER: As you know, Caltech has always demanded that it stay small because that's so core to its identity. Is that sustainable for the future? Can Caltech stay small as science gets better?
LEE: That's a question that's been asked by the board and by some other people from Caltech from time to time. It's a very serious question. But I think there's a way to deal with this question in a hybrid way. I think by staying small, Caltech really, really forces itself to be disciplined and highly selected in the people it brings on. That's the plus. The minus is, as you say, science is getting big, and then you need a team. Caltech should be smart. When it wants to make a major push in one area that requires big sciences, it should be able to set up, through an organization, a separate entity. Like LIGO, which is 5,000. But you set it up separately so it's not part of Caltech, but all the management and funding comes through Caltech. Caltech would not get bogged down and dragged down by this large-body problem. That's the challenge to future management.
ZIERLER: Finally, last question personal to you. For however long you want to stay active and continue contributing to Caltech, what's most important to you? Where do you want to direct your efforts?
LEE: I think for me, it's staying close to some of the people. I can't possibly do everything. It's picking and choosing the people you want to be associated with and just staying close to them. And hopefully, some of that will rub off to make my retirement life easy, enjoyable, and rewarding.
ZIERLER: As simple as that.
LEE: Simple as that. Surround yourself with good people.
ZIERLER: David, on that note, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I want to thank you for doing this.
LEE: My pleasure.
- Leadership at the Getty Trust
- The Pull From Science to Business
- The Legacy of Si Ramo
- Big Goals for the Caltech Endowment
- The Family Move from Mainland China to Taiwan
- From McGill to Caltech
- Meeting Kip Thorne
- Black Holes and Gravitation
- Pivot to Accounting
- Ventures in Telecommunications
- Philanthropy and Board Service
- Becoming a Caltech Trustee
- Working with Caltech Presidents
- Strengthening the Institute