Ronald K. Linde
Ronald K. Linde
Ronald K. Linde
Vice Chair of the Caltech Board of Trustees, Emeritus
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
October 12, 31, November 10, 29, December 9, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Wednesday, October 12th, 2022. It is my great honor and privilege to be here with Dr. Ronald K. Linde. Ron, it is so nice to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
RONALD K. LINDE: Happy to be with you.
ZIERLER: Ron, to start, would you please tell me your current title and any institutional affiliations at Caltech and beyond?
LINDE: My status at Caltech recently changed. Officially, I'm now Vice Chair of the Board, Emeritus. To do that, they changed the bylaws to allow for that position. I guess I'm the first occupant.
LINDE: [laugh] Prior to that, I was very active in Caltech. I hope to continue to be active with Caltech. I've been on up to 10 committees and subcommittees of the board at the same time, and I was on seven such committees at the time I requested to change my status. In addition to committees and subcommittees of the board, I've served on quite a few ad hoc committees. I have been immersed in Caltech for more than three decades and have had the privilege of being able to have some influence in some of the important decisions and activities along the way.
ZIERLER: Ron, what about beyond Caltech? Are there any boards that you sit on, either in industry or in the world of philanthropy?
LINDE: No. I've curtailed those other involvements over time so that I could focus more intensely on things that at my stage of life need to be focused on. Maxine and I have a fairly complex estate, and we're starting to work on items there as well as pulling together things in the various collections of art and antiquities that we have assembled over the years. I'm currently also Vice Chair of the Board, Emeritus at Harvey Mudd College, but am no longer really active there. In the charitable foundation that Maxine and I set up, I'm Chair of the Board. But the other organizations, I've curtailed along the way. Rather than spreading myself amongst a lot of different organizations, I prefer to select what I feel is most meaningful and really go into depth. With Caltech, for example, in the almost 33 years that I had been on the board, for all the committees that I've been on, with one exception, I have never missed a meeting of any of those committees. The one exception was in order to give me the title of Vice Chair, Emeritus, they held a special nominating committee meeting, so I wasn't able to attend—
LINDE: —so it wasn't my fault. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ron, tell me, what is happening at the Ronald and Maxine Linde Foundation right now? What are some of the exciting initiatives going on?
LINDE: Actually, a part of it that takes some time is management of the financial resources. But, over the years, some of our philanthropy, we've done directly, and some has been through the Foundation. Maxine and I have committed to so many important things at Caltech that all the excitement now is what's happening at Caltech that we've had the good fortune to be able to participate in. It's almost like a captive foundation at this moment in time. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ron, what is the long-term vision that you and Maxine have for all of the art and antiquities that you have collected over the years?
LINDE: Almost entirely our intent is to make charitable contributions to appropriate institutions. Because we collect in a wide number of areas, there's going to be most likely more than one institution. But for the largest part of what we've collected — we're now talking about collections totaling over 10,000 objects — we have an arrangement we set up with UCLA to donate most of the collections there. There are a number of things that still have to be done. UCLA is in a planning stage for expanding their museum space with a new building that is going to be some time away. Right now, that's not yet underway, although we have been lending to some exhibitions at UCLA.
ZIERLER: Ron, in all the ways that you and Maxine are partners in the artistic world, would you say that both yours and Maxine's artistic interests are equally represented in the collection?
LINDE: Absolutely, because we have a basic rule. Almost all the time, we agree on things. We have similar tastes, and we've sort of grown up together. Certainly, our involvement in the art world and the antiquities world has always been together. But our rule is that if one of us wants to get something the other doesn't, we just see who seems to feel most passionately about his or her position, and that's the way we go, and we keep smiles on both of our faces.
ZIERLER: Ron, in surveying the collection, is there a particular piece or a motif or a country of origin that's most interesting or special to you?
LINDE: Many, many years ago, decades ago, I could have answered that question the way it was asked. But, over the years, we've collected so much. The way we're collecting, we will sometimes see interesting pieces interesting to us that most of the rest of the world might not see, such as technical details and things like that. We gave up choosing. It's like saying, "Which is your favorite child?" [laugh] and we don't really have a single favorite. We've got maybe 1,000 favorites, I'd say. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ron, on that basis, I wonder what your feelings are about art as investment items. Do you look at it purely in terms of philanthropy and love of culture, or do you think that there's a place to think about investment when you do art collecting?
LINDE: Actually, it's not quite either of those. It is collecting in a way that by assembling—and this isn't for everything, but for the most part collecting in a way that by adding particular objects to a collection, you are discovering or demonstrating interrelationships—new information and insights that would be of value to scholars who are studying the cultures, etc. For example, we might have a textile, an ancient textile that has a particular pattern on it, and it just looks like an abstract pattern. Then we come across a ceramic that has the same thing but in a slightly different way and in a different context. We say, "Aha, that's what's being represented over there." It's that type of thing, also interesting techniques that are used that are unusual—things of that nature, and then, of course, the sheer beauty of it sometimes. It's the research and educational aspect that usually excites us, and we have a very extensive research library and a small laboratory in the home that we built. Where we live, actually most of the space is occupied by what you might call a private museum. Ultimately though, where the philanthropy comes in is having assembled the collections, we would like to have the body of knowledge kept together to the extent that it's practical. Therefore, assembling the collections for generations yet to come is something that we find very appealing.
While we have bought a lot of things, we've over the years deaccessioned very few things. I'd say we, probably over the years have actually sold probably fewer than 20 pieces, and those we sold either because we were offered such an outrageous price that we couldn't refuse, and we had sufficient representation elsewhere in the collection, or sometimes we would buy something and then, maybe years, later find an even better example, and the lesser example didn't add enough information to the body of knowledge, and so we sold it. There are others that are in that category that would be sale candidates, but we haven't wanted to take the time and effort to go into doing that. We still have them, and they still have value as maybe some minor additional bits of information for the body of knowledge. Over the years, we also have donated perhaps 40 pieces to public museums.
ZIERLER: Ron, you mentioned appreciating textile and ceramics. I can't help but wonder, your academic and business expertise in materials science, does that inform your art collection, the kinds of things that are appealing to you and to Maxine?
LINDE: Not in terms of attraction to pieces. It would seem like it would. But I think all that does really is help a bit in the analysis and decisions on testing. It wouldn't have had to be materials science. It could be other areas of science. But we tend to be very analytical and so in terms of what we see in pieces, and also what we can think of to do about certain aspects, the types of testing we would like to do or have done, it helps a bit in that type of thing. But there's no direct tie-in there. The reason I chose materials science for my degrees from Caltech—both my master's and doctorate were in material science—is something that occurred at UCLA and the fact that was a new program at Caltech. As it turns out, I was the first person to receive a PhD in materials science at Caltech. But it was the science more at an atomic level that was of interest during my academic career, rather than something that you see, and you look at this material versus that material on a macroscopic scale.
ZIERLER: Ron, did you and Maxine start the art collection with the vision that it would grow to what it is, or was that more accidental or happenstance over time?
LINDE: It did not start with a vision. Neither of us had an education in art or antiquities or anything like that. We actually started with low-budget contemporary art because in those days we really couldn't afford much, but we used to like to go into the art galleries and view the art. We had recently moved up to Palo Alto in the San Francisco Bay Area. We were in Carmel and saw a painting that we both really were attracted to. But it was much more expensive than anything we thought we would buy, and so we left the gallery. We were just in Carmel for the day. We were getting ready to leave and go home, and we thought, "Gee, we can't pass that up." We looked at our watches, and it was just before closing time at the gallery, and we raced back through the streets, feeling that we just had to get that painting.
ZIERLER: What was the painting, Ron? What was so captivating about it?
LINDE: It's hard to describe without your seeing it.
LINDE: But it was a scene of people enjoying Enrico's Café outdoors in San Francisco. Just the way it was painted, it just really struck us. We raced back. Not having bought things in those days in that price range. The price for it was $1,800. We managed to negotiate it down to $1,500, and that's as far as we could get.
ZIERLER: This was big money to you back then. $1,500?
LINDE: Oh, yes, big money. That was like more than a month's salary kind of money. [laugh]
LINDE: With tax that came to $1,560. I wrote out the check and, in all innocence, not being used to paying something like that, I wrote out the check, and handed it to the gallery director. She said, "I'm sorry, I believe there's a mistake here." I looked at the check, and I'd written it out for $156.
LINDE: [laugh] What's an extra zero? Despite our embarrassment, with beginner's luck the painting eventually became quite valuable.
LINDE: [laugh] The history of almost all our collecting has been to start with a single object that we really liked, and once having invested in it, feeling that we really had better learn about what we had just done. So, we then we started to dive into affordable contemporary art. That was the start of it. Later, we got into other collections, like Oceanic ritual objects and ancient glass, again starting with a single piece that we really admired. We got into a broader range of tribal art, Asian art, Pre-Columbian art, and it just kept spreading out as we found areas of particular interest.
ZIERLER: Ron, do you work with brokers or people with expertise in particular areas that help you first understand what's available and then, ultimately, decide what to purchase?
LINDE: Not really. We make all our own decisions. It's not that we have somebody who buys for us, as many collectors do, and we don't have somebody working for us who presents things to us, as often is the case with major collections. We do have, just for such things as documenting, photographing, cataloging, doing certain things that need to be done with the pieces, building up background material, etc., we do have somebody who works full-time in the building we built, which is our home but really is largely private museum. Her title is collections manager. That's a familiar title, but for us does not involve any of the curatorial work. We are our own curators, always have been, and we get personally involved in some things that also involve testing and conservation and things like that. While trying to keep in general a low profile, we are known to certain dealers and collectors around the world, and we get contacted when they come across things that might be of interest. We also follow the public auctions.
Sometimes, we just stumble on something. Often in the past few decades, what's happened is that contacts often will come to us to ask our opinions on pieces—whether we think it's authentic, how we think it maybe should be priced, things like that, which is not a typical relationship between dealers and clients, because dealers are looking to get your money, not to have you tell them what they should be charging you. But they know how we operate. We have a philosophy that, as long as we pay what we're comfortable paying, if the dealer makes more money on it that's fine. We've got what we wanted with our price, and they have to work hard, and we wish them well. On the other hand, if dealers tell us that they themselves paid more for something than we are willing to pay, then we wish them good luck finding somebody who's willing to pay more than it's worth to us. It's a very straightforward thing. In other words, they know we don't begrudge their making big profits on something, but we also are not there to subsidize their losses or meager profits. Also, dealers often if they're willing to lower their prices rather dramatically, are afraid to come back to collectors because a normal reaction might be, "Why were you trying to charge me so much in the first place? You were trying to overcharge me." Those that we've primarily dealt with know that we welcome them to come back. We may or may not still be interested in for a number of reasons, but they know we don't hold it against them if they tried to make a killing on something because we know that they have to make a living and, on some other things they don't make money, so that's fine. If they get a great find, good for them. But they know if they will be satisfied with maybe not their top price, but they want their money fast, we always pay immediately. We never string anyone out.
We also are straightforward about saying, "This is what we think. This is what it's worth to us. This is what we think the market is," which is sometimes higher and sometimes actually lower than what we're willing to pay because it is something we feel is important to get in the context of the collection we are continuing to build and/or we see some hidden value there. It's straightforward. They don't have to be embarrassed to come back to us. We're not going to hold it against them. We've had many cases where dealers have come back to us at a fraction of the price, and so that's worked out. They use us as free consultants, and it's not prejudicing their positions. We always maintain their confidentiality. We even sometimes suggest who potential buyers might be. We never take a commission or fee for referrals. It's based on a matter of trust. If they didn't trust us, they wouldn't do that. But, over the years, you build up relationships and a reputation.
ZIERLER: Ron, in earlier times, how important would it be to you and Maxine to travel to physically see an item that you were considering for purchase?
LINDE: It depends. In earlier times, you didn't have all that you have now in terms of the visual aids that are instantaneous. We would generally not travel to see something specific. We would travel to see an exhibition, or we would travel to go to an auction, and so we'd see things in person because we happened to be in that city. Say we went to New York, we'd go visit various dealers in New York to see what they had, that type of thing. But what's generally happened if someone comes up with something that might be of interest, it's a matter of sending images, discussing the piece, our sizing up the credibility of who's offering it to us, and I don't mean just a matter of the honesty but also their credibility in terms of knowledgeability. Then if we're interested enough, we'll say, "Send it to us, and we'll see. We'll often agree in advance what the price would be if we buy it, but there is no obligation to buy it." They send it at their expense. If we send it back, we'll send it back at our expense. That's worked out fine for us.
There might have been some pieces that if we traveled around to see things, we would've otherwise gotten, because photos often don't tell you the whole story. Sometimes pieces look better or not as good in person. But that's the way we've tended to operate, rather than racing off to see things. Also, when dealers have wanted to come to visit us, it's depended on the situation. But we've encouraged them to send things rather than bring things if they feel comfortable sending and they have good insurance. We feel bad if somebody comes to show us something, travels to come to see us, and it's something we decide we don't want. We don't like to have put them out, even though they say, "No, don't worry about it." But it's better if you don't put someone out. But it's a case-by-case basis.
ZIERLER: Ron, you mentioned UCLA. What are the kinds of institutions that have educational values that align with what you and Maxine envision long-term for this collection?
LINDE: There are lots of museums around, and some museums are tied in with universities, although many of those museums tend to be somewhat smaller. It depends on the specific area, really. With UCLA, their Fowler Museum aligns very well with things that we have, primarily in the historic and prehistoric area. The collections they get from us would not technically be a part of the Fowler. They would be separate but housed with the Fowler. The advantage is that they're an educational institution. While unaffiliated museums do conduct research and do have scholars, having departments at UCLA where they have not only some expertise in the areas but are educating students and would have the examples available for the students to be able to see and handle.
The education mission is very important to us. What's on display generally is only going to be a relatively small portion of collections. Going back into the storage areas and things like that for students, would be great. Now, students will go to the major museums, etc. But then again, in many cases, it's traveling around if there are not too many in certain areas that specialize in that. There's a limited body of work. Enhancing the availability and ability to study the pieces, and do scholarly publications and, again, I repeat myself by saying that major museums are able to do that as well, and they would be possibilities for us. But UCLA made sense because of the focal areas and the student population. Also, it turns out that we're both alums but that's not the main motivation. People tend to think that's the main motivation, the same way that people tend to think we got so heavily involved with Caltech, because of my alum status and Maxine's JPL history. That's not the main motivation. The main motivation is a combination of what is the institution doing? How committed is it? What resources can it bring to bear? What is its track record? Where is it headed? What impact is it going to have on the future?
ZIERLER: Ron, I asked you about who helps you with the art collection. Similarly, with the Foundation, do you have people who are administering the funds, or is this essentially something that you and Maxine handle yourselves?
LINDE: No, that's something that we always have handled ourselves. Also, to backtrack for a moment because there's an aspect that you'd asked me about with the collections, I was going to say, and then we got to talking. I guess I got to talking. [laugh]
LINDE: We do know experts around the country and the world, actually, in certain areas where we collect. We will sometimes contact them for specific inputs on pieces, whether it's related to authenticity or related to where to place it in terms of the cultural attribution, timeline, that type of thing. There are some ambiguities. There are new things being learned all the time. Again, if we had endless hours, I could give you some examples. But there have been pieces that had been identified as authentic by experts that we were able to establish were not authentic, and also the other way round. There are pieces that were considered to be fakes that we were able to establish were not fakes. That's a part of the immersion in the collecting that is particularly gratifying.
ZIERLER: Now, to go back to the Foundation, why is it important? I assume it would be easier if you had a staff or an administrator to help you with these things. Why is it worth your and Maxine's time to make these decisions directly?
LINDE: Because we really care about the results. As far as investments go, while we have invested with a diversified multitude of individual managers, it's an investment decision we're making because we like what they're focused on and doing in particular areas. Overall, we choose our own investments strategies, our own timing, and we suffer with our own mistakes.
LINDE: With respect to where we want to make charitable contributions, we don't need advice and suggestions. We identify on a personal basis where we think we can have some important impact and particularly if there's going to be some ongoing personal involvement, because there are millions of causes and millions of places that need support. For someone to tell us, "Why don't you put the money there or there?" we just don't need it. As I say, it's just a part of how we govern our lives. We tend to rely on ourselves more than on anybody else.
ZIERLER: Ron, as you alluded, it's a line of questions that bears much more discussion. Your main inspiration with Caltech does not derive from being an alumnus. That begs the broader question, what is so inspiring to you about Caltech that serves as the foundation point for all of the ways you have supported and served Caltech over the years?
LINDE: One main inspiration is its excellence in that in fields that Caltech has chosen to go into, and not necessarily an entire broad field but where it's focused attention. It's right out there leading the pack. It's pioneering. It has a great likelihood of opening up new horizons often. Helping to propel something like that is a great motivator. The caliber of the people of Caltech, and I don't mean to put anybody else down, but the quality of the faculty, the quality of the students, the administrative leadership. In any of these categories there almost always are some people who don't measure up, but it's really a first-rate institution. It's small but swims in a big pond. The small size can have its disadvantages, but also has some real advantages.
Whatever we might be able to do to help propel it is going to have more impact on Caltech than it might have on, say, MIT, which is also an example of a pack-leader but is much larger. You're dealing with probabilities. All of life is probabilities, and so we like to bet where we feel the odds are the best for having the most important impact. Also, for heavy personal involvement, the location relative to where we live is helpful in our case, although certainly not determinative. We're not totally ignoring the alumnus and former employee connections for both of us. It's just that that's not primary. It's just by chance that Maxine's job when I was in grad school was at JPL. She accepted her job offer as an associate research engineer doing scientific programing there based on what JPL was doing, not because it was connected with Caltech. But, as it turns out, there's a very tight connection. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Yes. Ron, a question I'm endlessly fascinated by – as you noted, Caltech, in so many ways, is leading the pack, and it's also so small. From your unique vantage point, what explains that? How can Caltech do all of this world changing resource when it's such a small institution relative to its peers? What's the magic that explains that?
LINDE: The people. The people. The people. Caltech has managed to attract really top-notch people who are leaders in their fields, and leaders-to-be in fields that maybe they're not even in now because at Caltech, often people will change fields, and that's one of the strengths. But it's the caliber of the people. Caltech provides the housing, not houses to live in, but I mean the infrastructure and resources. But it's the people, plain and simple. In most areas, the people that Caltech has will match the best anywhere in the world. By being small but setting extremely high standards of excellence, Caltech is likely to have a higher concentration than a larger institute that might have the same number of excellent people but their concentration is not as intense relative to the total population of the institution. The smaller size also helps to foster Caltech's interdisciplinary culture and interactions, including serendipitous interactions, that are so important. That's where Caltech has carved out a niche that, given the same size and just very good people on average, rather than outstanding people on average, it wouldn't be the same, and wouldn't be of as much interest to us for investing time, energy, and money because, again, we're looking at potential impact. The potential impact is not just the impact that our money has; it's what is done with that money in terms of impacting the world. So far, we've been very satisfied with the outcome, you might say. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ron, as you noted, your primary inspiration and motivation is to propel this world-changing research, and that has two components to it. Also, as you noted, there's the material support, writing checks, but then there's also the time you've invested in all of the ways you've served on the board. I wonder if you might compare and contrast how each of those aspects of support contribute to what Caltech has done, both your service on the board and your capacity to support Caltech research philanthropically.
LINDE: It would be arrogant for me to proclaim to anyone beyond Maxine and me what overall impact I feel we actually have had. I can talk about specific projects, things like that. But there's a very important broader aspect in terms of influencing the overall organization, the governance of the organization, helping to inspire, and things like that. My own self-assessment would be that I think the impact has been high, but that's somewhat self-serving because I'm judging myself. But I can say that the degree of philanthropic support we have provided would not have been of the same magnitude had it not come with the other support of the personal involvement. It's not a matter of just writing the checks. They go hand-in-hand and depend on familiarity with the Institute and seeing what the key needs might be. Maxine and I have tried to be helpful in areas that are among the most difficult for the Institute to receive help with. We've chosen where to place our bets on Caltech, let's say, in many cases based on being convinced of very important needs, as conveyed by key Institute personnel, that are much more difficult to fund on a timely basis than other needs that Caltech has. We have tried to step into those niches.
ZIERLER: Ron, what kinds of research are you thinking of? What kinds of initiatives are difficult for Caltech to secure funding on?
LINDE: One example would be what's now called the Ronald and Maxine Linde Laboratory for Global Environmental Science. It previously was called the Linde + Robinson Laboratory. The renovation of that building was highly important as a home for environmental science. Environmental science wasn't always as popular. Now, it is. Caltech struggled for a long time to find funding for the renovation. We agreed that's where the greatest need was. There was another important need that resulted in the Linde Institute for Economic and Management Sciences. Actually, those were two that we thought we'd like to help. Jean-Lou Chameau was president at the time, and we felt we could really only manage one of them, and so which one should we do? Ed Stolper was provost and was very helpful in deciding where the most immediate need really was, and he was right in his assessment. So we went for global environmental science first. But the need still seemed to be there for the other program, and so shortly thereafter we decided if we could figure out a way to handle both commitments financially, let's get on board with that as well. The same thing happened with the Sloan renovation. It resulted in the Linde Hall of Mathematics and Physics as a home for mathematical sciences, and with some physics laboratories remaining in the subterranean levels. I don't want to ignore the physics part when the president's lab is right in the basement there.
LINDE: [laugh] But here, too, we had been thinking about using the money to set up the Center for New Initiatives that we had proposed. Ed Stolper was there again saying, "Why can't you do them both?" We worked out a program for funding that enabled our setting up both the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for New Initiatives and Linde Hall, with Linde Hall being the first, but not only, project for the Center for New Initiatives. Those are a couple of examples. As for the Linde Institute, that whole area is one that we felt Caltech isn't ever going to compete with MIT in that broad area, just even the sheer numbers of faculty required. But in terms of quality, and zeroing in on specific aspects, that's another matter. We spotted the need, and tried to convince Caltech, going way back to when Steve Koonin was provost, shortly after he became provost. We said, "Why can't Caltech do something like this? And why can't Caltech do something more entrepreneurial?" Steve agreed it would be good but felt that Caltech wasn't ripe for it, for acceptance, for diverting into that type of area. If you look back at history, Caltech has two alums who are Nobel Laureates in Economic Sciences who used their Caltech backgrounds and then went on elsewhere.
ZIERLER: Ron, has there been a general pattern in your decision-making on when to support particular research at Caltech? In other words, are these things that you come to yourself? Does the Caltech administration approach you? How does that generally work in terms of the order of decisions that ultimately leads to you supporting a particular initiative?
LINDE: As previously alluded to, it's both. In other words, often Caltech leadership would—well, maybe "often" is the wrong word because it's not like an everyday thing that they're knocking on the door, shaking a can of coins for us to put some in. But periodically, the administration has come to us with ideas, some of which we liked, and some of which we felt weren't for us in terms of the general type of impact that we wanted to have. Some have been things where we felt that here's an area Caltech's interested in, and this would be an important area to get into or further advance in. Maybe we can give it a boost. Sometimes, it's a combination of things. I'll give you an example. One of the first things that we did funding a faculty chair. We had given some funds to Caltech, and it was a matter of where the funds should go. A chair was suggested by the administration as a possibility for some of the funds. We were asked, "What area would you like? Physics, chemistry? What area would you like it to be in?" We didn't take very long to think about it. We said, "None of the above but all of the above. Let it move around to where the need is greatest when the chair becomes available each time. Give Caltech the maximum flexibility, rather than our permanently pinning it down to someplace now." It's that type of thing and, ultimately, it works out as a collaborative decision.
ZIERLER: Ron, if you look around the institute, the kinds of things you have supported is incredibly broad. It almost seems eclectic. I wonder if you and Maxine have thought about some of the connecting points and the kinds of things you've chosen to support.
LINDE: Actually, just to give you some perspective, in our personal careers, the connecting points have been very important. That's why even though my degrees are undergraduate engineering and graduate materials science, my actual interests and work have been very interdisciplinary, and looking for the connecting points. You can really make great head headway doing that. Things used to be somewhat more siloed. Now, as science and technology have progressed, interdisciplinary has become more of a mode for a lot more people. But I'll contrast that then with Caltech as an institution because what we want to do is, as I said, is to have the greatest important impact. We are very interested in the interdisciplinary areas. But really, Caltech is in the best position to identify those points where the nexus between different areas is most important to explore because Caltech is in it day-to-day. Caltech has the relevant forefront experts. It's not that we necessarily have a vision in advance that dictates, let's connect this point to that point. It's a matter of we're very interested in such connections. Now, tell us where the most exciting connections are.
ZIERLER: Ron, in reflecting on your many decades of service on the board, at a general level, when is the board operating at its best, in its most efficient way to the most productive means for what Caltech is looking to achieve? What does that look like?
LINDE: What it looks like when operating that way is when it's not really operating as an assembled board. The board has oversight and approval, and sometimes will come up as a body with ideas and things. But the most important work takes place in the committees. Some are standing committees of the board. Some are ad hoc committees or whatever they're called at the time. Sometimes, they're called working groups or task forces or things like that. For my own involvement, often the most important thing has been not even the committee meetings themselves but what goes on between meetings and behind the scenes, and some of the conversations that ultimately wind up maybe with committees. It's in the disparate pieces that come together and, ultimately, there's the formality of the board, along with some useful debates from time to time. That's the way I view it. We have some very valuable board members who are just board members, and that's how they operate. But, for me, being just a board member, I wouldn't be involved in enough depth to feel that I'm making the contribution I should make.
ZIERLER: What about the board chair? How important is it to have a board chair who shares this view of the board?
LINDE: I hesitate to opine, because different styles work for different people and for different groups and depending on the composition of the board, etc. It's not a catch-all kind of answer. But, as I see it, I think it's very important for the board chair to recognize what works best for what groups and to foster that. It has to be done in the proper way so that you don't have people running around sticking their noses in where they don't belong, and being disruptive in the process, even though well-meaning. That applies to not only the board chair but the president also.
ZIERLER: There are so many ways to measure progress at Caltech. What have you found for the board and for you specifically are the most relevant metrics for seeing if Caltech is on the right track in any given area?
LINDE: It's different for different areas. Most important, in a general sense, is to set realistic but aggressive goals, set timelines, and then strive even to exceed those goals, and also to get it done quicker than the timelines. This can change along the way. It's not that it's always cast in concrete, and that is exactly what you have to do. It can change along the way as you learn more and as circumstances change. But ultimately, you look back and say things like, "What's been accomplished? We've had 17 meetings on this topic, and where are we that couldn't have been accomplished in two meetings?" That's one kind of metric, but there are others that are very tangible in terms of specific targets that you're trying to achieve. Others are measurable in terms of, first of all, being able to recognize where it is that you are, and where you should be, and getting there in a remedial fashion.
When I became chair of what's now the Audit, Compliance and Risk Committee—it was originally just the Audit Committee, but I had advised that we change the name to Audit and Compliance, which has now appropriately added Risk to the title—the functioning of that committee was far from what the standard should be. At that time, the focus was more on things like looking at the financial results that you appropriately do in what was called the Business and Finance Committee. We needed to change the focus to things like quality of numbers, processes and procedures, validity of assumptions, etc. Is the result correct, and is it the best way to look at it, and what do we need to do to make corrections and improvements? There were some fairly dramatic changes that needed to take place. The metrics were multifold as specific goals for improvements and availability of data were set in multiple areas. A simpler example would be if you're going out to raise money with your campaign. The key metrics would include how much money did you bring in and did you bring it in for the designated purposes. Another metric, would be what did it cost you to bring that in.
ZIERLER: Ron, of all the committees that you've served on, what sticks out in your memory as being most impactful that has had the greatest legacy on Caltech's success?
LINDE: I'd be hard-pressed to pick out one historical aggregate in particular because I think most of the work of all the committees has been essential. That doesn't mean that the committees can't improve. That doesn't mean certain committees can't combine. But most of the activities are essential; and so, at any given time, one or two might be more pivotal for achieving certain things. For example, when there were crises in the financial markets, I think the Investment Committee was the most important. On the other hand, the investment function could largely have been farmed out, in which case, the committee itself would have been less important or even non-existent if the Executive Committee had provided just fiduciary oversight of an overall external general manager. I would not recommend that, but many universities actually do farm out the primary investment management.
It might be helpful if I broaden the scope of your question a bit and comment on how things have operated in a couple of specific situations. As an example, what we've done in raising money in the financial markets, century bond sales, things like that. Clearly the Business and Finance Committee and the Executive Committee were key for that. There were a lot of debates, a lot of trustees who were more conservative, and didn't want to raise a lot of money and then invest it and have the markets go down. My own personal view had been that if you're raising it at low enough rates, and you don't have to pay it back for 100 years, it's almost like equity. Go get it, and just even think about what's going to happen to the value of the dollar by the time you have to make the principal payment, and things like that. There were some heavy debates there both in and out of committee meetings and ultimately, of course, with the board as a whole.
Fortunately, we came out issuing the bonds—actually on more than one occasion—even though the need for much of it wasn't there at the moment, but it also was for the insurance value of knowing you have that nest egg there that you can call on even though you have to pay it back eventually, versus what if there's an earthquake, and you're short of funds to deal with the consequences, and as a result of the severe damage or for other reasons you can't raise the necessary funds to deal with the damage impact in a timely way or at all at that point? That kind of committee debate is very pivotal. The way I look at the key impact, is that we raised a lot of money at extremely favorable interest rates that most likely over the time should be able to generate good profits net of the interest costs, and I feel much more secure about Caltech's financial future. I would rank that as being of extreme importance. Of course, people who were opposed might say that we had a negative impact because we added a lot of debt to our balance sheet.
Another example is the decision to set up an internal Caltech Venture Fund, which we did. There were lots of debates on that. I think, as a result of the debates, we wound up with a much better model than was originally proposed. Personally, I was opposed to the original model, but I was in favor of what we wound up with. Now, other people may still feel that the original model was best, which I would strongly disagree with. There's some who would believe that we shouldn't have the fund at all. You have a spectrum. That's where the Technology Transfer Committee, the Audit and Compliance Committee, and the Executive Committee were most important but, as with the bond issuances, there was heavy debate by the board itself. And much of the debating in both cases occurred outside the committee meetings themselves.
ZIERLER: Ron, what have you found is the most effective way to ensure that the board is not cloistered away from what's really happening at Caltech? How does it interact with professors? How does it get to see what's happening in the labs? How does it get a real feel for what's important at Caltech and what's most important to support?
LINDE: Again, that gets down to individual board members. Caltech offers the opportunity both through lectures, and we used to have some walkabouts to visit labs, and written communications. Before the pandemic, we also had shared dinners from time to time. The written communications show up in emails, web links and on the trustee website portal. What's happening? If trustees are interested, they always can request, "I'd just love to see what's going on in this lab or that lab." If they're not interested, why take up faculty time for them to be participating? I think the opportunity is there, and it's a matter of trustees availing themselves of the opportunity to the extent that it would be helpful.
You also have to be very careful, however, to make sure all the trustees really understand the difference between management and oversight and that they don't get in the way, because trustees wear the title and therefore may be regarded as having certain unintentionally implied authority, even though they may not have a badge that says "trustee" on it. Again, it depends on personality. So certain faculty and certain administrators may feel a trustee has directed that something be done or voiced an opinion that implies required action. A trustee may innocently have asked, "Why aren't you doing it this way?" When it comes to some things, it may not be so harmless, such as to say, "Why aren't you teaching a course on this instead of on that?" It's a tricky road, but I feel that Caltech is conscious of that. For those who are willing to seek out the opportunity to be more engaged, it's available. But some don't seek it out. Some will say in effect, "I wasn't spoon-fed by Caltech, so I'm not informed enough." Not being spoon-fed is not Caltech's fault. It's that you have to ask for the food.
ZIERLER: For you, where have you found is the most productive and positive dividing point between management and oversight? What does that look like for you?
LINDE: It depends on the area to a large degree, because with some oversight you do need to get into the weeds a bit. For example, audit and compliance, you really want to dig into. Is this assumption that you've used in your budget reasonable? Is this assumption that you've used in your financial statements reasonable? I realize the external auditors say it's OK, but is it on the conservative side? Is it on the aggressive side? How competent are the personnel that we have that are handling our financial aspects? I'm not talking about the investments in these examples, rather it's about finances and integrity of Caltech, the risks, the reporting, etc. But in other areas, you don't want to get into the weeds because it's disruptive to and potentially undermines the functioning of those who are responsible for it, so the administration and the faculty have their appropriate roles in the operation.
The board should provide oversight, make sure they fully understand whatever committees they're involved in, and more broadly also understand what it is that Caltech should be doing in different areas, and asking about that at the meetings, and should be available to help where needed. When appropriate and properly coordinated, trustees should make contacts both for the business of Caltech and for philanthropy and that type of thing. I think Caltech will be drawing up some more definitive written guidelines on that because there is a fuzzy area in-between, and some people overstep the bounds, and some don't overstep the bounds. But the bounds also tend to be fuzzy lines sometimes — and tend to be fuzzier when certain people are interacting. In other words, certain faculty members, for example, have a good sense of what the trustee's role should be and how to handle it respectfully. Others feel pressed upon, perhaps because a trustee appears to be overstepping. Some are just intimidated, not to a large degree, but to a certain degree because, gee whiz, it's a trustee. Or it's a big donor. What do I do? As I said, it becomes very individual, and it's hard to draw the very bright lines. But I think we're going to be able to shine a little more light on it than we have in the past.
ZIERLER: Ron, some questions about Caltech's overall history, given your unique chronological perspective, all the decades that you've been educated at Caltech, and have served and supported Caltech over the years. First, what is your sense over the decades of the overall balance at Caltech between fundamental science and applied research? How has that balance changed over the years?
LINDE: Caltech has broadened the focus. I'm not talking about individual developments that came out sometimes by accident. But the balance, in my view, was much more weighted to the fundamental side early on. Now, there's still a good part of that, certainly, but there's more applied research, and I think part of it is even a matter of evolving culture. Part of it is interest and expertise of the faculty, of course. But part of it's the culture because applied research gets into, of course, commercialization and things like that. In the early days when I was in grad school, the notion that somebody would quote "squander a Caltech education" by being in industry was prevalent. [laugh] Now, that's very respectable, and very much encouraged. The balance has shifted to what I think is a pretty good balance, actually.
ZIERLER: What do you think is the ideal approach for when professors have an entrepreneurial streak or when they see a possible opportunity in business? What's the best way to marry their interests with what's best for Caltech?
LINDE: Again, it's case by case. If they have interests that it doesn't look like Caltech belongs in, then maybe they do it in their spare time. If their interests are strong enough, and it's not something that Caltech wants to be in, maybe they go elsewhere. If it's a matter of, "I've got a great idea that's come out of my research, and I want to pursue it," then that's encouraged. Caltech can benefit, first of all in terms of its mission of service to society. It doesn't mean that you can't serve society and make money at the same time. It also is very important for recruiting and retaining faculty who want to see their work generate tangible benefits to society and/or financial benefits to themselves. Also, Caltech can get a share of licensing revenues and equity in startups. So Caltech does get some income out of it to help support its entrepreneurial infrastructure. But if it becomes something where it's pretty much all mundane and not with a high content of discovery, then it possibly doesn't belong with Caltech. I think basic and applied have merged a lot more in being key to Caltech. I think it's been a pretty good marriage.
ZIERLER: Ron, what about the student experience at Caltech? Drawing on your own experiences, and to the extent you have a window on what's happening today on campus, what has changed and what has remained the same in terms of curriculum, exciting areas of research, the kinds of motivations that Caltech students have after they graduate?
LINDE: I was just a grad student here, and that's another story as to why I decided not to be an undergrad student. But setting that story aside for a while, my student experience, I'd say, was excellent. I had the resources available in terms of faculty. I had very interesting basic research that I was doing. I had colleagues that were very smart and could engage in lots of productive conversations. The courses I took were for the most part very stimulating. Most of the faculty I interacted with or depended upon were excellent, in my view. That included Pol Dumez, was excellent as my thesis adviser. Also, Caltech allowed me to proceed at my own pace, which was faster than typical. That acceleration is another part of the story, I guess. It's only secondhand or thirdhand or nth hand that I can answer the other part of your question. But there's the expression that's often used—you've probably come across it—that being a student at Caltech is like trying to drink from a fire hose.
ZIERLER: Yes. [laugh]
LINDE: I don't know if that's supposed to apply to grad students. I think that's the way it's regarded by a lot. To me as a grad student, being a student was more like a feast or a banquet. It's tough but it's intended to be top-notch, top excellence, and some people just can't make the grade. Again, I've got another story there about somebody in grad school that was somewhat of a sad case. I think Caltech has achieved remarkable success and being tough is part of it. If you want to relax the experience, there are many places that do that, but we don't want to be like many places. It's not tough for the sake of toughness. It's tough because that's what it takes, and only the best can get through. Now, there's the other side of the student experience in terms of student lifestyle. It's not just the other side; it's intermingled. That is hard for me to say because I haven't gone through it. You hear the complaints more than the accolades, but possibly that's because complainers tend to be louder. I don't know where to draw that balance, and I don't know the details. The Student Experience Committee, while I've attended some meetings, is not a committee that I've actually served on. But there are other people well qualified to fill in the blanks there. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ron, I'm curious what your thoughts are on the ideal version of the relationship between NASA, Caltech, and JPL. What does that relationship look like to result in the very best science and engineering?
LINDE: Again, I'm a step removed from that area. I'm giving you an uninformed opinion. But being a government contractor is always a tough thing, and you're up against a lot of regulations, many of which truly are very important and all of which have to be followed. I'm not looking to put them down, but there is an inherent bureaucratic element to some extent. But I believe that there have been individual rough spots here and there that are bound to occur. Overall, I think it's been a good relationship. I think the success speaks for itself, and I think good communications are vital, and so we have to be cognizant of that. We have, of course, no control over who the administrative personnel are at NASA or the other government agencies that are involved, especially when it comes to auditing and things like that, which NASA doesn't do itself. The part that we can control, to some extent at least, is the selection of JPL personnel, recognizing what's required in the relationship, the communications and commitment to, following the appropriate protocols and things like that. I think that from a mile-high overview, or maybe with JPL I should say a moon-high overview, I think the right people have the right idea in mind in terms of the relationship and adherence to certain things you can't change. Along the way, some who haven't had the right idea did not ultimately survive.
ZIERLER: Ron, as Caltech continuously strives to be a more inclusive and diverse community, what is the best and most productive role that the board can offer in achieving those goals?
LINDE: First of all, one thing that I think is paramount is that in addressing DEI Caltech does not sacrifice its standards of excellence. At many institutions, and I know of some cases in the past even at Caltech, where a sacrifice of standards of excellence was made in order to serve DEI, allowing excellence to suffer as a tradeoff. That does not serve either the institution or the recipient of special treatment well. I strongly believe that when appropriately implemented, DEI is very important. I think what we have to do is be attuned to it and actively seek to encourage and foster it. This applies to the board, the faculty, the students, the administration – really all of our constituents. But, again, not at the expense of sacrificing our excellence.
There are ways that it can be done. For example, something that the GPS division did a little while back was to set up an endowment to help in that area, both in terms of outreach and in terms of being able to provide attractive financial packages to attract more diverse people. The faculty individually contributed some of their discretionary budget to try to build it up. They still hadn't gotten to the target of a million dollars, and so the division chair actually through Dexter Bailey asked Maxine and me about it. So we offered to set up a matching challenge grant. We said, "Let's get a diversified enough group contributing so the message goes out that this isn't just something that the faculty is doing. Let's get a couple of other trustees involved, etc., and we'll match those new contributions dollar-for-dollar until we meet the goal." They did it, and that was successful. I think the spirit for DEI is present with most Caltech people. I think you'll almost always have some people in all categories, whether it be board members, faculty, students, whatever, that are opposed to such efforts and some who are over-zealous and willing to sacrifice standards. You'll find some who are at one or the other end of the spectrum, but perhaps won't admit it. You just try to make sure the extremes don't get in the way, and you go about what you need to do to promote DEI while maintaining the standards of excellence. The spirit of most Caltech people that I have discussed this with is right on board with the statement, "This is something that should be done, but do it the right way."
ZIERLER: Ron, as you survey all of the interesting and exciting things that are happening at Caltech today, what's most exciting for you?
LINDE: It may sound like a flippant answer but is not intended that way. What's most exciting is Caltech itself; that it is dynamically progressing simultaneously in so many different forefront areas, and having success, and leading. That's what's exciting. If you look and say, "Quantum science is very exciting," yes, it certainly is; but so are a lot of other things. In every division, there are things going on that are exciting. Some of them will be more successful than others, but that's the nature of science. I don't mean it as a flippant answer.
ZIERLER: Not at all.
LINDE: What excites Maxine and me most is the broad array.
ZIERLER: Probably what's most exciting is that this all suggests to you that Caltech continues its trajectory at leading the pack.
LINDE: Yes, that's what's key, and that's what's most exciting within the broad array. If Caltech pulls back from leading the pack or seriously striving to lead the pack in multiple target areas, then it's not going to be such an exciting place. It'll be a good place, but it won't be as good or as exciting or as impactful. That ties right into your earlier question on DEI. Let's not lose sight of what we're trying to achieve by maintaining excellence, because they're not mutually exclusive.
ZIERLER: Yes. Ron, for the last part of our talk today, and this will serve as a segue to subsequent discussions, a few overall questions about your personal background and areas of expertise. First, between your undergraduate education, your graduate education, and your career, would you say fundamentally you're more on the science side or more on the engineering side?
LINDE: I'm more on the science side, even though my undergraduate degree was in engineering. The reason it was in engineering—it'll tie into something that I said that we can discuss later—going back to when I first heard of Caltech when I was in grammar school, and then going back to high school days, I had wanted to go to Caltech. I was interested in science. Maxine and I met in high school chemistry class, which sounds like the perfect class to meet in for romance. After our first date, we knew that was it, that we'd eventually want to get married, and that's the way it turned out. But we wanted to be able to support ourselves first. In those days, Caltech would not accept undergraduate women, and we wanted to go to the same place. So I didn't apply to Caltech, and we both went to UCLA. That sort of got into the beginning—not this specific question you were asking. I got sidetracked. What was the—
ZIERLER: The science—
LINDE: —the interest in science?
LINDE: I always had the interest in science. But at UCLA, I was debating whether to go into physics or engineering, and I felt more affinity for physics. But to graduate, you needed 120 units for physics and other disciplines; but engineering was an exception where you needed 140 units. The engineering program was a relatively unique one established by Dean Boelter. It was broad general engineering. I figured if I went into physics, and wanted to switch, I'd have a much harder time, because of the extra requirements, than if I went into engineering, which required more units, and then wanted to switch into physics. That's why I went into engineering. But my love has always been in the physical sciences, rather than the engineering. There's another anecdote we can discuss at another time as to how I wound up going to Caltech for graduate school, which came out of something that happened at UCLA.
ZIERLER: We'll certainly get to that, Ron. I'm curious, did you always have an entrepreneurial streak? In other words, even in graduate school, did you see a trajectory for you that would lead to a career in business, in entrepreneurship?
LINDE: No. What happened is that I always wanted to have my career and life's work in science, and so I had not thought of going into business at all, and there's another story behind that. But where I wound up for my first job after grad school, well, almost after grad school, the first job was at Caltech. In going through the master's and doctorate, there was a three-year residence requirement for getting a PhD with or without a master's, and I finished in two and a half years. But they couldn't release me because I hadn't met the residence requirement, so I stayed on. So, my first job after finishing the courses, passing my oral exam, and getting my thesis approved was really at Caltech for about six months to continue my research until I met the residence requirement.
For my first job after Caltech I wound up at SRI. Stanford Research Institute—as it was called in those days—doing applied research, a lot of government contracts. Ultimately, I wound up progressing through the ranks at SRI and accepted managerial positions managing science, while still doing my own research. I found gratification in being able to have greater impact by having a managing role. They weren't full-time management jobs. They were managing in addition to research. But I was gratified by that. Coupled with a little business experience I gained along the way, I thought it would be good to get into actually applying the results, rather than just reporting on my research. Having that notion, and being as naïve as I was, I ultimately wound up deciding to start a company. Starting the company the way I did was the naïve part. It ultimately wound up very well, but only after encountering a lot of unanticipated obstacles along the way. I looked at the challenges, as best I could see them with my inexperienced and faulty vision. I concluded that it was a pretty good path and felt that would be interesting to do different things. I wound up on the entrepreneurial side, ultimately.
ZIERLER: Ron, last question for today, and this will tie into so many threads we will pick up in subsequent conversations. What do you think for you and Maxine are some of the life values you've always had that have informed your philanthropic interests, even before you reached a level of financial success that allowed for that level of philanthropy?
LINDE: When we were young, we actually weren't thinking about philanthropy. It wasn't something that came from background or religious conviction or anything like that. Actually, Caltech had a role in that, which is part of the whole other story about starting a company, etc. At some point, Maxine and I decided we would like to give some stock in the company to Caltech, which we did. We did that with high hopes but not knowing whether it would ever be worth anything or not. But why not? Caltech is doing so many good things. Why not? It was at that time by far the largest philanthropic thing that we had done, along with some stock we gave to Harvey Mudd College. It ultimately turned out the company was successful.
Subsequently, it became a matter of what are the best things to do with the resources you accumulate. Philanthropy presents a full spectrum of opportunities because there's so many different needy things. Could we do something to impact significantly in some way the future of the world and its inhabitants? We ourselves aren't likely to affect the future of the world much, but maybe we can provide significant help to the right vehicle to do so. That became a very compelling objective. Our main philanthropy really emerged from that. It was more a matter of learning, and looking for where we can have impact, rather than something that started out as a deep-set philosophy.
ZIERLER: Ron, this has been a phenomenal and wide-ranging initial discussion. Next time, we'll go all the way back to the beginning. I'll learn about your family background, your childhood, meeting Maxine. We'll bring the story right up to the present.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Monday, October 31st, Halloween, 2022. I'm delighted to be back with Dr. Ronald K. Linde. Ron, once again, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
LINDE: Happy to join you. It's not only Halloween but actually the anniversary of when Maxine and I got engaged.
ZIERLER: Oh, congratulations. That's wonderful. How many years is it now?
LINDE: Let's see, our engagement would be 63 years.
ZIERLER: Did you propose at a Halloween party or some kind of Halloween event?
LINDE: No. To answer by starting at the beginning, as I had mentioned in our first interview, we met in a high school chemistry class – appropriate for personal chemistry as well.
ZIERLER: There you go. [laugh]
LINDE: After our first date, almost 67 years ago, we knew that was it! But we didn't dare say anything to our parents or anything like that. It was our secret, but we knew that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives together. Our engagement timing was just a matter of now's the time when we can see our way clear to soon being able to support ourselves independently; so we came out of the closet and announced our permanent commitment.
ZIERLER: I love it. I love it.
LINDE: It actually turned out by pure chance to be the wedding anniversary of Maxine's parents, but that's just a coincidence. All of our personally important dates have something else that they coincide with.
LINDE: The anniversary of our first date is the date we celebrate the most, even above our wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Hitler's birthday.
ZIERLER: Ah, oh.
LINDE: It was a much more auspicious anniversary for our engagement [laugh], rather than Hitler's birthday.
ZIERLER: Certainly. I'm so glad to hear that. Ron, in our first discussion, we did a wonderful exploration of all of the issues that are important to you, ranging from science and engineering, philanthropy, your support for Caltech. What I'd like to do today is take the narrative for you all the way to your family origins. Let's start first with your parents or even your grandparents. Tell me about where your family comes from.
LINDE: Starting back with the grandparents, both were from Lithuania. Then they emigrated to South Africa.
ZIERLER: Now, this is both sets of grandparents, or which side?
LINDE: Both sets. They met in South Africa and had common backgrounds. My parents both were born in South Africa. Then my parents and other members of my father's family came to the US, on vacation and while they were in the US, World War II broke out and I was born. As a result, they remained in the US for several years but still considered South Africa as home. We all went back to South Africa in December 1944, arriving on my fifth birthday at the end of January 1945. That voyage is a whole other story. We almost didn't make it, with all the other ships in our small convoy having been sunk by torpedoes on the way. But we made it there. Once they arrived, my parents realized that it was not where they really belonged because of apartheid, even though it was home. By then, it really was the US that they most identified with. But they did stay in South Africa for a few years, and then came back to the US in 1948, became naturalized citizens and considered the US, California in particular, as their real home.
ZIERLER: Ron, do you have memories of South Africa?
LINDE: Yes, first of all the voyage to get there. We were diverted from our original path because of trying to avoid more submarine attacks. My uncle at that point had become an officer in the U.S. OSS and had access to information. He actually understood that the ship on which we went back to South Africa had been sunk along with the three other ship in the convoy. He assumed we were not alive. It was quite a harrowing trip.
The trip took longer than expected because, guided by what could be learned from military intelligence, they took a very roundabout route. It that took something like six weeks, much longer than planned. Actually they ran out of most of the food and all of the fuel. In fact, I was given the last egg on the ship, but it turned out to be spoiled, and I wound up—whether from that or some other remaining food that I was given.—with severe food poisoning. That didn't help the journey. While the ship had been refueling and loading supplies in Trinidad at the start of the journey, they got word that submarines were approaching, and so they interrupted—they didn't get all the fuel they needed or all the food they felt they would need for this roundabout journey and fled. That, as I said, was a harrowing experience. The captain of our ship was named Captain Coffin. I don't know if that was the exact spelling, but that is how it was pronounced. A bit unsettling for those passengers who were superstitious. Charles Dickens would have been amused.
ZIERLER: Do you remember these things yourself, or these are some stories that you remember being told?
LINDE: I remember some of the specific details, and some I didn't know at the time, and was told afterwards. But I remember overall. I remembered the ship we were supposed to go back to South Africa on was sunk outside the harbor entering New York. But my parents had sold their furniture and all of that, and it looked like going back, while the safe course, maybe wasn't the best course. There was an old French merchant marine vessel that had been called into service and made room to take 12 passengers along; so we went on that ship. I remember the ship but not some of the details. I remember the tense moments. I remember reports of having seen a torpedo that missed the boat that was visible as it came out of the water, so it was that close.
I don't have the kind of memories of South Africa that adults would have, but I do have many memories.
ZIERLER: Wow! Ron, when you say that your parents didn't feel at home in South Africa, was apartheid part of the reason why?
LINDE: Yes, very definitely, even though they'd grown up there. They didn't identify with apartheid, especially after living in the U.S., even though the U.S. did have segregation. Also, they just culturally had come to feel at home in the US and what the US stood for. But they didn't really realize that until they were back in South Africa.
ZIERLER: What were your grandparents' professions in South Africa?
LINDE: My grandmothers in both cases were housewives. My grandfathers, one was in construction, and the other one had been a butcher.
ZIERLER: How did they get to the United States initially? Were they visiting family? Were they on vacation?
LINDE: My parents had just gotten married. My father had become somewhat successful by that point and so, along with his sisters and his parents and his brother, they went on a long-term exploratory trip. My father had just met my mother shortly before then, so it was a matter of get married now or have a long separation, so they did get married "now." It was out of character, with them being rather cautious and conservative they normally would've taken a lot of time. But it was really three weeks from the time they met, and they were very formal in those days. When my father proposed and my mother accepted, they just shook hands. [laugh] They weren't into kissing yet but felt that it was a good match, and it was sort of now or maybe never. It worked out very well. But especially for people who are risk-averse, it certainly was a characteristically high risk.
ZIERLER: What was your father's educational level at that point? What were his career prospects as a newly married man?
LINDE: He was in real estate construction as part of what was a family enterprise at that point, involving my grandfather, my father, and my father's brother. He did not have a college degree.
ZIERLER: Did they come to California initially? Was that their initial attraction?
LINDE: Yes, that was the initial attraction, and they stayed in Los Angeles for a while. Then they decided to go back to South Africa. But they got as far as Hawaii on their trip, and that's when it looked like a wide-spread war was going to break out, so went back to California. My uncle, my father's brother, actually wound up enlisting in the US Army; so he did not return with us. My parents were already identifying personally with the US, although they still considered Johannesburg as their home.
ZIERLER: Now, when they returned to the United States, what were your parents' prospects at that point? Was there a job waiting for him or any stability to look forward to?
LINDE: No, not really. My father was somewhat restricted as far as taking money out of South Africa, but he was allowed to get some money out and wanted to get into real estate development in the U.S.
ZIERLER: They came back to Los Angeles?
LINDE: They came back to Los Angeles because that's the place they identified with, and they wound up buying a duplex. It was just a few doors down from where they'd lived in Los Angeles on their previous visit. My family lived in the upstairs unit, and my uncle and his family lived in the downstairs unit. My uncle was back from the war and had married; and he joined with my father in construction and real estate development.
ZIERLER: Ron, how old were you when your family returned to Los Angeles?
LINDE: I was eight and a half when we came back to the US.
ZIERLER: Ron, did you have any schooling in South Africa, or what grade did your parents enroll you in when you got to Los Angeles?
LINDE: Yes, I did get my early schooling in South Africa. Then when we came back to Los Angeles, I took a test to see what grade to go into. The background in the education was somewhat different. But, at any rate, I took the test, and then showed up to see what grade to be assigned to. They wanted to know what my age was because they were debating whether to put me into the third grade or the fourth grade. Even though I was young for the fourth grade, they assigned me to the fourth grade because of my test scores. That's where I started in the US system of education and, got used to even the terminology. I remember writing something where I had to write—I don't know whether you'd call them essays or whatever—but an exercise, and go up, and the teacher would correct it. She said, "This is very good, but you need a period at the end of the sentence," and I'd never heard of that term as used for what in South Africa was called a "full stop."
LINDE: I started to write out the word "period" at the end of the sentence. She said, "No, no, no!"
LINDE: [laugh] There were a number of things like that took getting used to.
ZIERLER: Ron, some questions about—
LINDE: It was fortunate because if I had wound up in the fourth grade instead of the third grade, then I never would have been in the class with Maxine, never would have met her, and so it changed both of our whole lives, which is so true of so many things that you encounter that determine your path.
ZIERLER: Ron, some questions about your family background in Lithuania. First, did you speak Lithuanian at all growing up, or was it a purely English upbringing?
LINDE: Purely English.
ZIERLER: The name "Linde," is that Anglicized from the Lithuanian?
LINDE: I actually don't know. It's spelled with an "e" at the end, and my branch of the family pronounced it "Linde." My cousins pronounced it "Lindy," which actually would've been better because you don't have to endure the confusion and explain a silent "e." If I had to do it over again, I would've changed my pronunciation to "Lindy." But, anyhow, it's a bit late for that. The only two languages that I had association with were English and Afrikaans. I didn't really speak Afrikaans, but I knew some words. My father spoke it to a limited degree. I also was surrounded by some of the tribal languages, Zulu and such, but didn't really speak it.
ZIERLER: Did any of your grandparents join the family in Los Angeles?
LINDE: Yes, my father's side did join; my mother's side did not, although my mother's mother, my grandmother, did used to come for visits every few years.
ZIERLER: Growing up, what was your family's politics? Who would they have voted for in presidential elections?
LINDE: It was divided. It's much like the way Maxine and I used to be before the current dire situation occurred. From the standpoint of the economy and fiscal responsibility it was Republican. From the standpoint of social justice, Democrat. And voting more for the person, rather than just the party ticket.
ZIERLER: Now, what schools did you go to when you were growing up? Public schools?
LINDE: Yes. After returning to the U.S., I went to public schools through the eighth grade, then public high school, and then on to college. In South Africa, it was a private school.
ZIERLER: Was your family upwardly mobile? Was your father's business successful? Did you move into nicer houses, growing up?
LINDE: Yes on all counts.
ZIERLER: What kinds of neighborhoods did you eventually live in as a kid?
LINDE: As a kid, it was in different locations. Moving from south of the tracks to north of the tracks in the Beverly Hills area of Los Angeles.
ZIERLER: Now, your father's real estate interests, do any of those buildings remain in the family?
LINDE: No, none remain. It was mainly build and sell, although ultimately in some cases, like office or medical buildings, hold for a few years before selling. Otherwise, it largely was development of tract houses, and selling the houses as fast as you could. Tract houses is how it began.
ZIERLER: Ron, growing up, what were some of your interests, extracurricular activities, sports, music, that kind of a thing? What were you into?
LINDE: It was a combination. I was interested particularly in science, and so studying science that was not taught at school was one of the things, and then collecting — stamp collecting, coin collecting, that type of thing, also, reading all sorts of books. It was some sports in grammar school. The main thing was softball in the grammar school. They didn't play regular baseball, hardball as it was called. Coming from South African schools, I had no background in the sport. I had to learn it. But, as it turned out, by chance, I turned out to be pretty good at pitching. I became the primary pitcher on the teams I played for. I wasn't very good at catching the ball if it were hit in my direction, however. That was a strong added motivation for striking out the opposing batters.
ZIERLER: Ron, to return to an earlier question from our first talk about your developing interest not only in science but in business, did you have an entrepreneurial streak when you were a kid? Did you follow your father's business at all?
LINDE: Not especially. All that came later. At first, as a kid, I thought about different possibilities. After I matured from wanting to be something in uniform, like a policeman or a fireman, that type of thing, and when I was able to actually think it through, at one point I thought maybe I would go into medicine because the husband of my friend's sister was a surgeon, and so my friend wanted to become a surgeon, which he ultimately actually did. That sounded pretty good to me. This surgeon was really nice and would describe things that sounded good. But then I decided that somehow seeing people suffer, even though I was helping them, would be too traumatic for me. I turned to other things, and then I really became fascinated by science and the thrill of discovery and thought it must be something in the sciences. If you want me to carry that thread further—
LINDE: —after I got out of graduate school, I wound up at what was then called Stanford Research Institute. We have talked about this a bit, but we can circle around because there's a story around everything. What I really was interested in was not about making money, as long as I was making enough to live comfortably, which didn't take much because Maxine and I didn't have expensive tastes. I was passionately interested in the science, and that really was important in job choices. It was only after I was at SRI and got various promotions and ultimately headed up one of the laboratories there or even when I just headed one of the divisions within the laboratory, and saw I was in a position of actually having greater impact while still continuing my research did I take a real interest in science management. By being in the management aspect, I was able to have a greater aggregate impact, and that was very appealing.
Then Stanford Research Institute separated from the university and became SRI International, precipitated by protests by a lot of Stanford students about our involvement in defense and war-preparedness efforts, such as research that could lead to weapons development, etc. Work in the laboratory I headed became a focal point and the straw that broke the camel's back, although the separation probably would eventually have happened anyway.
I had left SRI because, at that point my father's health had become very precarious, and I was needed to help in the family business for the sake of family preservation. Fortunately, it turned out my father recovered well, and leaving SRI wouldn't have been necessary. My involvement was only a temporary thing. But, meanwhile, I had started to become involved in his business and found that I had a talent for structuring and negotiating complex transactions. I started to feel that maybe if I could wind up building and heading a technology-oriented company, that might be the optimal. That, ultimately, led to forming a company that, as I think I mentioned last time, perhaps if I had not been so naive, I never would have started the company. But it turned out after struggling, and I mean really struggling, it became very successful, and so that moved my career in a different direction. It's just that I wasn't personally on the forefront of the science and technology development any longer, which I missed — and I still miss to this day. It's not that I was unhappy with the choice. I think it was a good choice, all things considered. On the other hand, I do miss the hands-on part of the science and technology. But all of life is a series of tradeoffs.
ZIERLER: Ron, to go back to that origin story of your interest in science, you mentioned earlier that you read about science outside of school. What kinds of stories did you read? What magazines did you subscribe to when you were growing up?
LINDE: It wasn't based on glamorous stories or popular magazine articles. I used to go to the library and read about things that interested me. It was particularly basic knowledge about physics that I was most interested in, although I had a keen appetite for all things scientific. It was just a matter of hearing about a topic and wanting to delve into it to learn more. Those weren't the days when you could just go to your computer and have all sorts of information, true and false, at your disposal.
ZIERLER: Ron, what about—?
LINDE: It was more a matter of how and why does everything work? What's the world made up of? Just all the basic things. It was not the strictly applied part. It was more the basic part.
ZIERLER: What about larger scientific advances in society, like Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA, or Sputnik in 1957? What kinds of events registered with you in that regard?
LINDE: Oh, just as I learned of them, I could marvel at them and celebrate the development. But it wasn't something that was deeper than that.
ZIERLER: In high school, tell me about meeting your wife, your to-be wife.
LINDE: As I mentioned, we were in chemistry class together. I was sort of shy in those days, not shy in terms of interacting with friends but from a dating standpoint. I hadn't done that very much. But I was attracted to her. I'll give you the short version of the story. After class one day, I just saw her in the hallway. We knew each other from class, and I asked if she needed a ride home. I gave her a ride home, and then wound up picking her up in the morning and taking her home every day. After a little bit of that, I asked her out on a date, and so we went out on a date. We really hit it off on a personal level. We didn't tell each other at the time, but after our first date, each of us had decided that's the one for me. It was only after our third date or during the third date that we told each other how we felt. After that, neither one of us dated any further, except with each other, and that was it.
ZIERLER: Ron, tell me about how your relationship with Maxine at that point affected your college decisions, where you could go to school, where you should go to school.
LINDE: I had planned to go to Caltech. Initially, that was the only school I had thought about. I had learned more about Caltech after first hearing about it. But what was particularly important is we decided that wherever we went, we would go together. In those days, as I think I mentioned, Caltech did not accept undergraduate women, and so that ruled it out. For various reasons, it turned out that the right place was going to be UCLA. That's when, as I mentioned to you, the question whether to go into physics or engineering arose, but engineering required 140 units to graduate, and physics was 120 units, just like the rest of UCLA or at least all of the rest that I knew of. The engineering program at that point was a broader, special model set up by the dean of engineering, Dean Boelter. I figured that it would be easier to switch out of engineering into physics than to do the reverse because of units I would need to make up by going the other way, and so that led to the decision there. Do you want me to go into the sequence that followed that?
ZIERLER: Absolutely, yes.
LINDE: That's what I did, and we had decided that we would get married as soon as we were able to be economically self-sufficient. My parents were well-to-do at that point. But we didn't want to take any money from them because we didn't want to have to, in some way, feel obligated to take the advice that would come with the money. We wanted to be our own people, and so it was a matter of being self-sufficient and able to support ourselves. Meanwhile, I had accelerated my program, even though it required the extra units, and so I graduated in three and a half years instead of four, which accelerated the potential for earning money.
Hughes Electronics, which had been part of Hughes Aircraft, had a work/study program where you could go to UCLA to earn a master's degree while working for them, and they would pay your expenses. That sounded good because that would bring the desired economic support. Meanwhile, we got married in between our junior and senior years of college. We were making money tutoring different subjects. We each had quite a number of students that we were tutoring, elementary school, high school and college. Maxine was planning to go to graduate school. I wanted to continue my education, so that sounded like an ideal program. The only thing that wasn't ideal about it is that I had to be in electrical engineering. While that was OK, it wasn't a primary interest of mine.
Now for Caltech: I had taken a new course at UCLA that was given by a new instructor who had just come to UCLA after earning his PhD at Caltech. It was about the physics of materials at a molecular level. It involved things like crystal formation, molecular interactions and those types of things. I really liked the course, and I really liked the instructor. The instructor, whose name was Paul Pietrokowsky had, as part of the course experience, set up a field trip. It was a small class, I guess, thinking back, maybe 10 people in the class. The field trip was to a semiconductor manufacturing facility, to see the process of manufacturing of semiconductors. After the tour he took the class out to lunch at a restaurant nearby. He paid for the lunch out of his own pocket. I told Maxine that he really was dedicated and that he paid for the whole class to have lunch. I certainly didn't want to do anything before the course was finished, the grades are in, etc. But, afterwards, it might be nice if we invited him over for lunch, just to thank him, and tell him how much I enjoyed the course, and how much I appreciated his dedication and his arranging the field trip and taking everyone to lunch. She thought it'd be a very good idea.
After the course was over, and the grades were in, we invited him over, and she decided what she'd make for lunch. Then to show you how green we were at the time, I remembered that when he took us to lunch, he had ordered a drink first. He ordered scotch. We weren't drinkers at the time. We maybe would have a little bit of wine from time to time, but we didn't know anything about drinks, so didn't know there was much difference between different labels. We went to a local Thrifty Drug Store because they also sold cheap liquor. So we bought a cheap bottle of scotch. I didn't remember whether he had ordered it on the rocks or just straight, so we didn't know how to deal with that.
LINDE: We offered it to him, and didn't think to say, "Do you want it on the rocks or whatever?" We just put one single ice cube in as a compromise—
LINDE: —which is about the worst thing we could have done. But as a tribute to how gracious he was, I have to say that he didn't complain at all, and he drank the whole thing. [laugh]
LINDE: That was good. After lunch, we sat around and chatted a bit. He asked me, "What are you going to do after you graduate?" I already had told him that I was accelerating and going to get my degree early. He said, "Are you going to graduate school?" I told him about the Hughes program, and he said, "I think that would be a big mistake!" I asked, "Why?" "Because you belong at Caltech, and you should not settle for a master's degree. You should get a PhD at Caltech."
ZIERLER: OK, there it is.
LINDE: I said, "Oh, well, but we need to earn money, and this program is set up, and I can earn the money."
ZIERLER: Ron, what do you think he saw in you, in making that formative advice?
LINDE: It's hard to answer without sounding egotistical. But I think it was a matter of his seeing perhaps aptitude, inquisitiveness, that type of thing. In other words, I used to ask him a lot about not just material that was in the course that he was teaching but where that led in terms of applying it in different situations, and also delving in not just to understand more about what he was teaching but to understand what goes beyond what he was teaching. I scored very high on his tests. I think it perhaps it was a combination of those types of things. When I discussed with him the trade-offs, he said, "Let me do this. Let me contact the professor who was my thesis advisor, and I'd like you to meet him, and then see what you think. But you really belong at Caltech."
ZIERLER: Who was the thesis advisor?
LINDE: His name was Pol Duwez. I said, "Sure. Thank you." Maxine and I went out together, and met Professor Duwez in his office in Keck, which was a relatively new building at the time. We talked to him about the research that he was doing, not so much about the courses but more about the research and what he was delving into, and it sounded rather interesting. He was pioneering a different way of studying certain aspects of materials, and he described the techniques he had been developing. that type of thing. Maxine and I said to ourselves, "Yes, that does sound interesting." But then we said, "There's the financial aspect, but why not apply and see what happens?"
I had some concern that I wouldn't have the background to jump right in because of the courses I had and had not taken, especially coming from the general engineering side. It was more a survey program — doing everything. Speaking of survey, one of the things to tell you how broad UCLA Engineering was. They taught surveying. I actually did some surveying. But, at any rate, why not apply? I got an application and filled it out. Then there was a statement on the form that said something like, "We don't require it, but we strongly recommend that you take the graduate record exam as part of your application. Are you going to take it?" I don't remember if the actual wording said strongly recommend or just recommend, but it was clearly something that they really recommended. When it came to "Are you going to take it?" I checked the box that said "No" because I figured, "What are the chances that I really wind up going to Caltech, and why go through taking the exam?" I just decided not to. They also had there a box to check whether you would like to be considered for financial aid. I checked, "Yes." I sent off the application with whatever else they required to be submitted.
Then a while later, I got a letter saying I was admitted. Maxine and I said, "Gee, that's really unexpected but enticing." But, then again, there was the financial question. As I've mentioned earlier, it wasn't a matter that my family didn't have some money, but we certainly weren't going to take any money from my family. Then something else came in the mail, like a couple of weeks later, saying that I was being granted a scholarship and an assistantship that would carry a stipend with it. "Gee whiz!" we said. It looks like that's what's meant to be — so Caltech it was. That's when we decided that, since I now wasn't going to have the Hughes thing, Maxine would work until I got through graduate school, and then she'd go to graduate school. Then she looked into and applied for different jobs. The one that was by far the most enticing for her turned out to be—and I might have mentioned this before—turned out to be JPL. It was not because of the Caltech connection. It was just because that was the most exciting opportunity. She was hired by JPL as an Associate Research Engineer to develop scientific computer programs.
That's how we wound up at Caltech. I have to say that Paul Pietrokowsky clearly was the person who made it happen. As it turns out, he also turned out to be one of my big three favorite teachers in my whole career as a student.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow. Who were the other two?
LINDE: I encountered the other two at UCLA. As it turns out, all three had a strong nexus with Caltech. The one that I first encountered was in freshman chemistry class at UCLA. It was a very big class. Kenneth (Ken") Trueblood, who had gotten his PhD at Caltech, and actually was strongly influenced in his work by Linus Pauling. His lectures were terrific. After class, I often would go up to him, and also sometimes during his office hours, to ask about or discuss things with him that dug deeper and went beyond what he was teaching. I just really relished that opportunity. He sometimes even invited me to drop by and chat even when he was not having office hours. Then Paul Pietrokowsky we've talked about.
The third one, not necessarily in that order, was an Associate Professor at Caltech, by the name of Francis ("Buff") Buffington. He taught condensed matter physics in very small classes. I used to be able to have all sorts of science conversations with him outside of class. His lectures were excellent, and his exams always were oral. His were the only exams that I actually looked forward to taking. He would pose problems of the sort that never had been discussed in class but that could be solved if you really understood the fundamentals of what had been taught. Often it would be predicting what would happen under various hypothetical circumstances. We had really good discussions during the exams, and also at other times, as one thing led to another without being constrained by the initial lead-in. What really was fun is when occasionally I'd come up with an answer that got to the right solution but used a different approach from the one he had in mind. Sometimes I would pose a problem to him when I already had an answer in mind but wanted to see how he would approach it. Just comparing thoughts and approaches was like working shoulder to shoulder, and not got like working with somebody that you're afraid is going to downgrade you. [laugh] It's interesting that all three had such a strong Caltech nexus, even though only one was at Caltech at the time we interacted.
ZIERLER: Ron, I'm curious, in narrating this story, the very unlikely circumstances of how you eventually got to Caltech, have you ever wondered if that decision was primed to some degree, given that you wanted to go to Caltech as an undergraduate, but because of your devotion to Maxine and the fact that she couldn't get in, it was something that was not really feasible for you at that time? I wonder if you've ever thought about that.
LINDE: It was prime from the standpoint of my regard for Caltech and wanting to be there. But there was a countervailing factor, which is something I previously mentioned, and that is that I was worried about whether I would have the right background to be successful in a place that had the standards of Caltech. That's why normally I would've just gone straight for a PhD, as recommended by Paul Pietrokowsky; but I wanted to get a master's along the way as insurance, which really wasn't that much extra effort, because I wasn't sure how successful I'd be at Caltech. We were careful to get just get a nine-month lease for the apartment that we leased on Catalina in case it didn't work out to go forward. To some degree, my fear was justified, because I found I was lacking in certain areas in terms of the background that would be useful. Fortunately, I was able to make up for it. You just work harder to accumulate what you need in terms of background. As I said in our previous session, I actually managed to accelerate my program. At the time, there was a combination of, on the one hand, a strong desire; on the other hand, a feeling of some insecurity.
ZIERLER: Now, as an undergraduate, did you have any exposure to material science? Were you aware that that was a field?
LINDE: Only from the standpoint that fields like chemistry impinge on it and are components of it. But the only thing in terms of a materials science focus at the level that I was interested in, was the one course taught by Paul Pietrokowsky. That was my real introduction to it. Even being called out as a separate field was somewhat recent in those days. Caltech had just started it as a designated program but had been working in the field for many years as part of its engineering science program. I was the first PhD at Caltech in material science. It provided flexibility in the program, and that was very appealing because I was interested in lots of different things. Flexibility was one of the things that was enticing, although it wasn't the key factor. Classical metallurgy is part of it, and that wasn't of special interest. But the part that was referred to as solid state physics was the part that particularly interested me.
ZIERLER: Now, do you have a sense of the development of the field? In other words, what were some of the technological or even theoretical advances that had made material science a new field to go into?
LINDE: I don't think it was so much a specific development, but rather an evolutionary accumulation of developments, including development of advanced techniques. So much effort going in semiconductor development, clearly was a key part of it. If you had to pick something, maybe I would pick that. But it's so much broader than just that. But that would have been one of the key impetus-inducing aspects.
ZIERLER: Now, for you, when you got to Caltech, did it feel like your initial aspirations were completed from when you wanted to go there as an undergraduate? Was that restorative to you, to some degree?
LINDE: Not really. It was more a matter of "Is this going to be right for me at this point of time? I'm interested, but am I going to be able to be successful at it?" I even hedged the bet a bit. I had graduated early from UCLA, but for Caltech I had to start at the beginning of an academic year. So in the interim, I went to work for Litton Industries, the Litton Systems part of it, working on micro-miniaturization of inertial navigation systems. When I left, Litton I said I was going on to graduate school. They asked me if I would like to stay affiliated as a consultant for Litton, and I said yes. I continued in the role as a consultant. I didn't do much consulting, but I was in that role, and that was sort of a hedge where I could go back there if I wanted to because, having chosen Caltech, if I didn't continue on to the PhD, I wasn't going to go back to be an electrical engineer. I liked the Litton job very much because it was challenging. It was forefront at the time.
ZIERLER: Ron, as you emphasize, you didn't know if it was going to work out. You were unsure of yourself. Do you have a clear memory of when you turned the tide in that regard, when you realized you could make it at Caltech, you were up to snuff?
LINDE: Yes. I would say about halfway through my first year, when it became clear the background I was missing I was able to pick up myself and was able to do well in the courses. When my grades were coming in to be quite good, I figured that I was going to make it and could go on for a PhD.
ZIERLER: Ron, tell me about the curriculum in materials science at Caltech. Was there any catch-up that you needed to do because this was either a new field or because it was at least a new field to you?
LINDE: Not so much because of the field. Catch-up was more from the standpoint of fundamental background and tools. I was there to learn, both through courses and through research. You learn a lot doing the research. From that standpoint, I'd say for the field itself, it wasn't all that different than it otherwise might have been. It was more the general background, the tools, the mathematical tools, for example. I didn't have all the tools that I might otherwise have had, and then some other basics that were just specific to the course. While I was busy learning how to survey property on the UCLA campus, other people were learning things that would have been more relevant for the path I wound up on. Actually, from the mathematics standpoint, there is an anecdote that is kind of fun that I've always remembered with a smile. When I submitted my PhD thesis, I put it in a binder, and on a blank page at the front I wrote a somewhat complex mathematical expression. It wasn't an equation. It was just a mathematical expression. But if you performed all the operations that you could to reduce that expression to simplest form, it spelled out what was a dedication. It spelled out "2 Maxine."
ZIERLER: Wow. [laugh]
LINDE: I didn't know if anybody other than Maxine would notice it or pay attention. But it turned into something sort of fun because, apparently, all of the dissertations or theses went through the dean of graduate studies, who was a prominent Caltech professor at the time. Caltech has a tradition for that type of position. I never had met him, but I knew of him as Dean Bohnenblust, just a name to me at the time. Then I got an envelope delivered through the campus mail one day, and it was from him, and I couldn't figure what it would be. I open it, and looked inside, and there's a different mathematical expression that if you go through the operations indicated to reduce it to simplest form, it said, "2 easy." I thought that's great, but I have to respond. So I closed the loop by sending a different mathematical formulation to him that, when reduced to simplest form, said "easy 2".
LINDE: [laugh] That was my interaction. I never did meet him in person. But it's one of my favorite little vignettes from Caltech days. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Oh, that's great. Ron, was the course of study mostly experimental? Was there any theoretical aspect to your education in materials science?
LINDE: The lectures were lectures. The research involved both. But each one informs the other. I felt compelled to do both.
ZIERLER: Ron, looking back, as the first PhD student in this new discipline, did you feel like it? Did you feel like you were at the vanguard?
LINDE: I was not the first PhD student at Caltech to major in materials science. I had classmates, but I was the first student to earn a PhD from Caltech in materials science. Others took longer. I did not feel like I was at the vanguard because the same work would be going on with or without that label. In both cases, however, the work itself was at the vanguard. It's just a historical note with a new discipline. It's just that it became more of a formalized curriculum for that, which was important, but still with flexibility and specific recognition of the field. But, actually, it was after the fact that it dawned on me that I was the first one through, because there were others who were in the program at Caltech who came at the same time I did, and whether their degrees would follow because they spent more time getting their degrees or whether they dropped out without getting the degree, was sort of incidental in that context.
ZIERLER: Ron, as background to when you got to Litton Industries, tell me a little bit about Litton. How did it get started? What was the company's mission?
LINDE: Part of Litton was a major aerospace type company. But Litton Industries was a conglomerate in some ways. It had different divisions. The Litton Systems division was working on various things, and inertial navigation was one of the main areas. The rest of what Litton was doing was really incidental to what I was doing there. I fortunately wound up there because it was something I became interested in. That's where I was able to get a good job. It wasn't that I had an ambition to go to Litton.
ZIERLER: How far along were you in your PhD at that point? I know you defended in '64, but you started at Litton in '61.
LINDE: I started at Litton and was active daily for about six months. That was before I started at Caltech. As I had mentioned, I graduated from UCLA in 3.5 years, and I could not start at Caltech until September. I had the subsequent consulting role there for about another six months after I was at Caltech.
ZIERLER: I see. I see.
LINDE: I was filling the interim, and depending on what happened with Caltech, I'd be back there or not back there.
ZIERLER: Did you integrate your graduate studies with your work at Litton, or were those essentially two separate worlds for you?
LINDE: Essentially two separate worlds. It might have been slightly helpful, but only marginally at best. I was working on thin film technology development for use in inertial navigation systems, which ultimately was superseded by developments in the field where things were done much more with integrated circuits using semiconductors. It was development of a technology that looked like it was going to be very important for shrinking the size and weight of the inertial navigation systems. It was interesting learning about inertial navigation systems, and I was trying to design them to work into a thin film format, and also how the thin films might best be made and operate and specifying equipment for Litton producing via vapor deposition and testing different films. I didn't actually go [laugh] to do the purchasing. But I specified what should be purchased and made some films with different configurations to see how effective in performance they would be. But it really didn't do too much to prepare me for graduate studies. It helped my broader education and my acquaintance with different aspects of functioning as an adult in an adult world.
LINDE: But I'd say the effect on graduate school work was minimal.
ZIERLER: Ron, tell me about why thin films were such an important area at this time. What were some of the advances, and how were you contributing?
LINDE: It was simply a matter of, here's a technology that could enable us to dramatically shrink the size, and downscale weight for the systems. It was an advance from that standpoint, and a way to approach it. What I was doing was working on perfecting the approach so that, functionally, it would be something that you could employ operationally. It was in the development stage. I was just, along the way of the development stage trying to advance things.
ZIERLER: This being the early 1960s, the Cold War, defense technology, was that relevant to you at all at Litton?
LINDE: It was relevant from the standpoint that there clearly were military applications in addition to civilian applications. It also was relevant in that presumably some of the funding came from the government, but I was not involved with any of that or with the ultimate applications. I much later became involved in what's called the defense industry, which actually includes offense as well as defense, At SRI I really became much more involved in interacting with sponsors of the work, which were primarily government sponsors. At SRI I eventually had a lot of direct involvement with government sponsors, whether it was with different military bases or Washington, D.C., or the Nevada Test Site for underground atomic bomb testing, and things of that nature.
ZIERLER: Ron, I wonder if your experience at Litton was exciting and if, long-term, it planted a seed that industry would be the best place for you to pursue your scientific and engineering interests.
LINDE: Not at that stage. It was exciting from the standpoint of learning some other aspects of a broader exposure to life, let's say, and it was interesting work. But in terms of getting into that aspect from an entrepreneurial standpoint, something like that, that still was far from my ambition. I wanted to be a scientist doing the best science I could, and making discoveries, small or large, advancing human knowledge, and understanding more about how things in the universe work. That was what I was interested in. The entrepreneurial part of it grew out of the experience at SRI after I got into the management and saw the impact I could have.
ZIERLER: Ron, if we could switch over to Maxine's experiences during these years, did she enjoy her time at JPL?
LINDE: Very much, indeed. She greatly enjoyed it. It was very stimulating and exciting in the early days of our space program. She worked on the Ranger and Mariner projects using punch-card based computers the size of a room. [laugh] That was something that made her feel all the more eager to go on and get a PhD in mathematics. I don't recall whether in our last conversation I mentioned that I was the culprit who wound up turning her in a different direction. Where she went to graduate school would depend on where I would get a job, and we didn't know where I'd get a job after grad school. She was looking at the math programs around the country. I told her why—stop me if I've told you this.
ZIERLER: No, no.
LINDE: I told her, "Why don't you do something different — because we're going to be just in one corner of what's happening in life? Why don't you go into something different, and then together we'll experience broader things?" She said, "Like what?" I said, "How about law? That could be quite interesting. You'd get a lot of insights. You need an analytical mind to be really good at it. Why not do that?" It started almost as if it were a frivolous kind of comment. But then we thought maybe it was worth exploring. Then she said, "I'll apply to different law schools around different places where you might get a job and see what happens." She sent out applications, picking all the top names of major universities: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and several more, and we'd see what happened. We had no idea that there was a law school aptitude test ("LSAT") that you had to take.
LINDE: First of all, we found out about the LSAT requirement, only I think it was like a week or two in advance of the deadline for taking the test in order to be able to be in sync with when you'd have to have everything in for your acceptance or not. We found out what to do in terms of applying to take the test, where you go and whatnot, and she took the test. She got back all the different acceptances, which worked out very well because, even though her background was in math, they were broad-minded even in those days, and everywhere she applied she was accepted, with one exception. The one exception was Princeton. Princeton wrote back, saying, "Not only do we not have a law school but, if we did, we wouldn't accept women."
LINDE: We're just sorry that we didn't save that letter, because it would have been something of historic note—
LINDE: —not to mention how much Princeton would've paid us to retrieve the letter.
ZIERLER: That's great.
LINDE: That's how things evolved. Again, the analytical part of law certainly can be very challenging, and so it actually was a natural, and we're both glad that she went in that direction. It also enabled us to work together in ultimately starting a company. As I said earlier, sometimes, maybe almost always, something you do that can be almost incidental—in this case, it wasn't almost incidental but, still, it started out as almost frivolous—leads to a whole path in life, for better or for worse. It's a humbling thing to recognize that no matter how much you think you can plan what's going to happen, the serendipity factor very often outweighs [laugh] all your bold efforts.
ZIERLER: That's right. Ron, the last topic I want to touch on for today's talk, of course, is how you developed your thesis topic and, ultimately, what you had concluded when it was completed. On that first part, what did you decide to work on? What were the areas of interest that were most important to you?
LINDE: What I decided to work on, even though I certainly had a wider range to choose from, was utilizing a technique that Pol Duwez had developed. The technique was called splat cooling. It involved taking molten metal and shooting it out of—you could call it a gun. It was a shock tube where you build up pressure until it bursts a membrane, shooting the liquid metal onto a substrate. The liquid metal would cool rapidly enough if it was a thin enough layer that you sometimes could freeze the liquid molecular or some intermediate structure into a solid form. What you would do is, for the most part, you'd maybe mix some metals, make an alloy, and then see what happens when you splat cool it. It didn't have to be mixing, it could even be a straight thing like creating an amorphous form of a single element. You were exploring things that had not been created before.
For silver-copper alloys there was somewhat of a mystery because with classical metallurgy you could make a solid solution of silver-gold alloys with any relative proportions. You could do the same thing with copper-gold alloys. Based on classical theory, you should be able to do the same thing with silver-copper alloys. But that didn't exist across a full spectrum of silver-copper compositions; at least it didn't exist normally in nature. The idea was to make liquid solutions of silver and copper in the composition range where solid solutions did not normally exist, then use the splat cooling technique to freeze them, and then study their properties. In particular, then study what's happening as it moves back to the stable state from that solid solution, which was referred to as being a metastable state, meaning, it was stable for a period of time but ultimately would revert to its natural eutectic form. I analyzed what the transformation takes in terms of time and temperature and studied at a molecular level what's going on there. You can deduce all sorts of things as it's transforming back. You study what it's like before it transforms, and then as you heat it up and maintain the higher temperature, what's happening in the process of transformation. You also can derive certain parameters that might be useful in other scientific studies. I made all kinds of different measurements.
The results still are relevant today. I used to get postcards from all over the world for copies of my papers in the old-fashioned days. It was fun to save the postcards. But there's something on the internet now where they pick up citations of your work or things that have been read and/or cited. It's called ResearchGate. I just stumbled across it. I signed up, and I get every week or every few weeks, it varies, but notification that somebody has cited to some of my early work or has read an early paper or is asking for an early paper or report. So that's kind of fun.
ZIERLER: Ron, what did the experimental apparatus look like? Were you in a laboratory? How did you get to your data?
LINDE: To make the samples initially, you're in a laboratory, and then you're in other laboratories where you do different types of measurements. The third floor of Keck had all the equipment that was needed, but it was divided into more than one laboratory.
ZIERLER: Given that you were really part of this founding generation, how did you feel like this research was contributing to the development of the field?
LINDE: Let's put it this way. In terms of the original apparatus and the concept of splat-cooling, I had nothing to do with it. Pol Duwez had established it before I entered the scene, and he had people working on it before I arrived at Caltech. I was building on what they had accomplished. I'd say my work in those days helped lead to a better understanding of the molecular structure of metals. It contributed to fundamental knowledge, rather than something that became a particular device or something. It was more knowledge at the basic scientific level. My later work got into more applied aspects.
ZIERLER: Besides Pol, was there anyone else on Caltech's faculty that you worked closely with?
LINDE: I interacted with several faculty members who taught different courses and those who wound up on my PhD thesis defense committee. But that was just part of the normal process. The other one whom I didn't really work with directly, but with whom I particularly interacted with a lot, was one I mentioned before, Francis Buffington.
ZIERLER: Finally, Ron, tell me about your thesis defense. Anything memorable from it, either discussions or what would come next for you?
LINDE: The discussions went smoothly. You're naturally somewhat nervous because you don't know what's going to happen, whether there's something you missed that someone will pick up on. But it was pretty smooth. The one that I'd say was more tense but went OK was my oral exam, because that can be wide-ranging and have faculty members on your committee that are from different disciplines, different courses and things, and you don't know what types of questions will hit you. If questions are hitting you when you have some peace and quiet, you can say, "How's that going to work or whatever?" Even if it's an exam, you can think quietly. If you're standing up there with everybody gazing at you, and you don't know what's going to hit you next, or if you start to answer it and you are thinking aloud as you're going through the solution, what might hit you with an interruption, saying, "Well, how about this or that?"
LINDE: That was more nerve-wracking but also went pretty smoothly. There was only one thing that was a moment of terror. There were some basic things like deriving the diffusion equation from scratch, and things like that. Some were much more in terms of how you apply what you have learned to different problems. But there was only one thing that really threw me for a moment. One of the professors, I didn't know him that well, but I really liked him—his name was Thad Vreeland, and he taught a course on dislocations. What happened there is he had brought an object into the room. It looked almost like a plant. It was a solid piece of something, a crystalline material. It had growing out of it a very long, thin thing that looked like the same material that it was growing out of it. He put it on a table, and he said, "What do you think this is?" For the life of me, I'd never seen anything like it. My mind went blank, and I couldn't think of what it might be. Fortunately, that was near the end of my exam, and I had felt very good about my performance going through all the stuff up to there. After about 60 seconds of obvious bewilderment that felt like 60 minutes of panic, he leaned forward, and said, "Let me remind you that my course that you took was a course on dislocations." [laugh]
LINDE: I said, "You mean that is an example of what can happen with a dislocation?"
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
LINDE: Because I was all oriented towards dislocations on small, microscopic scales. I never had thought about the crystal growing out so dramatically that way. This had grown out about six or seven inches in a very thin branch to look like a plant, which the dislocation had caused. Once he sent me straight on that, things were fine again. But that was, I'd say, the really tense moment of my experience.
ZIERLER: Ron, in our next conversation we will pick up the story from what comes next for you and Maxine after Caltech. But last question for today. When you were leaving Caltech, did you have any sense that in your future, you would become such a stalwart supporter and benefactor for Caltech? Do you think that seed was planted during your graduate experience?
LINDE: Not really. I know a lot of people feel that way and say they are going to give back, after all that I got from Caltech. But I didn't have any of those thoughts at the time. A key element that came into play later, however, was that I knew first-hand from the inside what a bastion of excellence Caltech is. So perhaps you could call that a seed. The way the later philanthropy and involvement really arose was that years later, post SRI and after I had started Envirodyne, and after Maxine had joined, etc., we were moving into a new phase for Envirodyne, which still was a somewhat struggling company.
We finally were in a position to at least start thinking about philanthropy and where we should direct it. We believed so much in Caltech, having seen it from both the outside and the inside, the thought occurred to us that if Envirodyne ever did become successful, it would be nice if Caltech could benefit from it to help carry on its mission. AS I had previously mentioned, we contributed some of our shares of stock, and we thought Caltech would probably keep it for a while, and then who knows? There was no restriction, however, to hang onto it. They could have sold it the next day if they wanted to. But years later when Envirodyne was sold, Maxine got a call from Ted Hurwitz, who was vice president for development at that time. (The current title uses advancement and alumni relations instead of development.) Ted said, "What do you want us to do with the proceeds from the stock?"
I had had some interactions with Caltech in the interim, but those had been minor. There was something called the Midwest Advisory Council. Being in Chicago. I had been invited and had joined that. It turned out to be one of the marketing techniques for Caltech. I'm not faulting it, but I don't want to pretend I was actually doing any advising. It actually was a way to get alumni involved and maybe to make contributions in the future. I had that type of involvement, but I wasn't at that point even a member of the Alumni Association. But then with this call, we learned that Caltech apparently had had some confidence in the future and still had the stock. The stock turned out at that point to be quite valuable.
Then I was subsequently contacted by Ted about possibly exploring joining the board at some future time. It started out with a visit on campus to meet with the president, Tom Everhart. We didn't really know Tom at the time. But went to meet, and Maxine is always very direct. I try to be very direct, but gentle. Maxine is sometimes more blunt in being direct. Tom started out a normal conversation, and then he mentioned how appreciative Caltech was with the stock that we had donated and that turned out to be so valuable. Maxine said, "Probably somebody put it away in a drawer, and just forgot about it."
ZIERLER: [laugh] That's great.
LINDE: [laugh] Anyhow, Tom assured her that [laugh] they had had confidence. Then a separate meeting was set up with Bill Kieschnick, who was vice chair of the Caltech board, and chair of what was then the Caltech nominating committee. Because of our interest in art, he was also, I believe, chair of the board of what had been a relatively recent formation of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. He invited us to have lunch there with him and his wife Keith, and we had a good discussion. Then I was invited to join the board. I had not expected to be invited that soon, but I guess I didn't say anything too outrageous at the interviews. And before Ted's raising the topic, I had never thought about it at all.
They had been starting to think in terms of adding more alumni and decreasing the age of the board. The average age was pretty high. In those days. I was still young, so that helped. Probably they figured that if we made that kind contribution, maybe there's more there for the future. You look at all the motivations and combinations of them, and I'll never know which factor weighed how much on it. At almost the same time, I was invited to join the board of Harvey Mudd College, which Maxine and I both had very high opinions of. It was a matter of: "Is there competition between them and is there time for both. "I discussed each with the other, and both said, "We always prefer that you devote all your efforts to us, but that would be fine with us if you want to do it." So that's what I did.
ZIERLER: Ron, we'll develop all of these stories and so much more in our next discussion where we pick up the narrative in your life after Caltech, after you completed your PhD. We'll go from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Thursday, November 10th, 2022. It's my great pleasure to be back with Dr. Ronald K. Linde. Ron, once again, it's a great pleasure to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me.
LINDE: Oh, very happy to. I've enjoyed getting to know you and am happy to be here.
ZIERLER: Wonderful. Ron, we're going to pick up in the narrative right when you finished up at Caltech. To start, maybe I'll ask, as you were considering your next opportunities, the fact that you already had so much exposure and experience in industry, even during graduate school, I wonder in what way that influenced the kinds of opportunities you wanted to pursue, and even the way you thought of yourself as a recent Caltech PhD?
LINDE: Not really much influence, because my experience in industry wasn't too extensive in those days. I have mentioned working for Litton Industries, but it was as a technical employee. I wasn't running the company or anything like that. My interests really were in fundamental research or to some extent applied research, which I shifted more towards as time went on. I wanted either to be in a company where I could be doing research, or maybe at a university or a research institute, something like that. At that time it was how I wanted to spend the rest of my working career.
ZIERLER: Is that to say, Ron, that you considered academic appointments at that time that you might have pursued being a professor at a university?
LINDE: Yes, that came at a couple of times: one early, one much later. The early one was at the time when I was looking for a job after getting my degrees at Caltech. I did consider that as a possibility, and there was some interest expressed in recruiting me. In those days, and probably in all days, unless you have all the experience of having done it elsewhere, it would have been starting as an assistant professor. I also felt industrial companies were OK as long as they were deep into research of a nature that might interest me. Then, as I mentioned, research institutes or government research laboratories, things like that were appealing. There was a wide spectrum of possibilities. I ultimately zeroed in on Stanford Research Institute.
ZIERLER: Tell me a little bit about the Stanford Research Institute. What is its mission? How did it get started?
LINDE: SRI was set up as a part of Stanford University, but a separate operation, somewhat akin to the way you have, say, JPL relative to Caltech, but perhaps even more independent. It was created shortly after World War II. Its mission was to advance scientific knowledge and to benefit the public at large, not just the university students. It was very strong in technology development and economic assessments, primarily on a contract research basis. It operated really pretty independently as far as I could tell. It was quite broad as to fields of activity and did both experimental research, and some theoretical work oriented towards the applied end, rather than fundamental research just for the sake of being fundamental.
The division of SRI that contacted me was called Poulter Laboratory in honor of Thomas Poulter, a noted scientist and explorer who was key in establishing it. I wound up there since it was particularly interesting to me because the area where they particularly were in need, they felt, was to have somebody with my type of background, and yet it was an area that I had no specific background in whatsoever at the time. But as long as the management at SRI was fully aware that I brought nothing specific to the field they were in, but I had background that could be applied to their work, then I thought that was great because I could learn a lot of new things. I wasn't fooling anybody in terms of what I knew or didn't know, and they wanted someone with my background, which was their decision not mine.
I actually hadn't thought I would wind up at SRI. I just applied to different places around the country. Maxine and I were geographically interested in maybe going to the East Coast. But then I got a call from somebody who was a department head at SRI, saying, "We'd like you to come up here for an interview." Based on what he described about the position, and after discussing on the phone my own lack of background in it, I figured he probably still didn't realize how serious I was when I said I didn't have the background for what they were doing. And since Maxine and I were oriented towards going to the East Coast, anyway, I said I probably was not the right candidate. He replied, "We really would like to meet with you. Of course, we'll pay for your plane fare and your hotel, and other related expenses."
We didn't want to take unfair advantage of them, because we thought the probability was so low. What Maxine and I decided to do was we wouldn't take their money for airfare, local transportation and stuff like that. We would drive up to the San Francisco Bay Area in our own car and pay for our own food and gas. SRI could get us up a room for two nights in a local motel that was $8.50 a night plus tax, and they could pay for the room. When we arrived, the motel had to shuffle to a different room from what they'd assigned to us because somebody had just died in the one that they reserved for us. We didn't know if that was supposed to be a bad omen or not. But we're not superstitious [laugh], so we were not unnerved by that. The next morning, I went for the interview, and Maxine drove around to get acquainted with the Menlo Park and the Palo Alto area. SRI was in Menlo Park, but it's a continuum really. It was a lovely day, and the area looked beautiful, and so she was thinking this wouldn't be such a bad place to live. I underwent a full day of interviewing with numerous people there, including some of the other departments that were part of the same laboratory. I was really intrigued, and I made sure they knew the limits of my background.
ZIERLER: Ron, what were some of the projects that SRI was doing at that point?
LINDE: SRI overall was quite broad. But the laboratory that I would be in, that had various departments in it. But most of the laboratory was funded via government-sponsored defense-related research. The particular department that I would be in was focused almost entirely on defense work. Only a small amount was commercial work. I can go into more of the types of things. Most of it was studying and anticipating the effects of shock waves in solids generated by explosions or projectile impacts or intense radiation impingement. For example, imagine you're in a war, and you have missiles in the air that have not yet reached their targets, and there's a nuclear explosion from one of them that may have reached its target or may have been hit by enemy defense vehicles. How do you create materials and establish design specifications to optimally protect the ones that are still going to their targets from being taken out by intense radiation from that which exploded, and thus destroyed or having their electronics thrown out of whack? It's not just the direct radiation, but radiation-induced shock effects that you have to worry about. Things like that.
An example of commercial work would be exploring the feasibility of creating industrial-grade diamonds out of other forms of carbon using high-pressure shock waves.
Another example of a defense-related area I worked in was: Imagine you have a nuclear treaty with another country, like Russia, for example, and you've agreed on a nuclear test ban even for underground explosions. How do you remotely detect the difference between somebody performing a clandestine test versus what happens if there's just an earthquake there? It got into some intriguing issues and problems. I actually got into a lot of basic science, not just applied science.
Maxine and I compared notes at the end of the day. We both liked what we'd seen, and agreed that if I got an offer, maybe we should consider it. We went back to Pasadena, and I did wind up getting an offer. The salary was much higher than I expected. I hadn't really discussed salary during the interview because my main interest is where can I do the best scientific research? We were assuming the salary offer would be fair, and if they did make an offer we would know the salary, of course, before I accepted it. But that wasn't the main consideration. I wasn't looking to compare which job will give me a better salary. It was what's the work going to be?
ZIERLER: Ron, as you said, SRI was very broad in its research. Was it all related to defense in some way or another, or particularly the lab that you joined?
LINDE: To the best of my knowledge, the very highest concentration was particularly the lab that I joined, although some other parts of SRI also were defense oriented.
ZIERLER: Did you need a clearance for this work?
LINDE: Oh, yes. I wound up with a Top Secret clearance, ultimately, not initially. Initially, it was just a Secret clearance. But as I got promotions having more of a span. I had to get a Top Secret clearance and also a Q clearance, which was from the Atomic Energy Commission.
ZIERLER: Ron, set the stage. On day one, what was the lab like? What were you assigned to do?
LINDE: The first thing I was assigned to do was read some things so I could learn what they were doing, but by then I had already read up on the basics that were publicly available. Once I accepted the job, I started doing my own reading on the general field, and getting my own materials. But then what they provided was much more specific in terms of what was happening in some of their projects. Then I was assigned to one project and then another project, etc. I really, really liked the person who headed the department I was in. He was terrific, and I collaborated with him on a number of things. I went through some interesting experiences along the way, but it maybe gets too far afield. But, a couple years later he left SRI, and went up to state of Washington to work at the Hanford nuclear facility there. I was picked to take his place as head of the Shock Wave Physics Department, which later became the Shock and High Pressure Physics Division of the laboratory. I didn't expect it because there were well-qualified people in the department who'd been there a lot longer and had a lot more experience than I had. At first, I was wondering how much is it going to detract from my ability to do research? But I accepted, and I found that it actually was rewarding because I had a broader span of involvement in things, and I was able to have more impact than just from my own research by also overseeing and directing the work of others. I could still continue to do a lot of research myself, so it was pretty good. I did that for a while.
After I had interviewed, Maxine and I thought about SRI and about my whole career path if I were to get a job there. We thought I would spend a few decades in research, and maybe it would be good ultimately to wind up in a position like heading the laboratory. Anyhow, as time and events went on, I wound up a few years thereafter actually heading the whole laboratory. I was 27 years old. Maxine and I had been thinking that was the position where I might ultimately wind up when I got close to retirement, but not anywhere close to so soon. But after that occurred, I still was able to conduct a fair amount of research, and the divisions that reported to me were functioning well, progressing well, and so I thought that promotion had been a good development.
I don't recall the exact timing, but after I had been heading the laboratory for about a year, there was an escalation of student protests at Stanford University because of the involvement of SRI in defense work and the military sponsorship of it. The protestors felt that the university should not be part of the military-industrial complex. It wasn't really key to the university to have SRI as a formal part of it. They decided that they would spin SRI off as a separate nonprofit. A few years after the spinoff occurred, they changed the name to SRI International. SRI did a wide range of sponsored technology development and economic research. Around the same time that the Stanford University and SRI relationship was being debated, I had been thinking that the end result of everything I was working on actually wounds up being a report that other people could implement, and it would be nice to be involved in the implementation, particularly when I observed how some of the implementation wound up being done.
At about that time some of the people who worked in the laboratory that I headed approached me, and said, "How about negotiating to spin out the laboratory to be separate from SRI, and going our own way?" But I didn't think the laboratory would be viable by itself without the SRI umbrella and infrastructure. There's a lot more involved in running an independent company than in running what amounts to a subsidiary of another company, which is sort of the configuration that my lab had as a division of SRI. I thought that is going to further divert things in terms of my ability to do research and likely would not succeed. But then, again, I started to think that maybe I can really have more impact if I do divert, but I don't think this laboratory is the one to do it with, even though I never had any thought of leaving SRI until all of this had happened.
Then a personal event occurred that became determinative. As I had previously mentioned, for what fortunately turned out to be an interim period, my father's health became precarious, and there was a family need for some help in terms of passing the reins within the family but, hopefully, on only a temporary basis. As a result, Maxine and I felt we really should move to L.A, and deal with what needed to be dealt with. That worked out well because my father's health fortunately did recover.
Then, being in L.A. with the option to go back to SRI or take a different direction along the lines I had been thinking, I decided to start a company but not necessarily be tied to the same fields I had been working in. An area that was particularly of interest, although I had no background or expertise in it was environmental technology, which was just starting to be more broadly recognized as being something really important. But it was pretty fragmented at the time. I thought if I were starting with a blank sheet of paper, bringing together some of those fragments, and really building something better than the sum of its parts would be a good thing to do for my future gratification and for the world. In my own scientific interests and publications, I always liked to be interdisciplinary so that you can bring insights and developments from one field to apply in a different field. That type of thing had always interested me and pulling together key fragments would be in keeping with that approach. In those days, you didn't have the Silicon Valley of today. I had taken a leave of absence from SRI. Then being in L.A., it looked like LA would be a better place to start the type of thing I wanted to start, and so maybe do that there. However, as I mentioned in one of our previous conversations, if Maxine and I hadn't been so naïve, we never would have tried that game plan without the tangible resources and positioning that we were devoid of.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Right.
LINDE: But, anyhow, we decided to venture forth. Meanwhile, Maxine had clerked for the federal courts after graduating from Stanford Law School, and then was in private practice in the Bay Area. She went into private practice in the L.A. area, and I started a company, which is a long, long story—a tale of travails. In the early days of the company, it was just a concept, and so I started to look at different engineering companies, small companies that were in different environmental areas, and seeing what I might be able to do. We didn't have any money to start the company, and so formed the company with $1,800 of or savings. Then I met somebody who was in the business of taking control of defunct companies that no longer were operating but whose stock was publicly trading. They were called "shell companies." Then he would find some businesses to put into them as a way of taking those businesses public. The company that we came across had just barely over $160,000 in cash that he had put into it and had two undeveloped mining claims. I'd like to be able to tell you that they turned out to be very valuable mines but that's not the case. [laugh]
LINDE: The control person and his group of investors had been looking for something with going operations, and something that really would be able to just take advantage of a public listing, rather than needing the cash to keep going. But somehow I talked my way into it and worked out a deal. I wasn't familiar with any of the typical ways deals are sometimes done, like earnouts and things like that. It was just a matter of thinking about how can we do a deal? I came up with the idea that I'd get just a small amount of stock to start, but if I could produce some results, I'd get more and more shares for producing better and better results because that would make the stock that they had worth more. I lined up a small environmental engineering company I had identified in St. Louis that had been started by three professors at Washington University. I also contacted a few people that had formerly been in my lab at SRI but had left SRI and yet wanted to stay together.
ZIERLER: Ron, if I may, in order to establish the narrative for how you developed the company, if we can go back to SRI. Just from a technical perspective, coming in with your PhD in material science from Caltech, what was your learning curve like, just in terms of the research at SRI? What did you bring with you that was relevant, even on a general level, and what did you have to figure out as if it was brand new?
LINDE: Most of it was brand new, but I had a good basic scientific background from Caltech. I'd always been a very quick learner, so I wasn't afraid of the learning. I mentioned previously that when I first came to Caltech. I was concerned about whether I would make the grade. But I had much more confidence by the time I left Caltech, and so it was just a matter of working harder to learn new things and fill in the deficiencies along the way, which actually excited me. It wasn't a big problem at that point. I just dug in and started doing. There were people there who were experienced in the area that I could ask questions of as long as I wasn't embarrassed to say that I didn't know something that may have been elementary to them. It was both exciting and interesting, and it really didn't represent a significant hurdle, although you never know until you're into it.
ZIERLER: Ron, on the administrative level, as you began to get promoted at SRI, what did you learn about your skills in being a leader?
LINDE: I don't want to sound egotistical by talking about my skills too much. But all the basics seemed to come naturally to me. As you practice leading, then needed refinements come to light; so be very observant. I never read any books on the subject and never had a mentor or coach, but I never felt the need for one. Practice does help in the honing process, and I constantly looked for clues as to how well I was achieving the desired effect.
Before being promoted to heading the department, I had along the way taken on things like managing projects and the people working on them, and also managing a small technical services group at SRI, that type of thing. I wound up taking on an assignment where there was a very sticky problem that SRI had gotten into. It concerned some other research going on within the laboratory. Even though I had no involvement or familiarity with the problem, apparently the director of the lab saw something in me in terms of people skills. I was asked to go and try to see what I could do in negotiating SRI into the most favorable position in a very treacherous situation. I was successful in doing that beyond anyone's expectations. I learned some refinements when reflecting back on why I was so successful. That particular example sounds more like negotiating skills that leadership skills, but the point is that , while there are some obvious differences, many of the skills in these two arenas are either the same or at least very much akin to each other. So the learning or refining is not done in silos.
In accumulating experience, I'd exhibited some skills running projects and direct involvement into getting my projects funded, and things like that. The person who had headed my department before me had come to rely on me to do some special projects and handle some difficult interactions. Ultimately, I'd say that the characteristics that stood me in best stead were, being highly people-oriented; motivation-oriented in terms of motivating people; being straightforward and not pulling punches while not being impolite. If criticism is needed, deliver it kindly but firmly. If praise is warranted, be sure to give praise where it's earned. The people who worked with me or under my direction responded very favorably and openly expressed their appreciation. Also establishing a culture of paying close attention to spending project funds wisely, things like that. It was a combination of, say, emerging skills. It wasn't really having had any background in doing it — being not only the boss, but the mentor, as well.
ZIERLER: Ron, being in the Bay Area as the Vietnam War was ramping up, and working in the defense industry, did you feel that at all? Were there any tensions in those areas?
LINDE: The tensions were there. I mentioned the student protests at Stanford University. I felt it as a person, as did Maxine. There's the tension, the stress, all of that, but having nothing to do with the job that I was in, other than recognizing that defense work is very important. But I would hope I would have recognized that anyway.
ZIERLER: Did you feel connected at all with Stanford University at SRI? Was that part of your daily reality?
LINDE: No. The only way was that I did recruit a couple of outstanding people from Stanford University, and so that was nice and smooth. But I'm sure there were interactions at higher levels, but there weren't any specific interactions that were at my level other than being aware of what was going on, and if you wanted to attend a lecture, it's not far down the road, that kind of thing. But I don't know the degree to which the interactions occurred at the top levels of SRI, but I'm sure there were some.
ZIERLER: Ron, I'm curious if you felt at SRI you had opportunity to build your skills as an entrepreneur, if that was something that you saw as relevant in this new venture when you got back to LA?
LINDE: Yes, to some degree, because I was running a laboratory with management responsibilities. I had budgets to worry about, I had division heads reporting to me, quite a few employees, revenue generation to worry about, strategic planning, etc.; and so I had to run an operation that was at least partially self-contained. The distinction between that and being an entrepreneur depends on how much more you have to do if you're a stand-alone company without an umbrella support structure. But the responsibilities I did have running the laboratory were very applicable. It's just that I had to add to them as a stand-alone. Also, when running a public company, there are all sorts of regulatory aspects, shareholder communications, a lot of these other things that add on. But for the basics of running an operation, I'd say that was good experience.
ZIERLER: Ron, what does it say about your management skills and your overall outlook on how these things work when you determined that pulling the lab away from SRI was not the right move at that time? What does that tell us about your worldview?
LINDE: It wasn't primarily a worldview thing. It was a matter of thinking about what the lab was doing, and how it would function as a stand-alone. It would face such things as significant additional administrative burdens, financial cushion issues, and perhaps the reduced credibility of not being Stanford Research Institute. If it remained non-profit, we couldn't raise money, but the potential profits did not appear high enough to become a good investment vehicle. And yet it wasn't something where you've got a new, exciting idea for investment speculation.
At that point, I hadn't even thought about the fragmented pollution control area, but they weren't in that area, anyway. And how could it function without the money to obtain all the necessary facilities that were part of SRI? As a contract research organization, it can be hand-to-mouth, unless you're really established. It becomes very high-risk. The rewards are that you get to do more of the same in terms of struggling to have the company survive, having nothing to do with the excitement of the research itself, but you're responsible for the survival of a company with highly uncertain prospects of survival. There are so many other things that you have to get involved in. I just thought that it would be too high-risk in terms of what the ultimate outcome might be. I didn't see where doing it in that particular area or field of research, let's say, was going to necessarily build it into a viable stand-alone operation with enough excitement to warrant the risk.
ZIERLER: Ron, I'm curious, besides the personal factors that pulled you to Los Angeles, how L.A. seemed to be a more favorable business climate for you as you were thinking about launching this new venture.
LINDE: Because it was much more of a financial center, and this was something that likely would ultimately take a lot of financial wherewithal. It's not as if pollution control was such a hot topic when I was starting. Also, L.A. certainly had an almost daily reminder of air pollution, at least. The Bay Area was a lovely place to live, but it didn't seem to offer advantages to the same degree that L.A. as a more financially cosmopolitan center would offer. The Silicon Valley mentality was not much in evidence then.
ZIERLER: Ron, in the way that Maxine is your partner in so many ways, what were her ideas about this formative moment in your career?
LINDE: She was definitely in favor of it, but her attitude was that if I wanted to just stay purely in science, whether basic or applied or a combination, then that's what I should do. But if I wanted to do this type of an enterprise, it sounded like it made good sense. So she was solidly behind it. In other words, she wasn't pushing to do that, but she was in no way pushing not to do it. She was supportive in either way in whatever it would turn out to be, and more than willing to share the consequences.
ZIERLER: Did you feel that you were taking a risk?
LINDE: Yes, definitely. I was taking a double risk. One, the enterprise might not succeed. Two, I was building a very rewarding career in research, getting to be known as a leader in the field, doing a lot of publishing. I would be giving that up—not that I couldn't go back to it, but you'd lose something in the process. The longer you wait to go back to it, the more difficult it is. It certainly could be done, but it was a risk factor. I felt that I was taking a risk, but I did not have enough relevant experience to realize how big a risk it was.
ZIERLER: Ron, in the way that you emphasized coming out of Caltech, how important research was to you, either fundamental or applied, in starting this new venture, was it important for you to figure out a way to keep your hand in the research as you were building the business?
LINDE: It would have been important in a different type of enterprise. But in the new one that I was starting, the answer is no. It would be a major sacrifice. The reason is I felt if I were to do the best job that I could of the position that I'd assume in heading the new company, building it, etc., I would not have time to be doing research; and so I would have to shift – a major tradeoff. I wasn't too concerned about not having background in the area that the company would be operating in, since I felt I could pick up what I needed to serve in the role that I wanted to, but I didn't feel that I would be bringing much technical to the party by getting personally involved in research, and certainly couldn't divert my attention for that. In other words, I didn't have anything that I came ready to contribute from a technical standpoint other than a good overall technical background and some ability to understand the business and develop insights. The initial thrust, anyway, was going to be in engineering, which would be a consulting business, even though I ultimately was interested in the implementation part, as well. It would technology but not so much research at that point because the engineering was more applications-oriented.
ZIERLER: Ron, we've talked about risk-taking, about being pulled away from the research. Obviously, it was all worth it to you. What was so exciting that made you jump in with both feet?
LINDE: It was a matter of tradeoffs in an attempt to maximize the ultimate impact. It was a new adventure into a part of the world that I had not explored to a great extent. It was doing something of potentially great impact on the world and its inhabitants. One of the most exciting aspects was the opportunity to bring disparate components together and to be on the forefront of the next wave for pollution control, which then evolved into environmental technology and even included energy conservation. It would be exciting to do something that's a really a worthwhile enterprise but is fragmented, and to try to somehow have some real impact by bringing things together. Another thing that was exciting was my lack of background from a technical standpoint because, even if it were by osmosis, I would have some ability, actually obligation, to be learning along the way about things that I didn't know much about.
ZIERLER: Ron, as you surveyed the larger field, where did you see the opportunity? Where was the niche to create this company?
LINDE: I think the niche was actually the bringing together of the different components because they tended to be much more separated; not entirely but more separated. There were other aspects like energy, which wasn't thought of as much in those days, but that would be an interesting adjunct. I'd say air pollution and water pollution were the main thrusts at the time. But it was also a matter of practicality. It was a matter that all of these areas needed help, and being opportunistic, where was I able to gain a position for the company to be best able to help? It wasn't that I have to do more with water, have to do more with air, or have to do more with noise. It was a matter of where do I find the opportunities that I think would be good to build on?
ZIERLER: Were there particular environmental problems that hit close to home for you that were inspirational in starting the company?
LINDE: Not really what I would call inspirational – just evident. Having come from L.A., smog clearly was something we were keenly aware of. In fact, when Maxine and I moved to Pasadena – I don't know if I mentioned this – it was two or three weeks before we realized that there were some nearby mountains out there that were visible from our windows on occasion like Brigadoon.
LINDE: [laugh] I don't think the personal impact of pollution was a motivator so much as the broader scale.
ZIERLER: Ron, it would've been a few years later, but with the creation of the EPA and the entire regulatory structure from the federal government in dealing with environmental problems, did you intuit that's where things were going? Did you see opportunity from a regulatory perspective?
LINDE: Oh, yes, but I didn't know what the opportunities were going to be. It was clear that there were going to be more regulatory controls, but I wasn't in a position to say what they should be. I didn't even have the knowledge to be able to make a credible statement about it. I would have come off like a 2022 genre politician.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Right. The $1,800, what did that accomplish for you, and how did you close the gap for what you actually needed?
LINDE: First of all, it paid for formation of the company that ultimately merged with the shell. It paid for beginning to find out about different companies that were in the field that might be of interest and trying to make some contacts with them. Then the merger with the shell enabled us to have more money to be able to do that type of thing, but that still wasn't enough money. Once being public, which was among penny stocks in the old pink sheets, but which created some paper I could use for acquisitions if I could convince the owners that I was on the right track.
The first acquisition we did, which was actually an important acquisition, was done on that basis. It was a very small engineering company that nevertheless was more rounded in expertise than most. As I previously mentioned, it had been formed by some professors at Washington University in St. Louis. Their advisors told them, "This is a pretty risky thing, etc." Because it was a small company, it wasn't going to take a lot of money. But what I had to do to make a deal was give them an option as follows. "We'll do a deal. We agree we want to work together. You can elect to take cash, or you can elect to take stock, or you can elect to take a combination, as long as we agree there's going to be a deal."
I held my breath because it could have used up all our cash. But they ultimately decided to take all stock, and that was a good vote of confidence as well, because they had the background to know that what I was trying to do made sense, which I previously hadn't had real vetting on. That was important. The money didn't last long, however. But in those days, short of a full registration statement with the SEC, with Regulation A—they called it a Reg. A offering—much lower requirements were imposed. A maximum of half a million dollars you could be raised under Reg. A. I thought that's the way to go. But I couldn't find any reputable underwriter who would undertake any part of it in those days because it was pure speculation, and they didn't want the exposure if the company failed. So I just made some contacts, I packed a suitcase, and went around the country raising money, and raised the full $500,000.
ZIERLER: Ron, did you have the name settled at that point? What were some of the iterations you went through, ultimately?
LINDE: The name, there was only one iteration. The name was Envirodyne. Some of the names we thought about were taken, but "Envirodyne" seemed to cover environment and dynamics.
ZIERLER: How does that convey the mission of the company, as you envisioned it, dynamic and environment?
LINDE: The name was meant to connote a dynamic, action-oriented company that is focused on the environment. Then the only other iteration was, as we broadened out into other fields, it seemed like the name was too constraining, so we changed it to Envirodyne Industries. Both names were better than the name of the shell that it merged with, which was Pony Meadows Mining Company.
LINDE: I figured that even if people don't like the name Envirodyne, it'll be a step up.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ron, going around the country and raising capital, I assume you had a pretty good elevator pitch by the end of it. What was it? What did you convey in these meetings with potential investors?
LINDE: Just what we've already talked about, that "Here's something very important that is bound to become even much more important. It's highly fragmented, and there's an opportunity to pull the pieces together. We have a plan," and sort of just personal salesmanship. It's more a matter of, "Do you want to bet on me? If this pays off, it's going to do very well. It's speculative, so only invest to the extent you can afford to lose. But If you're willing to gamble, I think this is an excellent gamble."
ZIERLER: Was it a lot of small investors that added up to the $500,000 or were there a few big ones that really put you over?
LINDE: It was pretty much small investors, but the dollars didn't seem small to me at the time. It wasn't anybody coming in with half the money in a slug. It was more matter of $15,000; $20,000; $50,000; $30,000; $10,000; that type of thing. I don't recall what the maximum individual investment turned out to be, but it was around that range.
ZIERLER: Ron, during this time, was Maxine working? Were you living on savings? How did you make ends meet?
LINDE: Yes, Maxine was working for a law firm. The original plan was for her to continue with her law career. The way that Maxine came into the company, other than through discussions we had as I was moving along, was that the legal bills for what I was doing were high, and the company couldn't afford them much longer. We did have some savings to support ourselves personally; so Maxine quit her job, giving respectable notice, of course, and came to work for the company full time without any compensation. Even though it was a public company, and we owned a lot of stock, there were others we had to look out for. The people who had the original shell owned the biggest amount of the stock, and then there were the individual public stockholders. A lot of people predicted that, with both of us having somewhat forceful personalities, we'd never get along working together, and—
ZIERLER: You proved them wrong.
LINDE: Yes. It was absolutely one of the best moves we've ever made in our lives.
ZIERLER: Ron, in terms of hiring and personnel decisions, between your own areas of expertise and your partners, what were the most important positions to hire as the company was starting to get into growth mode?
LINDE: If by "partners" you mean the original largest shareholder group, they were totally out of the operating picture once the deal was done. I did not even allow them a seat on the board. So the other shareholders didn't have any involvement in the hiring. First of all, we needed a chief financial officer, or any financial officer for that matter. That was a top priority. We had legal covered. We needed some clerical help. Ultimately, we were going to need somebody being more involved from the corporate standpoint in interacting in the technology both for acquisition targets and for what was going on internally along the way.
For a chief financial officer, I got a lead on somebody who'd made a bit of money, could afford a risk, and was excited by the venture, even though he had never been involved in a technology or engineering enterprise. I brought him on board as was needed for a public company, and he also got involved in working on some of the acquisitions that we explored. Ultimately, I decided we needed to add a financial controller. Our CFO knew somebody that he thought highly of that we hired wound up for that position. A chief technical officer wasn't so key because of my own background. But given the nature of the company, it would be helpful. Somebody I had known at SRI had been wanting to join for a long time and had kept inquiring about joining. But we couldn't afford to have him join. I wouldn't have approached him because I wouldn't have gone back to somebody who had worked for me at SRI, not wanting in any way to harm SRI's operations, even though I had no legal obligation in that regard. It's not my style. But he had repeatedly taken the initiative right along the way and so, eventually, I was in a position to say, "We've grown enough. We could use your involvement." Soon after the CFO was on board, Maxine had joined as general counsel and participated in all the hiring decisions after she joined. We always ran with a very lean staff. She also became chief administrative officer, as more and more of my time was being spent on assessing and pursuing acquisitions, financial matters, and subsidiary oversight. But as we grew over time, we hired a few other people.
ZIERLER: Once you had secured the $500,000, what's the plan at that point? How do you use the money?
LINDE: First of all, you do have some obligations in terms of shareholder reporting, and running a responsible operation, oversight over the company, etc. All of that takes money, but the bulk of it was earmarked to help in acquisitions.
ZIERLER: What's the business model? How do you actually go about turning a profit from the beginning?
LINDE: You go about it from the beginning, but you don't actually start turning a profit at the beginning, at least I didn't. [laugh]
LINDE: Quite the opposite. But when you acquire companies, you look to see what can you do to enhance their profitability if they are profitable, and how can you help them to build? Sometimes, that also takes money. Sometimes, it doesn't. How can you help make them more efficient, etc.? When you are looking at acquisitions, we were focused ones that were profitable when we get them. Although sometimes we would acquire a company that was a good fit but wasn't profitable — but we could see how to make it profitable, or at least how we thought we could make it profitable. But you do build up overheads, especially as a very small public company. You have to fund a very active corporate office. Even though I was taking only a very nominal salary at first, I was taking something. For the other employees that we hired for the corporate office, I used stock options as the main incentive so they wouldn't be demanding salaries that we couldn't afford. But you still had to pay them something, still have all sorts of normal corporate and regulatory expenses. This is where some of the naïve part came in, and I mention only some of the naïve part because naïve was on a broad base. But we just kept going. Sometimes, there were sleepless nights worrying about how are you going to make the payroll. We managed to maneuver to get a bank loan, even though we weren't very lendable. But we just keep on going until we got to the point where you could be profitable on an overall basis.
ZIERLER: Ron, from those sleepless nights, were you ever concerned that the venture might not work out? Were there ever any really rough patches?
LINDE: Yes, absolutely. That was part of the sleeplessness. Maxine and I were worried about that because we didn't stay naïve forever. Once being in it, you give it your all, you do everything you can, but you have to be realistic. There were a lot of rough patches and there was a very real possibility that it would not work out. And we worried about the public shareholders that had put their faith in us and invested their money in us. We weren't worried on a legal basis, however, because we followed all the rules and made all the appropriate disclosures along the way.
ZIERLER: What's your first memory of really feeling confident, either by landing an account or acquiring a company, that Envirodyne was viable, that you were in it for the long haul?
LINDE: That requires a longer answer that you may have bargained for. I did manage to negotiate the acquisition of some companies that really had a very good base for profitability, and structured deals so the sellers got what it took to make a deal, whether it was stock or largely stock but also some cash paid out over time. By then, I had learned the term "earnout"—which I didn't know when I put myself on one when I got the deal with the shell done. Depending on their performance, they get more stock and/or cash. We just gradually progressed, and it took a few years before we actually felt confident of viability, although we were optimistic all the time. We had made 18 small acquisitions, most but not all of which had worked out well. Some of the acquisitions had been higher risk than others. Some of our primary targets had been inspired by our plans but wanted to remain independent and/or did not want to risk their futures on our stock. So we sometimes had to go for riskier acquisitions in the areas we wanted to add. We were working on building and integrating them to the appropriate degree. Roughly two-thirds of our approximately $25 million in annual revenues at the time were from engineering and testing, and the remaining third were from product manufacturing through different subsidiaries on a non-conflict basis. We had become profitable by that time. But that's not really the end of my answer.
After achieving that level and feeling sufficiently confident of the long haul, we did a major deal, seizing an opportunity that was unrelated to our core strategy. We took a major gamble, but did so with our eyes open, and we suffered through it but came out okay in the end. We'd provided for downside protection so as not to jeopardize the rest of Envirodyne. The acquired company was a fully integrated steel company almost 10 times our size that had been losing millions of dollars annually for many years. Structuring the deal was highly complex. It turned out to be quite a remarkable deal that made the front covers of Business Week, of Engineering News-Record, and of Commerce Magazine. It changed our overall strategy and the course Envirodyne's future.
It was a spinoff from International Harvester (subsequently renamed Navistar), a major old-line company, and IH remained the biggest customer, buying 30% of the output, and the biggest creditor, holding $50 million in remaining acquisition debt. Then IH endured a very long labor strike—the longest in its history and the longest in the union's history — which brought IH to its knees. and, ultimately threatened to send IH into bankruptcy. IH managed to stave off the bankruptcy but was not able to continue buying the output during this long strike. We had been able to change management, put in physical improvements, dramatically improve operations, reduce labor content from 14 hours a ton to 10 hours a ton, increase the customer base, and were well on the road to success. But we were no longer making sales to IH, which threw us into technical default on the debt to IH, which in turn resulted in IH employing its own survival strategy and throwing the steel company into bankruptcy and ultimate liquidation. But, as I mentioned, we had structured the acquisition so that we were able to protect the rest of Envirodyne, so that it could keep on going.
This was a major, major step back. But there still was part of the pre-deal company that we had built, after having sold some parts during the transition period. So then we started building up from a small base again. We wound up ultimately building it into a Fortune 500 company. It's, again, lessons learned—or in this case better stated as philosophy reinforced. Don't be afraid to think outside the box. Be optimistic, but realistic. Try to identify all the downside risks. Persevere if you feel there's a viable path. But always weigh those paths against the probabilities and potential consequences of the downside outcomes. That's how we've done things.
ZIERLER: Ron, we talked about—
LINDE: There were a lot of sleepless nights recurring.
ZIERLER: Those were sleepless nights are recurring.
ZIERLER: We've talked about sleepless nights and rough patches. When did you feel, do you have a specific memory of when the company was not only viable but it was thriving, that it was on its way to becoming a Fortune 500 company?
LINDE: I don't know how to pin it down to actual years. Ultimately, Envirodyne Industries was thriving, whereas it had been starved for cash during most of its life. We were generating a lot of cash. We were very solid, and feeling quite comfortable on that score, although you never feel 100% comfortable. Let's see. I'd say it was during a period of 14 to 18 years after the company had started that we were thriving versus just being successful. It is hard to pin down precisely because it was a building process along the way. It kept thriving more and more right up to its sale after 20 years.
ZIERLER: How would you define "thriving," Ron? How did that feel in real time, this transition?
LINDE: As I mentioned, we were generating a lot of cash. The company was being well recognized. The stock was doing well – not by itself an indicator of thriving because some stocks do well that I wouldn't get close to – but as an indicator because we'd been through the lean period. In fact, the bull market of the 1980s that they referred as the Great Bull Market started in 1982. I remember that Maxine and I were on a trip. We were in San Diego looking at a potential deal. Down in the lobby, they had the different newspapers for purchase, and one of them was Investor's Daily. On the front page, we were surprised to see my name. It was the issue for the fifth anniversary of the Great Bull Market in 1987, and they had reviewed all publicly traded stocks in all U.S. markets. The top gainer for the five years was Envirodyne. It was listed as "by far the biggest winner," having risen 17,900%. We'd become recognized, although starting from a low base. Unlike many big winners in the stock markets, our growth and price performance were not based on some new breakthrough technology—but we did invest a lot of money in developing, improving, and efficiently producing our relatively mundane-appearing products.
We grew our revenues rapidly after the steel company failure, but revenue growth was important only as a means to an end. Major corporate criteria for us were profitability and return on investment. In 1988 we climbed into the Fortune 500 and were ranked at number 36 out of 500 in return on stockholders' equity. We also made Financial World's list of the "500 Fastest Growing Companies in America," where among the "25 Most Proven" we were ranked as number 2 in 5-year annual earnings growth. In early 1989, just before the sale of the company, Forbes ranked Envirodyne's 5-year performance in its "41st Annual Report on American Industry" covering the largest 1,116 companies as number 28 in return on equity, number 6 in earnings per share growth, and number 1 in stock price appreciation.
A good part of the reason for our performance was that we had terrific teams of people. And what in itself gave us great confidence were the people we ultimately were able to assemble. We can look at how successful Envirodyne was, but it wasn't successful just because one or two people did it. Probably the biggest success that Maxine and I had was in finding and being able to attract and motivate such excellent people, and in weeding out those we had made mistakes in hiring Once they joined us, we did not have any people that we wanted to retain leave us for greener pastures. We had really good teams, and that penetrated down because good people attract good people, and so we had quality through the ranks. That really was part of the feeling of success.
Having struggled for so many years to get where we were, to then wind up with the company being acquired, personally, it was a very sad thing. But we felt a responsibility to shareholders, a lot of whom were employees who'd either bought stock or had stock options or had it in a retirement plan or whatever. A lot of people had faith in us or faith in the company without knowing us, and we felt a responsibility to act if the price were right, rather than to cater to our own desires. Markets are vulnerable. Operations can be vulnerable. We'd survive just fine. We'd made enough money. A lot of shareholders, including institutions, were urging us to fight the takeover but we felt we shouldn't if we could get a really good deal for the shareholders at large. We didn't put in any golden parachutes or golden handcuffs or any of that. We just made sure that the other employees were well taken care of. We would do fine. If there was something left in terms of what people normally could get with the handcuffs and the parachutes and all of that, we felt it should be given as something extra for the employees. It was our view of how to do right by the people who had put their faith and efforts into what we had been building. Having them come out very well was an essential element in allowing the company to be taken over.
ZIERLER: Ron, I wonder if you can explain in some detail, just to give a flavor as to how Envirodyne became so successful, either an acquisition or a project that really sheds light on the secret to your success.
LINDE: Most of it relates to my rather lengthy answer to your previous question. As guiding principles, get the best people you can, provide them with the best relevant resources that you prudently can afford, guide and mentor them as needed, establish a bond of trust, treat them as you would want to be treated, and make sure that they're well rewarded for what they do. If they're not very good and don't deserve the rewards, then replace them with people who do. It's no favor to anybody and is irresponsible as a manager to do otherwise. Another thing is to not ask them to do anything that you wouldn't be willing to do yourself if you could and under the circumstances. Set the tone at the top and don't build lavish offices.
By contrast, when Envirodyne was sold, one of the large investment banks was the lead driving force and maintained a key involvement. There was a former CEO who'd headed a company that was much, much bigger than we were but in largely the same types of adjacent fields as the majority of our revenues. What happened there is a sad tale. They started spending money to redo the offices, living a bit high on the hog, not acting like one of the guys – "guys" being multi-gender. I didn't mean male guys specifically. They lost some of the good people, and they didn't get as involved in some of the important things that aren't so much on the surface. As a net result, within a few years, they had driven Envirodyne Industries into bankruptcy. It was the same company, but the leadership culture was entirely different, and that's why I use it as an example. Now, in doing the acquisition, they did take on a lot of debt, and that was certainly a factor. But relative to whatever size we were at various times, we had debt, too. When you are in that position you have to be spartan, not extravagant—and that is part of the tone at the top. It boils down to style, in a way. What's important? How do you treat people? How do you get the best people to be motivated to do their best? How do you get people to willingly make sacrifices and watch the pennies? I was going to say, that's the long and the short of it, but it's turned out to be more the long of it than the short of it. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ron, what product or service was most impactful, do you think, during the Envirodyne years? What are you most proud of that it did?
LINDE: Most proud is not necessarily the most impactful, let's say, because there's a matter of scale. But I'll give you an example because there isn't anyone that I would single out. We acquired a company that made disposable cutlery, straws, things like that. It was spun off from a larger company, and the larger company took shares for it. We liked the people in the larger company just as people, and what we acquired was profitable. It was a good company. But we felt it really could do much better if given the right motivation, the right tone. When we applied the principles I just discussed, it became hugely successful—with exactly the same management as before the acquisition.
Employees, even those who were just on the production lines, in that same company wound up realizing enough out of the ultimate sale of Envirodyne that they could, in some cases—those legally here from Mexico—were able to go back to Mexico with enough money that they could live comfortably, and their families could live comfortably there. It's the involvement and what grew out of it, what flourished, whereas they'd been very respectively profitable before, same management as before but just a different parent company with a different way of operating. That's the kind of thing that we're most proud of.
There are other examples. Structuring and negotiating the steel company acquisition and some of our subsequent deals. It's not that everything worked out. We made some acquisitions that did not work out the way we had hoped. That's when we had to say, "We're going either to sell it off or shut it down," as we did with one very small company that we ultimately decided we should shut down. It's not that you achieve always hoped-for results and success; but adhering to the principles I mentioned certainly improves your odds and performance even in situations that already are performing well.
Finally, I should note that one of the very most meaningful and personally gratifying things occurred at the time of the sale of Envirodyne. We got letters from employees of our various subsidiaries and from some shareholders with whom we never previously interacted, thanking us for having changed their lives through their having placed their faith in the future of the company.
ZIERLER: Ron, last question for today, just as a counterfactual, the road not taken, had the buyout not happened in 1989, would you have stayed with Envirodyne even perhaps for the totality of your career, do you think?
LINDE: Yes, that had been our clear intention. After having struggled for so many years to have gotten to the robust state Envirodyne was in, we were positioned to play in a much bigger league and already had our eyes on some even bigger opportunities we had identified. But, as a public company, our main obligation was not to ourselves. We felt the price we negotiated for the company was such that we shouldn't hold out for the sake of our own personal desires. Of course, we don't know what intervening circumstances would've been that could have changed our personal circumstances along the way.
ZIERLER: But you were happy? This was fulfilling. This could have gone on as far as you were concerned.
LINDE: Yes. This is what Maxine and I had dedicated ourselves to, and we relished the involvement. We had so many people who had bet on us that how could we walk away? We finally had a lot of cash flowing in, successful operations, growing companies, people really benefiting from being part of the organization, and plenty of opportunity to keep growing. We wouldn't have felt right with ourselves leaving the company, even though we clearly made a lot of money in the sale. This was true although as a result of acquisitions and financing, we were down to a relatively small ownership in the company at the time of the sale. I don't remember exactly, but we were down to about 10% ownership. We did well financially through the sale. We don't have any regrets about the decision. But we would have stayed with it. Barring something unforeseen, we would've been very, very happy and enthusiastic to stay with it for the rest of our careers, and we often wonder what it would have been like today if we had been able to do it.
ZIERLER: Ron, as foreshadowing to our next discussion, of course, you're elected to the board of trustees at Caltech that same year, in 1989. At this point in your career, were you already getting involved in philanthropy and serving on boards, or was Caltech's board of trustees really your entrée into that world?
LINDE: We already were into philanthropy, and I was serving on boards to some degree, but we were and continue to be very focused. We were not oriented to getting into as many circles of networking as we could. We felt, "Let's keep our eyes on the objective and focus what we can do to achieve maximum impact." In a different role, we might have wanted to do a lot of networking and spreading of our philanthropy and increasing board involvements for that purpose. We had to do a lot of networking in the early days to build up connections. We know what it's like, and we know how to do it; but it's not the most rewarding thing for us. We would have been very happy to stay with Envirodyne, and sure, we would have done some networking and spreading of philanthropy to help Envirodyne. The answer then is that we did have our toe in the water, and it's not that there was a new revelation. It's not that Caltech had somehow transformed us by an invitation to join the board. Our main interest in that was what do we have to offer?
ZIERLER: On that note, Ron, we'll pick up for next time to see what life brings from 1989 going forward.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, November 29th, 2022. It is wonderful to be back with Dr. Ronald K. Linde. Ron, as always, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much again.
LINDE: Happy to continue our dialog.
ZIERLER: Wonderful. Ron, we're going to pick up right where we left off. The year is 1989. Let's start first on the business side of things. Of course, in 1989, that comes with the sale of Envirodyne. How long were you and Maxine contemplating that sale and what it would mean for you personally and professionally?
LINDE: We weren't really contemplating it for very long and had not planned for it. We'd spent a lot of years, actually, if you add it up, roughly 20 years in building the company from literally nothing into what had become a Fortune 500 international conglomerate with 4,800 employees, occupying approximately 3,700,000 square feet of floor space, investing close to $10 million a year on research and development, and whose products were being used in almost every country in the world. After finally getting to a position where we had excellent earnings, excellent cash flow, great growth prospects, we weren't really interested personally in selling the company, and if not for other important considerations, we wouldn't have been willing to do that. But what was a very important factor was that we were a public company. As I told you previously, we took very seriously our obligations to shareholders. We could have kept on going and had great support from our shareholders. But it was an era in which there were a lot of Wall Street raiders—as they were sometimes called—and they came along and wanted to take over Envirodyne.
We, personally, as I said, wouldn't have gone along with it, but we felt an obligation to do what was right for shareholders. They has invested their money, counting on us to look out for them, and we felt an obligation to do so.. When we were approached, we felt that if we were able to negotiate in the somewhat frenzied market what was a very good deal for shareholders, we would have a moral obligation to move forward with it. It really came in reaction to being approached rather than something we had planned for. As I had told you previously, we intentionally did not try to cement our positions or better ourselves by putting in any poison pills, golden handcuffs or golden parachutes, to use Wall Street terminology. Once it became known that there was a possibility of a deal, other companies and groups approached us, as well. We used the presence of competition to make the best deal we could.
ZIERLER: Ron, who ultimately bought Envirodyne?
LINDE: It was a combination of Wall Street investment bankers who set up the deal and teamed up with somebody who had been CEO of a major company that operated in a related field. He'd been chair of Beatrice Foods. They were looking for deals. It wasn't a strategic acquisition. Most of our acquisitions had been strategic ones. But this was a financial deal, with a CEO who had expertise in the general field.
ZIERLER: Ron, what ultimately became of Envirodyne after the sale?
LINDE: As we discussed in our last session, we had developed a culture for the company that was very important to the success of the company. The culture of the team that took the company over was quite different. I can go into more detail if you want. But not to take up too much time, it was a very different culture. As a result, a lot of the key people decided they didn't want to stick with it. Fortunately, they had made enough money on the sale. We made sure that people were well taken care of for their efforts in helping to build the company and make it successful, so they did have options available. I'm not talking about stock options [laugh] although there were some that they had. The new top culture was much more hierarchical. There was much less regard for looking where you can save every penny. It was much less of a "we are all in this together, shoulder to shoulder" type of culture. For example, as heads of company, we still traveled coach when we were flying places, unless we were flying somewhere on our own money. If we were going to Europe, and we wanted to have a more comfortable flight, then that was up to us, but we would pay for the difference out of our own pockets. We really guarded every penny and set a tone at the top. One of the first things they did was redecorate the executive offices and things like that. At any rate, they ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy.
LINDE: It was very sad what happened. When I say, "instrumental in building the company," I'm not talking just about executives. Even people on the production lines, and positions like that, were able to do well. Those who'd invested in the company were able to do well. It was very sad what happened to the company, but at least those who had put in their efforts and resources wound up being well rewarded.
ZIERLER: Ron, given that the culture was so different, I wonder if you can explain a little the kind of culture that you and Maxine championed for Envirodyne, and how that changed as a result of the sale.
LINDE: I have already touched on it briefly. I'll elaborate a little. Part of our culture was one of a great deal of mutual respect and employees helping each other in building the company together as a team, making sacrifices where they were needed—and there were many places where they were needed—and operating by the same standard for executives that were used throughout the company in terms of what you do in your, financial responsibility behavior, and making sure that people who were in a position to have insights that maybe people at the top didn't have would be given a meaningful voice, not just a lip-service voice. It didn't mean that we always went along with every suggestion that people made. A lot of them weren't applicable, and a lot of them were in conflict with each other. But everybody was able to be heard. The reward system was such that everybody had a chance to benefit if the company did well. It was those types of things.
It was an attitude in many ways. If people at every level in the company feel that to achieve the purpose the executives are working just as hard or harder than they themselves are, and that people at every level throughout the company have an important role to play, even if the role isn't as exalted perhaps as other roles, it becomes like a giant family of thousands of people — but a giant family. After the takeover, the attitude was much more, as I said, hierarchical, different standards for different levels of people, and more of an attitude of getting as much as you can out of the employees without regard for how the employees are benefiting as a result of that.
ZIERLER: Given the fact that they went into bankruptcy, it demonstrates that that's actually not a sound business practice, even if you didn't care about the workers.
LINDE: Yes. It was clearly not sound behavior in terms of how they did things, but it actually is common behavior. They also took on a lot of leverage, which gave them a significant burden of debt to service, and they weren't as intimately involved, and didn't hear as much from the factory floors—if I could put it that way—because people on the factory floors didn't necessarily think that they'd be listened to if they weren't asked.
ZIERLER: Ron, did you have a sneaking suspicion that, ultimately, this would be the fate of Envirodyne, or were you optimistic that the culture would continue under new leadership?
LINDE: Maxine and I were hopeful, but skeptical. However, we felt that the group taking it over was more of what's typical, and sometimes they're very successful. It's not to say that the way we did things was the only way to be successful; far from it. We didn't expect that they would drive it into the ground. But we knew the culture would be different.
ZIERLER: Ron, let's move now to Caltech, and when you joined the board. What were some of the key issues facing Caltech? What stands out in your memory in the late 1980s, early 1990s when you joined the board of directors at Caltech?
LINDE: Nothing specific stands out as a major key issue, other than perpetual budget issues and concern about being so tied into government funding, which is a vulnerability that still exists and is in the nature of what Caltech does, although there have been and continue to be attempts to broaden the base. When I first joined, I wasn't really aware of some of the specific vulnerabilities. It was a matter of joining the board, and learning along the way. It was an interesting time because I was invited at essentially the same time to join another university board, and I wound up joining both of them. There was a bit I could see in terms of comparisons and things like that.
ZIERLER: Ron, you're coming back to Caltech at a different stage in your life. It's decades later. In what ways did Caltech feel the same to you, and in what ways had it evolved over the years, from your vantage point?
LINDE: In terms of the same, the thing I would particularly point out is an extremely high standard of excellence. That involved different things over the years, but that is a fundamental value that Caltech is based on. The advantages of small size versus large size are much the same in terms of the interpersonal interactions, the interdisciplinary explorations, the types of corridor conversations that go on at the institute where people are in different fields but physically close together in many cases. Fundamentally, I think the evolution has been more a matter of branching out into new areas aggressively and doing more collaborations with external organizations. I would say also that an attitude of being much more welcoming to entrepreneurial activities is a very pronounced difference. That's one of the ones that I was very happy to see and it's one that I had been advocating for many years before it actually started to happen in any meaningful way.
ZIERLER: Ron, between your technical background, your academic interests, and all of your success in business, what do you see as your skill set in terms of most effectively contributing to the Board of Trustees, the kinds of committees you wanted to serve on, the kinds of initiatives at Caltech that you wanted to be a part of when you joined the board?
LINDE: At the time I joined, I didn't have any predisposed notion of where I could be most helpful. That was part of the learning process. It evolved in different places at different times. Ultimately, at one point, I was on 10 different committees of the board, along with a number of ad hoc committees, and was heavily involved in all of them. In terms of skill set, it's partially a matter of adaptability as to where I'm able to place a focus, not based just on my experience, but also based on the Caltech experience of learning what you need to learn in order to be in a particular area at the time — because that seems like the area that is most ripe for you to be able to contribute most effectively. Having the willingness, courage, and ability to move around and do things that you haven't done before, and bringing new insights, I think are perhaps among the things that were most helpful.
ZIERLER: Ron, do you remember some of the early committees that you served on, what sort of paved the way for you?
LINDE: That's going back now 33 years. [laugh]
LINDE: Even some of the committee names have changed. But I think in terms of areas, such as the business and finance area, which I joined very early in my trusteeship and eventually became vice chair of what was then the Budget and Capital Expenditures Committee. I believe that was the first committee I joined. In that arena some of the issues are somewhat different for a university, but not totally different. I was able to apply some skill-set aspects there.
There were other things that didn't have to do with the business part but in which I played roles that were both gratifying and impactful. For example, a bit later in time I was asked to help form and chair a new task force on alumni relations. Tom Everhart was president at the time and correctly felt something should be done. I helped to assemble a group of about 15 people for Tom to convene. They mainly were alumni, some of whom had not had meaningful formal alumni involvement to date but had real concern for Caltech as alums. Some were involved with the Alumni Association, etc. It was quite surprising what – how do I put it kindly [laugh]? – what a shambles – that may not be the kindest word – the alumni relations program really was in at that point.
The task force met over a period of more than a year, with I think it was eight in-person meetings along with some written interactions, surveys, etc. – in those days, you couldn't do Zoom – and came up with a lot of recommendations to be considered. A serious problem often is that you make the recommendations, and then the report sits on a shelf somewhere, and you think your job is done. But I insisted that we have follow-ups on every single point that had been raised, and that we write periodic brief reports updating what had been done since the initial report was issued. The updates detailed the recommendations where it was decided not to follow up for the reasons described; those where it was decided to follow up in a modified form for the reasons described; those where they were implemented; and those where they were implemented to a certain degree but where it would take longer to fully implement, in which case subsequent follow-up reports on the progress were issued to include the updated status.
That really did, I believe, make a major difference in the alumni relations program in terms of trying to get it back on its feet. It resulted in a number of things, such as ultimately an alumni high-class publication – not meaning high-class glossy, I mean, high-class content. That, I felt, was very productive. It was very well received, and ultimately resulted in creation of an Alumni Relations Committee of the board, which I chaired, to make sure that the board was appropriately focused on alumni relations. That ultimately, after having achieved a lot of what was intended, was merged into what became the Development and Alumni Relations Committee of the board, now the Advancement and Institute Relations Committee.
ZIERLER: Ron, today, alumni relations seem so successful; such a well-run operation. What are some of the legacies of this initial work that you were a part of? Where can you see that effort play out in the success today?
LINDE: First of all, a change of emphasis in terms of recognition of the importance of it, and a change in real efforts to get more alums more meaningfully engaged. Coming up with initiatives and implementing them involves encouraging people to join in a more active way, not just by saying, "Come on, you should join up," but by having things happening where they feel that by participating, they actually are helping Caltech and at the same time, they're benefiting personally through the involvement in terms of the personal interactions and of learning through the programs through that involvement. It is a two-way street.
There were a great many specific things that didn't exist or were deficient in their execution. The comprehensive final report detailed approximately 40 specific recommendations, almost all of which were adopted. Again, I want to emphasize that, while I chaired the effort, the outcome was a result of the aggregate contributions of the people who are involved, all of whom were very dedicated to the effort. Fortunately, we had a very good group on that task force – diverse and good. As a result, Caltech wound up getting more of the right kind of staffing in the Alumni Association, and more involvement of Caltech as the university together with the Alumni Association, as opposed to its just being an adjunct operation. It grows when you're being successful and having fun doing it at the same time. and that's what happened.
ZIERLER: Ron, as you well know, Caltech recently concluded its giving campaign, the Breakthrough Campaign, which of course was a smash success. Soon enough, it'll be gearing up for the next one. Was this campaign framework also a legacy of the alumni relations work that you were a part of?
LINDE: I wouldn't say a legacy of it. I'd say that, hopefully, it improved alumni relations so that more alumni were more generous donors. But I wouldn't say that that was a fundamental result in any sense of the word. I think it was helpful, but the success of the campaign was based on a lot more than just that.
ZIERLER: Besides the dollars and cents – maybe it's an obvious question – but what are some of the real values to Caltech institutionally to stimulate and enhance relations with its alumni?
LINDE: Some of it is a bit intangible. in the sense that it's how alumni feel about the institute, and so what do they say to others about it, how do they feel about helping Caltech in one way or another. And also it is about Caltech being able to help alumni to be more successful in some ways, particularly early in their careers? We did a reasonably comprehensive survey of alumni as part of the task force, and that survey revealed that there were a lot of alumni who actually felt hostile about Caltech, and felt that Caltech hadn't been supportive of them, and that Caltech wasn't a welcoming place. A lot of the attitudes were not well-founded, because I think it put Caltech in a worse light than it should have. But some of it was indeed well-founded.
It's about having a sense that the relationship doesn't stop when you get your degree. I'll go back to my own example. I always had a good fond feeling for Caltech and had a very good experience at Caltech. But I didn't feel that much of an affinity initially. As I mentioned, I had not even been a member of the Alumni Association before joining the board, because it wasn't automatic in those days and I felt "What do I need that for?" So it's also about educating me as to why I shouldn't have felt that way. It wasn't out of any hostility whatsoever. It was just a what's the point kind of thing. I'm going to be living a different sort of life. I'm grateful for the education, but I'm busy, I'll be living in a different city, and I don't have time to be involved. So educating me enough as to why the relationship really is something fundamental to be sought-after came through a different route, but the results perhaps speak for themselves.
If I may stay on my soap box for a moment longer, let me relay an example of the type of thing that would have gotten me involved a lot sooner, had it been offered to me in the time interval when I was not involved. Something Maxine and I did in a philanthropic way to help in getting other alumni more involved was part of our financial assistance for Caltech. We set up an equal-matching challenge grant, challenging alumni to contribute for ground floor laboratories in the Broad Center for the Biological Sciences. The challenge turned out to be very successful, inspiring nearly 5,700 alumni to contribute, including approximately 1,000 alumni who had not made any contributions to Caltech for at least the previous five years. Once they invest significant money, people often take a greater interest in the organization. There are many ways to get alumni more involved. That was just one thing that came along as an idea. It's something you have to keep thinking about. Fostering good alumni relations is an ongoing process, and you need to keep thinking of these types of opportunities.
ZIERLER: Ron, a personal question as it relates to you and Maxine. Of course, this affected you in your choice not to go to Caltech because Maxine couldn't be admitted as an undergraduate. When you returned to the board of trustees, of course, women had already been part of the undergraduate study body for almost 20 years. I wonder if that development registered with you, if you recognized how Caltech had changed culturally in response to this development.
LINDE: Oh, yes, absolutely. It was very evident, and we said, "Too bad we were ahead of our time."
LINDE: That was a very important change. Again, it wasn't that there was any sense of hostility with respect to Caltech because they had that policy at the time. It was a fairly common policy. Now, with respect to my saying that it was common practice, I have mentioned that after I finished getting my PhD at Caltech, Maxine was interested in going back for a PhD in mathematics; but in response to a suggestion I made, she explored going into law instead. I didn't know where I'd get a job. So she applied to different law schools around the country. Princeton was the only place where she didn't get admitted. Princeton sent her a letter when she wrote to them about wanting to apply, and the letter said not only did they not have a law school (which was a bit embarrassing to hear), but if they did have a law school, they would not admit women. It was an accepted practice in many prominent places at the time. But, fortunately, Caltech did change, and if it hadn't changed when it did, certainly, it would've changed sometime after that. We were very glad that it changed when it did, even though not as glad as we would've been if it had changed earlier.[laugh]
ZIERLER: Ron, in light of all of the generosity, all of the ways that you have supported Caltech, you and Maxine, did you have a plan from the beginning in terms of how you wanted to support Caltech, or did that come sort of piecemeal?
LINDE: Piecemeal, because our orientation is always to where the support is going to be most meaningful. Where are we going to have the greatest impact for every dollar that we can afford to spend? We didn't know in advance, so it was piecemeal because the needs were different at different points in time.
ZIERLER: What was your first major initiative? What did you want to do first for Caltech?
LINDE: What we did first for Caltech was to divide our contribution into different components. We had made a gift of stock in Envirodyne, that Caltech held onto, and which became quite valuable. One component was to fund a new professorship. As a happy historical note, the first occupant of that professorial chair ultimately became one of Caltech's Nobel Laureates in Physics. Another component was to fund a discretionary venture fund for new initiatives or special project needs. The balance was invested with the endowment to fund future agreed-upon needs. It was a matter of where would it be most needed. Where will it have the most impact? Is it something that we feel would be not just substituting for money that Caltech could get elsewhere?
Our approach is not to make things easier for Caltech by just saying, "Here is money that with effort, you could get elsewhere." It's "Here's the money that you can't get in a timely manner elsewhere, and it's important to do the project now." In some cases, an institution will try to raise money for something that would be nice but not as important as something else for the institute. We look at it in terms of impact as modified by saying impact of its being our dollars versus impact that can be obtained in a timely manner with someone else's dollars if you try. It's not a matter of saying, "Let's get in right away so we can put our name on that building before someone else does." Our attitude is that if there's somebody else who'll do it, that's great for Caltech. Now, where else can our dollars go that's more difficult for Caltech to do on timely basis?
ZIERLER: Ron, when you're making these decisions, what is the order of communications? In other words, when is it time for you to be proactive where you approach the president, other leaders at Caltech, and say, "Here's where I want to deploy my money, my support," and when does Caltech come to you, and say, "Ron and Maxine, would you consider doing so-and-so"? What are each of those circumstances? When would you choose one or the other?
LINDE: There's no set pattern. Caltech may start with asking, and Caltech, on the other hand, may not. We might approach Caltech. I can think of a couple of occasions where Caltech approached us for a particular amount of money, and we decided that we would give Caltech more than Caltech asked for because we felt that was how we could have the best impact under the circumstances. The dialog might have been initiated by Caltech, but what Caltech asks for isn't the main consideration. There are times when Caltech has said, "We're looking to raise money for the following. Would you be interested in doing that?" We thought about it carefully. We thought about our resources, our liquidity, how much dry powder, if any, do we want to save for future opportunities, how we assessed the priorities, and how it all fits together. More often than not, our answer has been yes; but in a few cases our answer has been, "That's not quite right for us at present." We already have mentioned some examples where we identified what we felt was an opportunity for Caltech, and the president felt we were on target; so they became realities. In some cases there is more than one appealing possibility on the table – presented by either Caltech or us, and we have had to choose.
ZIERLER: Ron, I wonder if you can talk about the considerations, the different options between structured and unstructured giving. When does it make sense to choose one or the other form?
LINDE: We have made contributions to Caltech across the spectrum, but our very strongly preferred category is endowments with flexibility, so the impacts will continue to occur in perpetuity but also can be adapted to the greatest needs that emerge at any future times, perhaps constrained only by very broad categorial limits.
When you say "structured," I would regard discretionary funds as still being capable of being structured, even though the uses of expenditures are discretionary and will vary from time to time, particularly if it's creating or adding to a fund that allows the discretion but has constraints regarding the general type of purpose. If it's, say, a campaign commitment, then it's a matter of, okay, we can afford over the following period of time to commit so much, and so you can count on that. But then we'll look at each potential use as the opportunities come along, and then work out a schedule to fund the chosen ones as our resources become available. It's sort of an evolutionary approach with an overall umbrella, let's say.
There are other types of structured versus unstructured. For example, what I still consider structured is endowing a chair, let's say, a professorial chair. When we did the chair that we did—there's another one we did that's a different type of professorial chair, so I'll talk about just the regular traditional one—and we were asked, "What field would you like to do it in? We have needs in physics. We have needs in chemistry. What would you like?" For us, still, the structured part is, okay, it's going to be for physics or, okay, it's going to be for chemistry. Our response to that was, "What's really the greatest immediate need?" It turned out to be physics. But what you might consider unstructured, we still consider structured with flexibility is we wanted to put in a stipulation that it doesn't have to stay physics all the time. When that chair is ready to rotate, it can rotate to any field where the need is particularly great. You might consider that unstructured because it's a chair but where is it at any given time? The part of science it is focused on is not at all constrained over time. That's left open, so that's unstructured in a sense, but we feel it's structured with flexibility, which is much more important than being tightly structured in one area but, on the other hand, a chair is still a chair. It's not a table.
ZIERLER: [laugh] That's great.
ZIERLER: Ron, what about for you personally, your connections to material science? I don't know if "bias" is the right word. But did you ever feel an extra desire to support material science research at Caltech, given your own experiences and what you went on to accomplish?
LINDE: No, because the overriding criterion is looking at where the needs are the greatest, where it's going to advance Caltech the most, where it's likely to have the greatest positive impact in the context of the big picture. Again, it gets back to that single word, "impact," and that overrides any personal bias. Now, if it turned out that – a theoretical possibility because things are never equal, but I'll say "all things being equal" in quotation marks – if there were two opportunities, and all things were equal except for the field that it's going into, then I'd say that having an affinity for materials science would be something that we would weigh in the decision, but right now we feel more strongly about some other areas, so those fields would dominate if the needs, difficulty in obtaining the funds elsewhere, and potential impact were equal.
It's actually very similar to the "Why Caltech?" question. Is it because I'm an alum and Maxine worked at JPL that Caltech is the key beneficiary of our philanthropy right now? No, that's not the reason. It's very nice that that's the case, but it's really that we feel that dollars spent in contributing to Caltech are going to have more impact ultimately, not just on Caltech but, looking at what Caltech is doing for the country and the world, and the impact it is likely to have — which then multiplies the impact we have with our gift that is determinative. We don't currently know of any other place where we feel the impact of our investment would be as great as it would be at Caltech, or at least we can say that we don't know of any place where it would be greater. If there's no place where it would be greater, then my alumnus aspect, Maxine's work history aspect, the knowledge of Caltech we have from the inside, that cause us to favor Caltech. Being involved in the governance of Caltech and having the insights that come with that role clearly has been an important factor for us. But that again to a large degree relates to our judgments regarding the ultimate impact factor.
That may have been a more long-winded answer that you had bargained for.
ZIERLER: No, that's great.
LINDE: But does that get to where you want to be?
ZIERLER: That's perfect. Ron, I want to return to something you said before that was very interesting about how one of the things that had changed about Caltech since you were a graduate student was the culture of entrepreneurialism. I wonder how much of that you ascribe specifically to the transition in presidency from Murph Goldberger to Tom Everhart, and some of the changes that Tom Everhart brought into Caltech.
LINDE: I'm not able to answer because, while I certainly have been aware of Murph Goldberger, I was not involved in Caltech at the time, and so I don't know how to compare things. But I can say that the evolution has been substantial since I joined the board, and I joined the board when Tom was president. I think that Tom was a positive influence. He's been a positive influence in so many ways; not just that. He certainly wasn't a leader who was an obstacle to that. My observation is that it was more of a widespread attitude. It evolved from the time going back to when I was a grad student. The entrepreneurial aspect was actually frowned upon by many in those days. It was an attitude that a lot of faculty had, and was a part of the culture of Caltech, which in turn is largely based on the faculty. It evolved over time. I think it was more of a movement, seeing what was happening at other places, and faculty seeing what could be done with commercialization, that type of thing, that led to evolving attitudes. There was an evolving sea change in the environment, rather than something that was Caltech striking out in new territory by itself and saying, "We should be there," when no one else was there. It was somewhat akin to, although unrelated to, what happened in agreeing to admit undergraduate women. It wasn't that Caltech was blazing a new trail there, by any means. I think Caltech was caught up in the sea change.
ZIERLER: The reason I brought up—
LINDE: Now, Caltech is very active in recruiting undergraduate women, and I've been pleased to see it and pleased to be involved in helping that to some degree. But it's something that's not a Caltech invention.
ZIERLER: Ron, I brought up Murph Goldberger because he was known to see a certain tension between a culture of entrepreneurialism and an academic environment that promoted fundamental research. I wonder what you thought about those things, as you joined the board, in terms of where it was appropriate for Caltech to get involved in business ventures, and where it should stay more in the fundamental realm of research.
LINDE: Because I had been largely out of touch with where Caltech was on the issue at the time I joined the board, I did not come in with any specific preconceived assessment. But I did feel that not being at least accepting of and not helping to promote entrepreneurial activities was something that, over the long pull, would not enable Caltech to have the greatest impact that it could on society in fulfillment of its mission, and that it would not generate resources that Caltech would desire, whether it be attracting human resources – faculty who were oriented that way or financial resources from commercialization. You have to be open-minded to evolution. And that that type of evolution possibly could even lead to less dependence on government funding, as well.
ZIERLER: Ron, after the sale of Envirodyne, did you and Maxine consider yourselves retired from the world of business, just to foreshadow to what you would subsequently do in the mid-1990s with the founding to Titan Financial?
LINDE: No, we did not consider ourselves retired. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, we wanted to keep going, and we had various opportunities that we explored. So the orientation hadn't changed. We actually were looking at different deals, and even did some. Things had changed a bit for us in terms of how we approached looking at deals. Then, again, I can backtrack on that if you want. That timing coincided with joining the board of Caltech and of Harvey Mudd College. Harvey Mudd is not as well-known but is a superb institution.
Getting involved with Caltech and Harvey Mudd then was propelling us into the world of philanthropy in a different way than we had been. Not that I hadn't served on other committees or boards, things like that, but I'm saying in a really meaningful, really impactful way. Then seeing what we might really be able to accomplish, and knowing that our mode of operating is to dive in deeply, not to spread ourselves too thin over a lot of different things, it became a matter of focusing on what we deemed to be most important and really digging in.
Seeing the gratification that came from being more deeply involved with Caltech and Harvey Mudd, we continued to make corporate investments, but to do so in a somewhat different mode. That eventually evolved into investing where we wouldn't be first-hand involved in the management, ultimately focusing time on what I'll call more passive investments. We still manage all of our widespread financial investments but no longer are active company managers. We started to devote a lot more attention to collecting art and antiquities with a strong research and scholarship focus, and to bring together things that would be of use to scholars in the future. But it wasn't a matter of saying, "Now, the company's been sold, and so we're going do something else." We had expected we'd probably build another company like Envirodyne and started to explore that path but wound up not doing that because of seeing where we could have exciting impact elsewhere, while broadening our life experiences. So we gravitated further in those directions, not wanting to be spread so thin that we would diminish the impact we could have in what we committed ourselves to.
ZIERLER: Ron, one question I could ask about Harvey Mudd as it relates to Caltech, keeping it relevant to the purpose of our discussion, I wonder in what ways that sharpened your focus on Caltech, having that dual perspective of two excellent institutions of higher education, both small, both superb, but obviously very different in their missions. How did that sharpen your focus or perspective in your service to Caltech?
LINDE: It gave a base of comparison. Some key aspects of their broad missions actually not all that different. How they are positioned to fulfill their missions, however, is where the big differences come in. I also had been on an advisory board for another university in the Midwest, but that one didn't give me much perspective. It turned out that they wanted money more than advice, and so I wasn't very active, and not very generous. I didn't have higher education governance experience. So, just the experience and perspectives you gain from being involved in more than one helped to give me a frame of reference. Harvey Mudd, particularly being a member of the consortium of The Claremont Colleges, was able to offer actually a much broader education. The benefits that having a broader education would have for scientists, and especially for those who wind up not having their whole careers just in science – Maxine and I being examples – certainly gave me a better understanding of the importance of Caltech's having its HSS division.
Whereas HSS had been considered to be there because Caltech needed to teach certain courses, the importance of having some real strength there was much easier to get a good perspective on from my experience at Harvey Mudd. The entrepreneurship part also added perspective to some degree. Harvey Mudd, being an undergraduate institution had more students do going directly out into the practical world, rather than going for graduate degrees and careers in academia, and so a vantage point there was helpful. The different ways the college operated and seeing what I liked and didn't like as much helped even more directly. However, I must say that the added perspectives and experience in sum total were marginal benefits. My views on those topics were not direct results of the Harvey Mudd experience. At most, the involvement reinforced feelings I'd had anyway.
ZIERLER: Ron, back to the world of finance and industry, tell me about the origins of Titan Financial Group. How did that get started?
LINDE: That was just a vehicle for doing some deals. An investment banker, who had worked at a few different major investment banking firms that we interacted with and was somebody that we had a high regard for. He wanted to set up his own merchant banking firm and asked if Maxine and I would be willing to team up, which we did. We looked at a number of deals and did some transactions. It's something that we could have grown into something large as a merchant bank and brought in a lot of other people. We already had a few key people. But that was going on at the same time as we were getting involved with Caltech and Harvey Mudd and had turned our attention more furthering knowledge in the areas where we collected and spending a lot more time actively managing our personal investment holdings, which had become very much larger with proceeds from the Envirodyne sale.. Ultimately, we decided that we didn't want to build in the direction of heading or co-heading a group that was doing that, which we felt would have required our full-time efforts for several years to achieve the objective we had in mind. We felt our time could be better spent creating impact in what we had by chance gotten into.
ZIERLER: What was the particular niche of Titan Financial? Where did you see it fitting in?
LINDE: Initially, it was just a matter of looking for deals, and what we might be able to offer in terms of enhancing their prospects for greater success. We were looking in a variety of areas. It was opportunistic.
ZIERLER: Now, how long did you stay with Titan, or how long did Titan exist?
LINDE: It was a few years, but I don't remember the exact number.
ZIERLER: Did it continue on after you left?
LINDE: No. Our main partner in it also had opportunities elsewhere. He definitely would have continued with Titan if we had. But if we weren't continuing, he decided that there were other organizations he could join rather than taking the leadership in building it all by himself. He continued doing deals with a different umbrella. So we wound it down and sold off what we had. It was something that at one point looked like we were going to build into something major, but our game plan changed.
ZIERLER: Now, by the late 1990s when Titan Financial was winding down, at that point, did you and Maxine feel like you were getting closer to retirement from industry and financial affairs, or were there new ventures ahead for you?
LINDE: It was, again, opportunistic. We had an open mind to new ventures if they come along but not having that be the main focus and not having it be full-time. We did explore new ventures and came very close to deciding to do some of them. Whether we should have gone forward with them or not, that becomes a hindsight judgment to which we'll never know the answer. It was a matter of personal trade-offs as to where we might derive the most satisfaction from having impact.
ZIERLER: At that point, would you say that your focus became even greater on Caltech?
ZIERLER: In what ways? How did that change at least from your first 10 years serving on the board?
LINDE: Just in terms of getting involved in more things, serving on more committees, that type of thing, again with the idea we wouldn't undertake something that we weren't going to do really thoroughly. Part of our decision in changing course was that there would be more opportunity to have greater impact on Caltech. That subsequently also factored into my decision to leave the Harvey Mudd board after roughly nine years. I was spending so much time on that board, and so much time on the Caltech board, again, never missing a committee meeting for either place on anything. No matter how many committees, it was 100% attendance, and I just felt that to do it right, handling the two together had evolved to the stage where it shouldn't be the two together while giving them all the effort that I felt was warranted. and so a matter of making the choice. I was in, let's say, a more top decision-making part of the hierarchy at Harvey Mudd at the time, so I could affect it more from that standpoint because I was a very active as vice chair of the board. Yet, I felt that ultimately more could be achieved with Caltech, so decided to leave the Harvey Mudd board.
There had not been a position of vice chair, emeritus. They created that to keep me involved to some degree, but it was a very limited degree at that point. I re-evaluated it from time to time because we were approached from time to time as to whether I would come back on the board or whether Maxine would join the board. But, at that point, things hadn't changed. I felt I was having a lot of impact on Caltech and, again, didn't want to dilute efforts, and didn't want to not live up to expectations. And Maxine was very involved in other things. Maxine and I have a philosophy of under promise and over perform—
LINDE: —and didn't want to change that by taking on more at Harvey Mudd along the way. Each time, it was a matter of now's not the time, and now's not the time. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ron, what were some of your contributions when David Baltimore came in, some of his initiatives, particularly in the area of life sciences, and modernizing and building new buildings on campus?
LINDE: It could readily be traced; but I don't recall what Maxine and I were doing with respect to Caltech contributions versus who the president was at the time, except for what is the very beginning and what was during more recent regimes. By the time Jean-Lou Chameau was on board, and certainly by the time Tom Rosenbaum was on board, it's easier to recall. What we have done along the way certainly has been influenced by confidence in the president because we're very people-oriented. The timing, however, depends to a large degree on the what the particular needs of interest are and the timing of our own availability of funds to commit. Caltech will hopefully endure in perpetuity, certainly beyond the lifetimes of anybody we now know; so with endowment as our strongly preferred mode, you're investing for beyond the tenure of any particular president. However, when you start out, you want to start out on the right foot, and so confidence in the president and his or her judgment in establishing priorities at the time we commit clearly is an element in the decision, along with conversations with other key people at Caltech who are involved in process and anticipated execution.
ZIERLER: Ron, do you have a recollection of which professor was the inaugural holder of the Ronald and Maxine Linde professor chair?
LINDE: Yes, it was Barry Barish, who ultimately won the Nobel Prize for his work on LIGO.
LINDE: LIGO was a concept at the time but was not yet really underway. To the best of my knowledge, he was not directly involved with LIGO at the time, but he was very much involved with particle physics. Then he undertook his key LIGO role. LIGO had gone through some difficult times in terms of funding. One of the things that we were really happy about was to be able to help in lending a separate small amount of financial support during a difficult time. It was during that interim period when significant government funding was hoped for, but had not yet secured; and the budget to hold things together was tight. It was nice having been there along the way. Then having Barry play such a key role was great. Continuation of the program would have occurred with or without us, but it was nice to have been a part of it.
ZIERLER: You must have been so proud when LIGO detected gravitational waves, and Barry along with Kip Thorne and Rai Weiss were awarded the Nobel Prize.
LINDE: Oh, yes, very "pleased" and "elated" may be better words than "proud," although "proud" would probably be more generally used by many. Certain words like "proud" and like "coward" are used beyond what the traditional meaning is. I would not say "proud" because LIGO and the Nobel Prize were not the result of something that we did. Being associated with the effort was very nice, but it's not something where we feel any responsibility for the success, so we can't really be proud of it. But we certainly can be and are extremely pleased.
ZIERLER: Well put. Ron, last question for today. This will take us into the new century. I'm just always curious about people's experiences. Where were you and Maxine on 9/11, and what was that day like for you?
LINDE: We were in Pasadena. We'd flown in because of a group of meetings of the board and committees. We were getting ready to have breakfast in the hotel, and then for me to go to campus for the meetings. Walking through the hotel lobby, we saw what was happening in the news coming over a TV screen, and shortly thereafter, I was notified that the meetings were being canceled. We were in Pasadena at the Westin, which in those days was a DoubleTree. A momentous day. It happened to occur exactly on the 12th anniversary of my original election to the Caltech board. It was on 9/11 of '89 that I was elected to the board. Memories of that will last forever.
ZIERLER: Did you stay in Pasadena? Did the board meetings continue, or did everybody disband?
LINDE: The meetings were canceled; so then we had to get back to Phoenix. The airlines weren't flying, and it was chaos. We managed to rent a car to drive back home. We were glad the car we were able to rent finally was able to get to Phoenix, but it surely didn't sound good along the way. But we made it, listening to the radio all the time. That was wild.
ZIERLER: Ron, in our next discussion, we'll pick in the new century, and discuss some of the new philanthropic opportunities you saw at Caltech, and some of the major initiatives that you made possible as a result, so we'll pick up from there.
[End of Recording]
ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, December 9th, 2022. It is wonderful to be back with Dr. Ronald K. Linde. Ron, as always, it's wonderful to be with you. Thank you so much.
LINDE: Happy to be here.
ZIERLER: Ron, we're going to pick up in the story today right where we left off last time. In the early 2000s, and as an origin story to what would become the Linde + Robinson Laboratory at Caltech. First, I wonder if you have a general idea of what your generosity to Caltech had looked like prior to this incredible gift that came a few years later in the early 2000s. Would you say it was more of a steadily rising line, or was the laboratory gift something that put your giving in a whole new level for what you had done previously at Caltech?
LINDE: I'd say that some of the major gifts that Maxine and I have given to Caltech, either directly or through a charitable foundation we set up, did create something that was a new aspect in terms of what the gifts were for and the details of the structure. But they were part of a continuum, really, not a straight line; maybe a jagged line, with some smaller gifts interspersed among the larger gifts. Our giving to Caltech was based largely on where the greatest needs appeared to be, that without our help, were unlikely to be funded from other sources in a timely manner. In most cases, at least for the more major gifts, our approach has been that we want to devote the financial resources to Caltech, but if we're just substituting our dollars for somebody else's dollars, then our attitude has been: "Caltech, your development/advancement office, your divisions, your president, roll up your sleeves and go out and get the money elsewhere; and we'll save our contributions for those that would be difficult to do in a timely fashion or difficult to do at all perhaps." As an example, we can touch on Linde + Robinson, which now is the Ronald and Maxine Linde Laboratory for Global Environmental Science. The name change is a whole other story.
ZIERLER: Oh, yes.
LINDE: There was a need to renovate the building when astronomy moved out, and to make it more suitable for global environmental science. Caltech had some real leaders in the field but a relatively small group, and it was important to bring things together and improve the facilities. Yet, Caltech had been struggling for many years, and couldn't find funding. When we were looking to what shall we do as our next project, there was a bit of a debate, because this really was a pressing need. As we have discussed before, at the same time, there was an important opportunity that had not been funded. That was the opportunity that ultimately resulted in the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences. It was a matter of "Do we do one, or do we do the other?"
We had been interacting with the president, Jean-Lou Chameau at the time, and the provost, Ed Stolper at the time, and with key faculty – always looking not just to our own opinion of what's most important for Caltech, but looking to the key administration of Caltech, who had the best insights as to what's most important to Caltech and looking to their guidance. It was a toss-up. They also were on the one hand and on the other hand. After exploring in depth where we could have the most time-sensitive vital impact on Caltech and where Caltech could have the most vital impact on the world and its inhabitants, it became clear that global environmental science would be the best choice. We said, "OK, let's do that."
The area we did not choose was something that actually had at been prompted by us. We'd been telling Caltech for a long time that we felt it was important for many reasons that Caltech students to have the opportunity to gain background that could be garnered from that type of program, and for Caltech to really make an impact in the area. Certainly, historically, Caltech alums have made an impact in economics and in management. Actually, two Nobel Prizes in Economic Sciences, and several other major prizes in economics have been won by Caltech alums. It's very clear that the intelligence and reasoning ability of the students and the type of rigorous analytical background Caltech can provide should not be ignored.
Without dwelling on it too much and without straying too much from your question, we decided that, much as we had felt we could handle only one project at a time, after launching what's now the Linde Laboratory, we said, "Let's try to do the other anyway." We did manage to get them both accomplished. A really key aspect was that, if adequate resources and facilities for the global environmental science program were not provided, we were in significant danger of losing key faculty – and it would have been very difficult and costly to rebuild from there. That could have had very serious consequences, especially because of the relatively small size of the group, where each key faculty member's loss represents a larger percentage key loss for the group. If that had happened, we would've been in a very difficult position to make a really important impact in the area. Fortunately, Caltech was able to accomplish what was intended. Then, ultimately, with what happened with the Resnick Sustainability Institute, we were told both by Tom Rosenbaum and by Ed Stolper individually that it had been an important factor in having the credibility in the area—
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
LINDE: —to obtain a much more major gift, which is the type of thing we want to try to do with our gifts. We hadn't envisioned an impact of that magnitude, and certainly not that soon. Caltech being Caltech, however, and with Tom and Ed's leadership, we feel that it very well might have happened anyway – but presumably would have been tougher to do — and perhaps we would've lost key people in the interim, which in turn, would have made it more difficult to start the bigger program from closer to scratch.
ZIERLER: Ron, in light of yours and Maxine's artistic sensibilities, I wonder if you've always admired Robinson Laboratory, it's such a beautiful building, if you had your eye on it from early on, perhaps.
LINDE: No, not at all. We agree completely with what a jewel of a building it is. But we had not previously focused on it or even been inside the building prior to getting into the process of deciding on the project. At that point, we saw a jewel that needed a lot of attention. That, along with comments from Caltech's chief financial officer and from Caltech's president on separate visits to our home in Arizona inspired me to envision and design the sculpture Perception for the courtyard outside the main entrance to the building.
Many people think of science and art as being almost polar opposites, but there are some ways that the two intersect to produce something that builds on attributes of both of them. As described in a plaque on the building wall near the front entrance, I designed Perception to meld art and science. The name of the sculpture references in a single word something that is fundamental in science, in art, and in life. The sculpture embodies a multitude of allusions and illusions, some obvious and some obscure, referencing scientific principles, the history of science, and the history of Caltech, including some especially relevant to the focus of activities to be conducted within the building itself. However, it was the substance of what the building was going to be used for, rather than the beauty element, that attracted us. And before the renovation, it wasn't as attractive as it ultimately became.
ZIERLER: Ron, just as a matter of sequencing, was it only with the construction of Cahill, and the moving of astronomy and astrophysics across the street, that the Robinson Laboratory came available for renovation, or what happened that prompted the other move?
LINDE: I believe that's correct. But I don't know firsthand.
ZIERLER: As we've talked before, in more general terms, when you've been approached, when you and Maxine have been approached, when you've been proactive, once the Robinson Laboratory became available, did institute leadership, did Jean-Lou Chameau come to you and Maxine, and ask you about your possible interest in doing something for retrofitting the building?
LINDE: It was more a matter of we, in general, have tended to initiate the discussion of projects by saying, "Now, it's time to consider something else for Caltech, and what are the most pressing needs?" With respect to what was then the Robinson Laboratory, that actually had started back at the time when David Baltimore was president and had been mentioned as a possibility of doing something. But there was not the same sense of urgency. It was more a matter of being aware that that's something that Caltech was trying to fund but not a full perspective of it. There were some earlier discussions but not with the same sense of importance, let's say.
ZIERLER: Now, just to clarify, the effort to endow or to create a larger presence in environmental sciences, that predated the retrofitting of the Robinson Library, or that was what sort of sparked it? I'm just curious as to what happened first.
LINDE: There was a need to bring the effort closer together and to enhance our facilities. I believe it was a combination of the importance of Caltech continuing to weigh in, and weigh in increasingly, in the area; the importance to the world of the area; the capabilities that Caltech had, although small in size, so that there was something that could give real impetus; and that it looked like it was unlikely that—at least in our minds, it seemed that it was unlikely—that Caltech could sustain things the way they were. What we envisioned is with a growing recognition of the importance of the area that we would either wind up diminishing Caltech's capability by having faculty attracted away, or we would be positioning Caltech to increase its visibility because we had a terrific group that Caltech could selectively expand upon.
ZIERLER: Ron, the decision, once you give this gift, to call it the Linde + Robinson Laboratory, so at that time, did you have any idea of Robinson's connections to the Human Betterment Foundation? Did you have any idea that there would be perhaps trouble in the future, ultimately, the decision to take his name off the building? Did you have any awareness of that?
LINDE: None whatsoever, with respect to anyone at Caltech, even including Millikan. We had no awareness of that, and there were no plans for that. That change came about because, originally, when we gave the gift, it was a matter of what it should be named. It seemed appropriate to us that it retain the name of the person that it had originally been named for, and to just tack ours on. And we didn't give it any further thought. Then with what happened, with the heightened focus on eugenics and its promoters, we were approached to ask if we would be in favor of changing the name because of the problems with the history of eugenics. Our response was, "Whatever is in Caltech's best interests, we would be happy to see done," and we left that entirely up to Caltech as to what Caltech felt was best to do.
ZIERLER: Ron, let's now move to the renovation. Of course, it's much more complex than just shifting out one group of professors for another, and because it is a building devoted to environmental science, I understand sustainability was a big part of the renovation. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, and what was required.
LINDE: Clearly, that's a very important aspect, and it was discussed. The primary discussion was to have appropriate facilities for Caltech for the program, and our gift was structured so that part of our gift would become available over time for programmatic expenditures in addition to funding the building. But, given the purpose for the building, it was clearly very desirable for Caltech to demonstrate attention to sustainability in terms of how the renovation was done. Caltech aimed for and achieved Leed Platinum status for the finished building, which, at least at the time, I believe was the largest laboratory renovation in the U.S. to achieve that, and maybe the first of any size—I'm not sure. We were highly enthusiastic about having the facility itself be Leed Platinum, but that was not the primary consideration. The need for the facility and its functionality was the primary consideration.
ZIERLER: Who were the key architects or engineers that got the building to its incredibly sustainable status? Who did you work closely with?
LINDE: Again, I have to step back a bit at that point because our attitude and our approach to things with Caltech is somewhat different from that of many other major donors over the years. It's a personal preference. Some donors want to get heavily involved in the design. As far as we're concerned, where there are certain types of decisions to be made and our advice or preferences are solicited, we're enthusiastic about giving them. But Caltech is in the best position to decide what it is needed and what should be done. To the extent we can have input, that's great—but we don't want to get in the way. We're not building a monument to ourselves.
LINDE: We're helping Caltech to achieve what it needs to achieve, and then it's up to Caltech to call the shots. As a result, we were informed along the way, we had some discussions and expressed some opinions along the way, but we really can't take any credit for the end result, other than helping to facilitate it financially.
ZIERLER: Now, you mentioned a sculpture. What sort of artistic elements can we see from you and Maxine in the building?
LINDE: In addition to the sculpture I already described, we had contemplated some things for the inside of the building, but ultimately decided to limit it to the sculpture. I can elaborate a bit further on the background for that if you wish.
LINDE: For business meetings, now and then, executives from Caltech would visit us in Phoenix to have a discussion. At one time, the then chief financial officer, Dean Currie, visited us and saw that I had designed some works of art for our property here. While always being attracted to art, I'd never previously designed any artwork myself. I never took any art classes and don't have any art background other than collecting. Dean said, "Gee whizz, it would be great if you could design something for the Caltech campus." I said, "Maybe sometime, someplace." There'd been some controversy with some of the art that had been planned on campus, with students not liking the plans, and things like that; having nothing to do with us in any sense. It was, however, an area that we were in favor of for Caltech. In fact, at one point, a sculpture that we had purchased for a house we had in Los Angeles, we thought would be very appropriate for Caltech as a gift when we moved to Chicago. But Caltech didn't want it. We wound up giving it to Harvey Mudd College, where I was involved at the time.
Subsequently, on a visit from Jean-Lou Chameau, when he came for discussions and when Maxine and Jean-Lou and I were going to visit a prospective donor in Arizona, Jean-Lou commented on the different types of science-based sculptures I had done on our property and asked about the possibility of doing something for the Caltech campus. I had done all my sculptures that were on our property during a period of one year. I had done four totally different types of science-based sculptures. Anyhow, he asked if I would be willing to do something, and maybe it could be in some area near what was going to at that point be the Linde + Robinson Laboratory. I said, "I'll think about it." But I wasn't too enthusiastic about it. The year of the "sculptor" had passed.
But Maxine encouraged me, and said, "It would be a nice thing to do." I ultimately decided to design one that is different, of course, but of the same general type of construction as one of the sculptures that I'd done on our property. The differences were what was being portrayed, what it represented, etc., and there were differences in how it was done. I thought about what would be most relevant and decided on something that would be entirely based on the history of science, scientific principles, and the history of Caltech, to be built into what was represented in the sculpture. I called it Perception because perception is so fundamental in science. When you look at the sculpture, what do you perceive? There are all sorts of hidden things in the sculpture, and many more than are stated in the plaque that's there, yet another in the contest that I decided to run to find one of the more obscure ones. I posted special clues for that one on the Linde Center website and ran a contest, but nobody found the allusion that matched the clues. Jean-Lou was very happy with the detailed proposal for what our gift of the sculpture would embody. But then he subsequently contacted me and said, gee, it hadn't occurred to him at the time, but there's an art committee, and everything has to pass through the art committee. Anyhow, the art committee met and said that "Yes, this'll be great. Let's do it."
But then when we were on campus looking at what would be the best placement for it, one of the key people on the art committee, who was also very much involved in global environmental science, said, "We've been talking"; "we" meaning some of the faculty who would be occupying the building – "and we love the design, but it would really be good if there could be a water element." A water element? What do I do with that? The first reaction was that I'm not sure what to do with a water element. Maxine suggested, "Why don't we just give Caltech the money to buy something that would satisfy what they would like?" I said, "Let me think about it," and then I came up with a water element that would work. That resulted then in the ultimate design of the sculpture. Actually, the place for it looks very appropriate; and, apparently, that courtyard does receive a good use. It turned out to be successful, as far as we can tell. That's the story. There's an even longer version, but my short story has been too long already.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Not at all. Ron, intellectually, as you emphasize, the fact that you founded and led Envirodyne with Maxine was not really relevant in your decision to support environmental sciences. But I wonder if intellectually, that's given you a closer lens on what your generosity—yours and Maxine's—have been able to accomplish in the field of environmental science at Caltech.
LINDE: Let's say, in the earlier days before it became such a widely acknowledged hot topic – it was always a hot topic for those on the inside, but before it became so prominent as a topic – the background that we had in the area gave us some added perspective, which was helpful in understanding – again, not a part of the decision but helpful in understanding – some of the potential ultimate impacts But it's hard to divorce what we gained from being involved in the area versus what we would've gained anyway. It's hard to give a firm attribution to that. But we did have an appreciation of the importance, which continued to grow. It's certainly been very gratifying that we played some role at a critical stage for Caltech to be positioned as it is.
ZIERLER: Ron, as you well know, the issues of sustainability and environmental science animate campuses all over the country, if not the world. Caltech always does things its own unique way. What do you see as Caltech's specific or unique approach to sustainability and environmental science, perhaps as a result of what you and Maxine were able to contribute?
LINDE: I don't have a real answer for that because we are familiar on a broad base, clearly very keenly interested in those areas, in the dire position that our planet and its inhabitants are in, including all forms of life. But in terms of what is going on in other places, what MIT is doing, what others are doing in various parts of the world, what Stanford's doing, etc., we don't have any firsthand knowledge, so I am not really positioned to do a comparison. Clearly, MIT has a larger program but not a better program. Now, with the Resnick Institute, we are really up there. When you see what Stanford has done in terms of raising funds, they're going to be doing a lot of things. The one area that we would like to see Caltech doing more of is in focusing on the economic impact aspects of climate and sustainability. Caltech certainly a keen awareness. We hope the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science and the Linde Institute for economic and Management Sciences will over time increase their interactions with each other in these areas. Again, being small and not being able to be all things to all people, I think the economic aspects represent an area where we're not as much in the forefront as I think we can be, and I think that is important to address for the longer term.
ZIERLER: Ron, on that point with the development, the launch of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences, is that yours and Maxine's way of helping Caltech get as close as it can to having a business school, to some degree?
LINDE: No. We don't feel that Caltech should ever have something akin to a business school. That's too far afield. For people who choose to go to business school, there are a lot of great business schools, and so Caltech doesn't have a need to provide that. That effort would divert Caltech into an area that is very hard to build from scratch to forefront status and probably would create a need to admit non-science, non-engineering students to sustain itself. We felt, however, that rather than a business school, opening the eyes of those who are going into science to the real-world business aspects was very important. We also felt that it would be helpful in attracting top-notch students who already were oriented that way.
It's becoming increasingly that way with so many scientific people, such as faculty members starting businesses, not giving up their faculty positions but being in that world. Also, for attracting students who have that kind of potential interest and otherwise might choose to go where they can get a broader exposure at places that do have business schools – Stanford, for example – we felt that Caltech really needed to provide that, and actually almost had an obligation to make that available to students. If successful in attracting the right people, and providing the education, and having them become successful, if they wind up making a lot of money, then that might become a source of future funding for Caltech, if they decided to be generous to Caltech. It is really in Caltech's long-term interests; but, also, we felt it important for Caltech's mission in serving society to provide students with that type of education. Then if they wanted to go to business school afterwards, there are plenty of good business schools for them to get into.
A very important aspect of what we hoped for is in the economic sciences, irrespective of the business and management applications. I already have commented on the that and on former Caltech students' successes there; so I won't belabor the point.
ZIERLER: Ron, as you well know, the social scientists at Caltech in the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences really emphasize the science part of their work. They look at themselves in large degree as scientists. Do you see the Linde Institute as helping them in that pursuit, and also encouraging interdisciplinary research with the more hard sciences around campus?
LINDE: Yes, I definitely do on both counts. To take discussion of the Linde Institute a bit further; however, I think the orientation of HSS as being more in the basic science aspects and the theoretical aspects is appropriate for Caltech. But I think we need also to provide more on the practical side of it, and I think that the Linde Institute can help there and already has been doing so. It's up to the faculty to hire the people to actually do that. Establishment of the Linde Institute doesn't mean that it automatically happens, but it provides perhaps a means for attracting the right people for that, and it helps programs to get going and be sustainable. Several years ago, when Caltech started placing more emphasis on doing something with entrepreneurship, the Linde Institute encouraged that effort and funded some of the early aspects of that. That was an important element. That doesn't mean it has to do it forever, but I believe it really helped to get that going. That's part of our motivation for enabling establishment of the Linde Institute. Help Caltech to get going so that we build enough momentum to attract other funding or allocation of funds for that area, enable the Linde Institute to use its resources to help seed some other programs, whether or not each such program develops into a permanent Center within or under the umbrella of the Linde Institute.
We very much like the notion of new initiatives, and that's why we set up the Linde Center for New Initiatives. That's often the most difficult type of funding to get, and so you need it to get the initiative going, but you also need a sense of it's being sustained in order to attract and also even to retain faculty who are in whatever area it is. In many cases, they won't want to come to Caltech or divert their efforts, even if already at Caltech, with the notion there's funding for a new program this year but maybe not next year. It is important to have something that very tangibly demonstrates Caltech is committed to doing this. That's a lot of the orientation that we have in terms of what we've been trying to do for Caltech. It's not exclusively that. Some areas that we've supported are much more mature but needed some help and support. But orientation is something we feel can ultimately have the greatest impact on Caltech. Also, in some cases, it won't work out. It's risk capital in that sense. But when you're looking to be on the forefront of science—and we can include some of the social sciences — you have to be willing to take risks.
LINDE: If we can provide some of that risk capital, then we feel we're maybe providing something that is harder to get otherwise.
ZIERLER: Ron, in light of the way that the Linde Institute has grown over the years with the Center for Social Information Sciences, and the Center for Theoretical and Experimental Social Sciences, did you and Maxine envision the Linde Institute to be built for growth? Was that the idea at the beginning?
LINDE: Yes. The idea at the beginning was for growth so it would become more prominent, able to do more, more visible so as to attract both faculty and students. We also are very happy to see some growth that's actually outgrown its current name. It was a matter of let's not dictate what Caltech should be doing. Let's say we're willing to fund a particular area, and we're betting on the faculty and the administration to do what is going to have the most impact. If they're not able to do that, then it was a mistake for us to provide the funds in the first place. We're betting on the people who know best what should be done.
ZIERLER: Ron, what was the funding structure for the Linde Institute? Was there a building involved, or was this strictly devoted to supporting professors and students in their research?
LINDE: There was no building involved in that case. It was strictly programmatic funding, with a lot of the programs yet to be defined, because that's part of what it's all about. Part of it also involved establishing a professorship. The initial and still current holder of that chair is Richard Roll.
ZIERLER: As you mentioned, you would like to see there's perhaps some opportunity for an intermingling of perspectives where there's an economic analysis as it relates to sustainability? Is that an area that Caltech can grow?
LINDE: Yes, it definitely can grow, and it needs to grow. There are other areas, but we're very interdisciplinary-oriented. Caltech is ideally set up and has demonstrated a record of important interdisciplinary accomplishments and also even of scientists at Caltech changing disciplines along the way. Caltech's ideally suited for that. The Linde Institute, while being housed in HSS, was intended to span the entirety of Caltech in terms of where it can have impact. It was logical that it be housed in HSS, but it wasn't always automatic that that's where it would be – the Engineering and Applied Science division would have been another possibility – but, again, spanning all divisions with an open mind as to what's most worthy of support. One of the areas that we're very interested in and had hoped to get a program started in, is in fact, just getting underway. It has been quite a while in coming – setting up a Center for Science, Society and Public Policy that ultimately would involve every division. It is intended to include not just the public policy part, but also personal ethics in the different emerging areas. There are so many new developments in science and technology, even opening up new fields. The new technology developments are spawning all sorts of major ethical, philosophical and practical questions that must be addressed, in addition to those pre-existing questions that still remain unresolved. We must address what are the issues that need to be confronted and how should we deal with them. Caltech should be very well-positioned to weigh in with important contributions in those areas. That, again, is an example of where the Linde Institute is playing a role, as is the Linde Center for New Initiatives.
ZIERLER: Ron, you mentioned you heard from Tom Rosenbaum and Ed Stolper how important yours and Maxine's contributions were in the sustainability area with what ultimately the Resnicks would do. Did you and Maxine interact with the Resnicks during their decision-making process? Did you talk to them at all about the possibility of their partnering with Caltech in such a dramatic way?
LINDE: No, not at all. I wasn't involved, nor was Maxine, in the discussions. Tom clearly is the one who really made that happen. Of course, the provost and key faculty played important roles, either directly or behind the scenes. But without Tom's leadership and persuasive arguments, I am confident that it wouldn't have happened, or at least wouldn't have happened at anywhere near the magnitude that was achieved.
The Linde Center did, however, help Caltech to retain exceptional faculty and demonstrate that it already had an impressive track record and capabilities to undertake a tremendous opportunity to build a really major effort that would be financially self-sustainable. But, again, I want to emphasize that I can't say that what we did with the Linde Center was decisive. Tom may have been persuasive enough to make it happen anyway. I can agree that logically it likely would have been quite helpful. It as an example of the type of thing we hope for and that is very gratifying if and when it happens. When Tom made the comment to me on a phone call I said, "I think you would have been able to do that anyway," we agreed that we would never know—
LINDE: —what the answer was. [laugh]
ZIERLER: Ron, with the launch of the Resnick Institute, and the focus in such a big way on sustainability as a result of the Resnick's gift, has that changed the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science? Has it separated out or clarified what the mission of each of these two organizations might be?
LINDE: I'm not the best person to answer that, but there is cross-fertilization. Caltech being Caltech, the boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. For example, the director of the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science also is involved with the Resnick Center. I think it's more a matter of continuing to build in the Caltech mode, and not worrying too much about jurisdiction. Each has certain facilities and funding. It's more a matter that we have resources in both areas. What can we do as Caltech to address what we feel really needs to be addressed in collaborative efforts, without worrying too much about which hat is being worn, other than, I'm sure, the financial accounting and things like that. But in terms of the work going on, what you label it in terms of where its home is isn't the main factor.
ZIERLER: Ron, a question that goes back to your service as trustee. When Jean-Lou Chameau announced that he was stepping down, what was your personal reaction, and what was the board's influence in helping Caltech in this transition period?
LINDE: My first reaction, and Maxine's, was absolute shock because the anticipation had been that Jean-Lou would spend the rest of his career at Caltech, and that was something that he often had said he wanted to do. The board also was shocked. Some members of the board were antagonized by JL's decision and felt that it wasn't something that Jean-Lou should have done at that particular point in time. Of course, he had the legal right to make that decision, and he had his own considerations. Ultimately, it was simply a matter that Caltech was sorry to see him leave. But Caltech had to get on with the transition. Caltech has had presidents before him, and we'll have presidents after him. Our job is to get the very best next president we can.
Fortunately – maybe it took some trustees longer to realize this than it took Maxine and me to realize it – we had right within Caltech a truly outstanding candidate to take us over the transition in excellent fashion. Ed Stolper is a real hero, and he made it very smooth. Ed was provost at the time and took on the additional role of interim president, while still maintaining his position as provost. He accomplished an enormous amount during the time he was interim president. We were very fortunate. That allowed us the time then to do an extensive search, and we wound up with Tom Rosenbaum, who has been just terrific. Jean-Lou was the right person for the time he served, and I don't have anything but applause for what he accomplished. I have great applause for what Ed did in the interim, and great applause for what Tom has been doing. It's a function of time. Some trustees took it more in stride than others. It was the shock and abruptness of it during the largest financial campaign in Caltech's history that set off a lot of people. But there were several months before he physically left. It wasn't as if he got hit by a bus type of thing. It was something that did make some trustees panic a bit at first. But with Ed available to put in place, we didn't have to worry as much as we otherwise might have had to, and we could do a good job of the search in our normal mode..
ZIERLER: Ron, is your sense that when Jean-Lou made this decision, he had already righted the ship from the financial instability caused by the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009? In other words, was Caltech on solid financial footing circa 2013–2014?
LINDE: I'll give you an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answer. I believe that Caltech has for at least most periods of time been solid financially. On the other hand, given the nature and magnitude of Caltech's needs and the size of the available endowment, it always has budgetary issues. The financial crisis that hit the world certainly didn't help. On the other hand, it did result in some belt-tightening that was good to have done, anyway. It wasn't, in my view, a matter of righting the ship. It was a matter of keeping the ship going on a financially responsible basis – and that was done. But it doesn't mean that it has solved all of our financial challenges. We still have them, and we probably will still have them for a long time – although our viability certainly is not at all in question.
That perhaps is a topic for a much longer discussion, some of which we discussed in a previous session. Let me just say that in recent years Caltech has done a very good job both of raising contributions and also of doing some taxable long-term bond issues that I believe give Caltech a good safety net. I got heavily involved in the bond issues. As I have told you, there was opposition on the different bond issues from some trustees who took a conservative position, and said, "We shouldn't be raising more money for which we don't yet have a specifically identified need." But when we were able to do taxable bonds on a highly effective basis in terms of interest rates, I viewed that as a wonderful thing, particularly if you could issue what are called century bonds. It's interest-only for a hundred years. We set up voluntary internal sinking funds for financial prudence. The past four bond issues, which were the taxable ones, we raised $1.4 billion. Of that amount, 400 million were 30-year bonds because there was a period of time when you couldn't really issue 100-year bonds. There was no market for them then.
I must say that I pushed very heavily on the 100-year bonds, and some people still don't agree with me. But I was concerned about what happens in the future if we need the money and can't raise it. What happens if there's an earthquake that creates some real devastation on the campus, and we're not in a position to raise money? What happens if interest rates go very high, and it's too expense? Meanwhile, if we can be investing the money until it's needed with the endowment, with the ups and downs, etc., we should be able to make a profit along the way. That arbitrage is perfectly legal with taxable bonds. Some people might call it speculation in the market, which is true. But if we invest it prudently, and are long-term oriented, and can cover our debt payments which are interest-only, and then have it available for things as needed, that's terrific. Then when we have to pay the principal back 100 years from now, even in the one case of 30 years from now, when you think of what a dollar is likely to be worth 100 years from now, we're paying it back with very cheap money. Maxine and I feel greatly relieved that Caltech has that cushion.
Also, opportunities that require the availability of cash will come along. We have to be very judicious. I know a number of trustees have been concerned if we have the money there, we're just going to spend it, which would be irresponsible. Anyone who's going to do that doesn't belong in a position to do so. But there are some board-imposed constraints on what we do with the funds. They are self-imposed and not constraints that are of importance from the standpoint of the lenders. But if we see some real time-sensitive opportunities or needs, we've got the wherewithal to make some further key investments in ourselves.
ZIERLER: Ron, I understand that in the selection of a new president, it's primarily or exclusively a faculty decision. In what ways can the board of trustees play a supporting role for the faculty to make the best possible decision?
LINDE: It's not actually just a faculty decision. We do have what, at least in my experience, is a unique way of doing things. We don't hire search firms for that position. The faculty know the terrain and forms a faculty search committee. The trustees form a trustee search committee. The two search committees meat together to discuss the criteria and get all the perspectives. What do we need? What sort of person? What are important characteristics? There are a number of joint meetings along the way. But the faculty takes it upon themselves, spends a lot of time of certain faculty members traveling around, talking to people, etc. The faculty search committee ultimately comes up with a list saying, "The following candidates are our top ones, and usually ranks them in order of preference." It doesn't have to be a set number. It can be, "Gee, there were only two we could find that we're acceptable," or, "We have five that all look very promising." Then the trustee search committee gets involved in interviewing. Ultimately, while it's technically a board of trustee's decision, the decision is made considering only candidates whom the faculty search committee is recommending. The faculty search committee plays an absolutely essential role, but the trustees make the decision from a faculty-approved list.
ZIERLER: Ron, I'm curious if you had opportunity to interact with Tom Rosenbaum during this process, and if you recall the vision that he expressed for Caltech.
LINDE: I did interact because I was on the search committee, and I'll come to involvement on the search committees in general in a moment. But I had good discussions with Tom, both as part of the group interview, which we had over a dinner at a hotel in Downtown L.A. to maintain anonymity of candidates, and also individually during the cocktail hour. In terms of a vision for Caltech, there were observations, but I don't want to put words in his mouth with hindsight. That occurred maybe about nine years ago, and I don't want to trust memory—
ZIERLER: Of course.
LINDE: —for the nuances. But I will say that his vision, I felt, was totally in line with the type of vision that we needed, considering the fact that it has to be much more of a general vision rather than his having enough insights at that point to have a very specific vision.
ZIERLER: One year later into Tom's presidency, you announced the Ronald and Maxine Linde Caltech Priorities Gift. I wonder if that was specifically vague exactly with the idea that, in certain cases, it would be best for the funding to be unstructured, for Caltech to have essentially free reign into what kinds of research that this generosity would make possible.
LINDE: That gift became the endowment for the Ronald and Maxine Center for New Initiatives ("CNI"), which is intended to provide resources for new Caltech initiatives to support the development of major, potentially transformative new areas of exploration. Again, we want to allow as much flexibility as possible but not the type of flexibility that allows it to be just a convenient pocket to tap into for normal activities when needed or just what is needed to balance the general budget. I'd say that it's purposely for allowing flexibility. It is the consistent attitude we have with something I mentioned in one of our earlier conversations about the flexibility when we set up the professorial chair that it could move to different divisions. It didn't have to stay in any single division. So far CNI has provided fund for Linde Hall, for the Center for Theoretical and Experimental Social Sciences ("CTESS"), and for COVID-19 research and the development of enabling methodology.
There have been many situations along the way where some of the funds we've provided could be used in one place or another. Caltech's been very good about discussing the alternatives and soliciting our observations and opinions. In practice, while legally we have no control over the decision, what happens is if it's something that hasn't been talked about before, we're generally informed in advance. Once the money has been given, then legally Caltech can do what it wants within the limits of the gift agreement. On the other hand, Caltech does value the input. Also, Caltech is not composed of dummies.
LINDE: Caltech tries not to surprise the donor, especially if it's not a good surprise.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Ron, of course, legally, as you nicely explained, you don't have a say into what happens with the funding. But have you watched, have you been able to track what's been made possible since 2015 as a result of the gift from you and Maxine?
LINDE: We always get good tracking now. We didn't used to in the early days. Tracking communications used to be poor and not very timely. But the tracking and communications have been good over most of the past decade. We get reports annually that are very well done, and along we get more frequent communications when appropriate or desired.
ZIERLER: Who do you credit with this improvement in tracking at Caltech? Who's been responsible for that?
LINDE: I think it's a combined effort. I think that the presidents—and I say "the presidents" because it's more than one—have recognized the importance of it. The Development/Advancement Office recognizes that. Dexter Bailey is an astute leader there who really thinks about it and recognizes the importance of both the content and timeliness. That was true also of his predecessor, Brian Lee. We have good staff who pull things together. There's been education of division chairs on the importance of serious participation in this, that it's not just something that PR people should write. I think it's really been a team effort. It was more a matter of the recognition that Caltech in that area used to be – I was going to say very poor, but let's put it as not up to normal Caltech standards.
The biggest steps forward started after Jean-Lou Chameau recruited Brian Lee to be our Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Relations, as the position now is called.. The progress continued after Tom Rosenbaum recruited Dexter Bailey for that position after Brian left to join Harvard. In both cases, I emphasized the pressing need in early conversations with Brian and with Dexter. Caltech expends so much effort and money trying to identify and attract new donors, we can't afford to neglect existing donors who already identify with Caltech. Those donors often get reports from other universities, as well. We can't afford to be deficient by comparison.
Both Brian and Dexter were in full agreement and were committed to doing something about it. It's evolved. It's not something that's easy to do, and it doesn't happen overnight. Maxine and I were initial guinea pigs in critiquing early versions of the reports. I think right now, at least as far as Maxine and I are concerned, a good job is being done. Again, we get reports of the type that is tailored to larger donors. You can't do what's done in those reports for everybody. I don't know what's done at different levels. But I can say that at the level where we see things, it's very well done. Currently, Sarah Schneider, who reports to Dexter, leads the effort.
ZIERLER: Ron, because you have been able to track this gift pretty well, where around campus can we see some of the fruits of this generosity? What have you and Maxine made possible with this unstructured gift?
LINDE: To expand upon my earlier comment, I'd say that looking at the Center for New Initiatives, first of all, it was instrumental in the renovation project that led to the creation of Linde Hall of Mathematics and Physics. That has been the major initial focus. But along the way, it's helped in some of the programs like CTESS. There's also the project that is relevant to addressing problems highlighted by COVID-19 in terms of early gathering of data. There was time sensitivity, and there were sources of funds to ultimately carry the program forward. That's a case where we were approached by Tom Rosenbaum and provost Dave Tirrell and told there was an immediate need for launching it with a $750,000 commitment; that Caltech would kick in half of that. Dave asked if we would we be in favor of kicking in half of that out of CNI We said, "Sure. We would like to learn more about it, but that really sounds worthwhile." That then led to Caltech's being in a position to obtain follow-on funding that takes longer to obtain. The CTESS funding was the same thing. Tom called me and said, "The CTESS program needs a boost. How about providing some of the CNI payout for that?" I said, "Yes. That looks like a promising initiative." If it had been something where we were feeling, "This idea sounds half-baked, and have you thought of this, that, and the other thing?" we would have expressed that for Tom to consider in his decision, but in this case it seemed appropriate. If we had expressed a negative reaction, our advice didn't have to be taken, but we sure would have given it.
There were a many other things that came along the way, not specifically out of the CNI fund, but where monies from us were allocated to other things, either at our initiative in terms of suggesting that it be done, or where we were approached. I already have mentioned LIGO. Another of them was when there was the crisis with the Trump administration, and it looked like climate science was going to be put on the back burner and literally was in denial. France was soliciting faculty scientists from the U.S., saying, "Come. We'll welcome you." Some of our top people are from Europe, and are you going to lose them? What's going to happen? We proposed setting up a matching grant that came very successfully to fruition. We're big on matching grants.
Then there was one for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The chair of the GPS division, John Grotzinger, had wanted to do something and got monies out of individual faculty budgets, which the faculty members "donated." They were trying to get up to a million dollars. Dexter, as head of Advancement, approached us. We said we would like to address the shortfall, but it would be good at the same time to demonstrate that it's not just one trustee who's interested in joining based on the match. Why don't we do it as a one-to-one matching grant? You can raise some more money from a few select trustees, and perhaps others that would prominently figure in, where we then could point to more top-level support. That was done.
Those are a few examples of the types of things that flexibility gives you. Sometimes, it'll be our initiative, but it doesn't have to be accepted by Caltech. Sometimes it'll be Caltech that says, "How about this or how about that?" Maybe we'll suggest modifying it. As with the DEI example. I suggested that it be set up as an endowment so that there's permanency to the program, and that's what wound up being done. If Caltech said, "No, we don't want to do an endowment," we would've given the money anyway. But we feel a lot better about it as an endowment that has enough payout to cover the projected annual expenditures.
ZIERLER: Sure. Ron, moving the conversation closer to the present, when COVID hit, and everybody went remote, and you remain remote, what have you found have been some of the most effective ways to stay connected to the institute, to keep your finger on the pulse of what's happening on campus?
LINDE: First of all, Zoom meetings have been good. They're not a full substitute for in- person meetings, but there's a trade-off. You get more participation. We've also had hybrid meetings, where some participants are present in person and some aren't. Remote has clear disadvantages. But having said that, I think we functioned very well through it, given the constraints. Personally, I have made more use on one-on-one telephonic or Zoom conversations to help, and I feel that has worked out pretty well. I do feel, however, that we should strive to have a good balance of in-person attendance if possible.
ZIERLER: Ron, to bring the conversation right up to the present, what's happening at Caltech currently that's exciting to you, that you're really enjoying watching even from afar?
LINDE: In many ways, it's everything! It even includes small things that come up in this area and that area. The things that I think are most exciting to Maxine and me are the things that aren't even happening yet, but where Caltech continues to be positioned and has or has access to the human and financial the resources to explore what may turn out to be the next really important thing. Given the spirit of being willing to fail, but to continue to be bold and explore the horizons that are yet to open, are the most exciting things to think about. That's why Maxine and I recently set up another endowment called the Future Horizons Endowment Fund. One of the exciting things going on right now, for example, is an initiative to establish a Center for Science, Society, and Public Policy. Getting that going on a seed basis is very exciting. It's not developing new science, but it's engaging science in an extremely important way. Caltech is especially well positioned to be able to do that, based on how it operates and the attitudes of many of our scientists and engineers..
I frequently hear about things going on, which I always convey to Maxine. It's all exciting. What's especially exciting is that it emphasizes what Caltech really is. We're doing this. We're doing that. We're on the forefront here, and we are on the forefront there, and we're not on the forefront in the following area, but we're making great strides towards being there. That's very exciting. Then sometimes it's results in the fundraising. Caltech has been able to raise a great deal of additional funds, and part of that sounds exciting because of the areas that some of those are funds for, like what we've been doing in pulling things together for quantum science, for example, so we can stay on the forefront there. But it also is very exciting to be getting in a lot of money that is going to enhance the endowment while maintaining some flexibility in how its payouts can be spent. A lot of it comes in where there isn't the flexibility, and that's great for the purpose. But it is particularly exciting when it allows for some flexibility as we move into the presently unknown future. It's a long-winded way of saying what's most exciting is everything.
ZIERLER: Oh, that's great. Ron, on that note, now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk and to wrap up this extraordinary series of discussions that we've had, if it's OK, I'd like to ask a few retrospective questions about your career and your philanthropy, and then we'll end looking to the future.
LINDE: OK it is. We're running somewhat late, but I'll try to give shorter answers, perhaps. [laugh]
ZIERLER: [laugh] Oh, not at all. Thank you, Ron. First, if you look over your career, I wonder if you can reflect broadly on how Caltech gave you the education to achieve such great success in business. What do you see as the seed of Caltech's success for you and Maxine?
LINDE: I would say the seed was recognition of the necessity for very rigorous discipline in critical thinking and at the same time not being afraid to "think outside the box," which then by habit applies to everything. A lot of success in business is luck, and we've been lucky. Of course, we've had our share of bad luck along with the good, but our share of good luck on balance has outweighed the bad. In addition to luck, some of it is just having an inherent orientation to imaginative and critical thinking, which then predates our association with Caltech but was reinforced by Caltech.. The critical thinking part as to challenging every assumption, making sure that you have done your homework—by "homework," I should say "research," really, rather than the colloquial—and that kind of discipline, which is something that has proven to be very important in business. Maxine got that not only through the time she was at JPL, but particularly by going into law. You get some of the same type of thing in a different way.
ZIERLER: Ron, what do you see as the most important personal attributes for success in business? What have you and Maxine learned about human characteristics that's really at the heart of doing well in business?
LINDE: There are many things that are my "most important" list. Many of my observations are particularly aimed at running a company, but most really apply in a broader context. One is having well-defined objectives for the company, for the teams and for each individual. You also must develop a thorough understanding of your objectives. By "thorough," I mean to the extent practical, and not just superficial. Then you must pursue the objectives with great passion and perseverance at each level. It also is very important to have the skill and ability to select and attract excellent people to work with who are compatible with your management style.
There are a number of examples of success that are counter to what I'm going to say. But I still believe in what I'm going to say — even though there are many examples where people have made great fortunes and even achieved high political office while behaving in the opposite manner. Good luck and complex factors and special circumstances sometimes dominate, but I think the odds are with you if you adhere to what Maxine and I use as a guide. I would go so far as to say that in most cases, however successful the counterexamples have turned out to be, they probably would have been even more successful if they had been managed with adherence to factors that I'll mention. Often what actually happens is that the owners, irrespective of the titles they carry, have been fortunate enough to hire good managers who actually run the business.
Some of the important attributes and characteristics (not necessarily in any order) include analytical ability and rational reasoning ability; tactical agility and longer-term strategic thinking; listening skills; persuasiveness; insightfulness; preparedness; and an array of keen instincts.
Excellent negotiating instincts and skills always are good to have, but in some businesses, managerial positions, and other situations, they are vital. When negotiating, always try to put yourself in the other person's shoes and see things from their perspective. Asking simple questions as to why something is important to them often helps greatly in that regard—and may even lead to innovative ways to achieve their objective while still accomplishing yours.
The list of important characteristics and conduct that help in optimizing management and in achieving business success goes on to include: sound judgment, which usually is born of experience; making sure you know what you are talking about and are not trying to bluff to hide your lack of knowledge or lack of ability; developing the ability to interact effectively with people, whether it's clients, customers, employees, shareholders, or other stakeholders; building a team, not just an accumulation of individual superstars; providing strong incentives for both the team and the individuals; setting the tone at the top; earning and maintaining an impeccable reputation for integrity and sincerity; owning your own mistakes; giving appropriate credit for achievements; doing what you say you will do; talking straight and shooting straight; having clear and honest communications; keeping those you manage apprised clearly and timely as to your view of their performance; and not promising more than you are able to accomplish. The latter practice, by the way, can be a disadvantage. There are some cases where you might be more successful in getting the response you're looking for by exaggerating. Sometimes, people who don't know you well will anticipate that you're exaggerating and will discount what you say, even though you're understating. That can be a negative. But if, instead, you establish a track record and reputation of underpromising and over-performing way, that becomes a very important positive.
Another is having an open mind — not being wed to an attitude of, "This is what I decided, and so now I've got to prove that I'm right." It is much better to prove that you were wrong and go onto the right track than struggle to prove that you are right. You have to get rid of the face-saving types of things that are self-serving.
Another is having a willingness to fail provided that you have assessed the downside and can live with the consequences. Assess the probabilities and potential consequences, which can change along the way. If you don't fail now and then, you probably are not being aggressive enough in what you're pursuing. But make sure you have analyzed to the very best of your ability what failure means so that it's always something you can handle and that, if you fail, you know how to deal with it. When it comes to learning from experience, I think you actually learn more from your failures than from your successes. Don't let your ego get in the way.
You can be gentle with your choice of words but be unambiguously candid. If there's something that you're not happy about, how do you expect that to improve if you don't tell the perpetrator? Make sure that those people who are performing well are rewarded well and that they know they are appreciated. Then if you have to criticize, don't be afraid to criticize; just put it in respectful terms. Never lose your temper. Maintain respect for people at every level. Don't ask other people to do what you wouldn't be willing to undertake if that were your job. Being both liked and respected is ideal but being respected is even more important than being liked.
The list goes on beyond what I have said, but I can't conclude without commenting on the importance of really caring about the well-being of people at all levels. We once were chatting with the CEO of one of Envirodyne's subsidiaries before an operations review meeting at its main facility was to start. When asked how things were going, he said that one of his best production-line workers was distressed because he had bought a used car that had undisclosed problems, but the dealer had refused to take it back. Maxine asked to speak with that employee, who gave her the details. To his surprise, she said she would contact the dealer. She did so as general counsel of Envirodyne, the parent company, and got the employee's money back for him. It didn't take long for word to spread throughout the company. Loyalty is a two-way street.
Finally, I must circle back to luck (good or bad) and what you make of it. It is humbling to realize how important that factor is.
ZIERLER: Ron, I would never ask you to choose. It would be an impossible question to answer. But as you reflect on all of the extraordinary ways that you and Maxine have served and supported Caltech, in the grand scheme of history, what's been most important, both in the way that it has affected you and Maxine, and in the way that your service and generosity has affected Caltech?
LINDE: In terms of affecting us, the answer to that is the way it's affected Caltech, because if we did all of these things, and it didn't have much impact, then that would be a grand failure that we should have recognized a long time ago. How it's affected Caltech? We're not in the best position to make that as an independent judgment because you don't always know how something has affected a person or an organization. Before coming to my bottom-line answer, I should mention that providing guidance in special situations should be included in the mix—certain special key opportunities and certain crises that arose. I'd say helping in some executive selection is another thing to include. This, again, is not where we've focused our main effort. Those are sporadic types of things but need to be mentioned. In terms of our main emphasis, it's been a matter of enabling multiple achievements, not single-handedly, of course, but being an important element in enabling achievements that Caltech did by itself. We have been told several times that the magnitude, nature and timeliness of our commitment to the Breakthrough Campaign was especially key. Rather than singling things out, we think of the answer as being the aggregate impact of our involvement.
ZIERLER: Ron, in all of these discussions, of course, a central theme has been all of the things that I've been talking about with you are really a result of your partnership, your unique, incredible partnership in so many ways with Maxine. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how both of you coming together in so many different ways really is in evidence of sometimes the sum is greater than its parts.
LINDE: That's something that we may be an extreme example of. I'll tell you something, a comment made when we were still heading Envirodyne. It was made by the head of our largest subsidiary, a very seasoned executive and very savvy guy, probably the most impactful of any of the managers that we had at Envirodyne. At one point, he commented that Maxine and I really aren't two individuals. He said we really were one person! It was a very astute observation that we had never made. But that's the way we operate – as two parts of the same being. Our coming together in that way has without question enabled us to accomplish much more than the sum of the parts – and to have a lot more fun doing so. Maxine focuses on certain aspects of whatever we're undertaking at a given time, and I focus on others; but we communicate on everything. We jump in for each other, if needed. It's been a wonderful partnership. We think that executive was right!
I believe I told you that when Maxine was first going to come on board at Envirodyne, early predictions by people who knew us were, "That's never going to work because you both have such forceful personalities, and working together in the same organization isn't going to last for long." But we were so fortunate that it turned out to be absolutely wonderful.
ZIERLER: Ron, in reflecting in your own experiences at Caltech, and its role in your success, and your inspiration to support Caltech in all the ways that you and Maxine have, are you confident at looking at the current generations of students, first, not only that they're gaining the intellectual tools to succeed in all of the ways they want to but, also, that they will be inspired in the way you have been when it's possible to give back to Caltech? Are you confident in that generational continuity?
LINDE: In a general sense, yes. But whether that becomes a reality depends on a lot of factors, including how Caltech evolves, which I hope will be in the direction that would lead to that, and even more, and depending on the mix of students and what careers they go into, what resources they have available, how that might change – a lot of different things. The mix of domestic versus foreign students can affect it. Let me put it a different way: I see the possibility of why it could be negatively affected; but with the evolution of certain aspects of Caltech itself, I don't see why it very well might not be positively affected on balance.
ZIERLER: Finally, Ron, looking to the future, in looking at all of the ways that you and Maxine have been so generous to Caltech, one of the most striking features, if I might note, is just how imaginative your philanthropy has been in so many different ways. There's an intellectual nimbleness to the kinds of ways that you've given your support into all of the different areas of research. That just prompts a question about coming attractions. What might be next for you and Maxine as you survey the next areas where Caltech needs help?
LINDE: If I take a little bit longer-term view of it, then I'll go back to an answer I gave for an earlier question. Those areas are yet to be discovered and defined, because we don't know where we're going to be able to be most impactful.
ZIERLER: That's the idea? It's about keeping an open mind?
LINDE: Exactly. It's a completely open mind. There are some projects right now that we have our eyes on as possibilities. But that's premature because Caltech isn't quite ready for that in relative terms. In other words, we're continuing to develop our own available resources. We're continuing to fulfill pledges that we have. Then our feeling is that with that being done, it doesn't have to wait for that to be completed. On the other hand, it doesn't have to be as soon as that's done. We can continue to pile up the resources until the next thing becomes obvious.
ZIERLER: It's an exciting thing to wait for, no matter what.
LINDE: [laugh] Yes, it is.
ZIERLER: Ron, I want to thank you so much for spending all of this time with me. In my own humble way, on behalf of Caltech, the things that you and Maxine have done over the years is nothing short of extraordinary and heroic. It's my great honor that I was able to capture your perspective, not only for Caltech history but the history of science and, really, the history of the United States. I just want to say for all of that, thank you and Maxine so much.
LINDE: Thank you, David. It's been a pleasure talking with you.