Richard Toftness: Advocating for Students and Grassroots Members

Richard Toftness: Advocating for Students and Grassroots Members

Richard Toftness has only one regret about the precedent-setting IEEE Presidents Forum that he championed and led in 2018: His good friend John Meredith didn’t live to see it.

“I like to try out my ideas with people I trust, and John had been a friend since our Hewlett-Packard (H-P) days, more than 30 years ago,” says Toftness. “He became a huge supporter of the townhall-like event for members that I was proposing. He would call me and say, ‘You have to do this, there is a way, and IEEE really needs it.’”

His experience at H-P taught Toftness the importance of clear, frequent communication between senior management and those they lead — or, in IEEE’s case, the membership. “Communication is a great thing to build trust and loyalty, to say nothing of listening to your members,” he states.

When the Presidents Forum was set, Meredith — a longtime IEEE leader and 2007 IEEE-USA President — was very ill, but he’d planned to watch the event on his laptop from his hospital room. Sadly, he died the day before the event took place.

A Big Success

Despite Toftness’s grief on that 27 September, the Presidents Forum was a big success. Besides the in-person audience at the Colorado State University (CSU) Alumni Center in Fort Collins, thousands more watched the livestream. Another 9,800 have since viewed it on IEEE.tv. At the event, 2018 IEEE President Jim Jefferies, 2019 IEEE President-elect José M.F. Moura, and IEEE Executive Director Stephen Welby fielded members’ questions sent anonymously. Most came from the United States, but members in Japan, Brazil, India and Canada also participated.

Now,  IEEE-USA is honoring this IEEE Life Senior Member with the 2019 George F. McClure Citation of Honor, “for continued advocacy and grassroots promotion of student, technical and professional activities in the United States.”

Hasala Dharmawardena, the IEEE Graduate Student Member who nominated Toftness for the award, couldn’t be more pleased. The two became acquainted shortly after the Presidents Forum, when Toftness queried volunteer leaders in other IEEE Regions about their interest in sponsoring similar events. Dharmawardena, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Clemson University, who is active in Region 3 Young Professionals and the IEEE Power and Energy Society’s Student Branch Chapters, says he and Toftness immediately clicked.

“Despite our different ages and backgrounds, we share common ground on many things,” Dharmawardena states. “We quickly agreed that IEEE should be an advocate for the ‘everyday genius’ – the people who have their boots on the ground and do the work.”

Two More Presidents Forums

Dharmawardena went to work, and organized the next Presidents Forum during the Region 3 SoutheastCon meeting in March 2019, in Huntsville, Alabama.

In short order, 2019 IEEE President Moura scheduled another Presidents Forum in June, livestreamed during the IEEE Board series in Atlanta. Besides Moura, participants included 2019 Vice President for Technical Activities K.J. Ray Liu and 2019 Vice President for Member and Geographic Activities Francis Grosz.

“Richard is a man who matters because he appreciates others,” says Dharmawardena. “He is also someone who has received an Emmy and an Oscar, but no one really knows about him except on the grass-roots level. He doesn’t talk much, but he does what needs to be done.”

This appraisal of Toftness — doing what needs to be done — barely begins to describe his dedication to the profession. As he puts it, “I’m an unapologetic and outspoken advocate for practicing engineers who may never publish during their career; but, through their dedication and professionalism, they advance our technological society and keep it running.”

Caring about the Profession

Francis Grosz has known Toftness since meeting him years ago at an IEEE-USA Annual Meeting. As one of his endorsers, Grosz thinks what motivates Toftness is that he cares about the engineering profession — and also for members and potential members.

“I believe that perhaps his most significant achievement is the Engineers in Residence (EiR) program he started at CSU and has mentored since its inception,” says Grosz. “This program’s impact on the membership and leadership of IEEE and IEEE-USA will pay rich dividends in the future.”

Another of Toftness’ ideas, EiR began in 2017. It’s an innovative initiative that brings engineering professionals to campus — where they work alongside students in a makerspace laboratory. The goal is to strengthen ties between industry and academe, while enhancing the students’ learning experience.

“Our department is keenly interested in exploring new approaches to professional formation, so Richard’s idea was met with great enthusiasm and support from our faculty and staff,” says Anthony (Tony) Maciejewski, head of CSU’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and an IEEE Fellow. “From recruiting a team of first-rate industry volunteers to organizing a schedule that aligns with the most popular lab hours, Richard has created a successful program that’s valuable to students and industry alike. We are absolutely thrilled to serve as the pilot department for this novel endeavor.”

Engineers in Residence

According to Toftness, the EiR program is successful for two reasons: Students receive non-judgmental help from engineering professionals; and it is the ideal situation for students to ask about the working world. He says half of their questions are concerned with what it’s like to be an engineer.

At the same time, the IEEE volunteers obviously value their involvement; most have returned, with just a few dropping out because of job changes or moves. At the end of the 2019-2020 academic year, volunteers had logged 324 coaching hours

The program appears to be paying off. Toftness says faculty members praise notable improvements in students’ understanding of basic EE concepts. Employers say they can tell the difference between CSU graduates and others.

After COVID-19 closed the CSU campus last spring, the engineer-student teams continued their work on Zoom. This fall, CSU educators are conducting the program again online.

An Oscar and an Emmy

A native of Minneapolis and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Richard Toftness joined H-P soon after receiving his master’s. He was with the company 27 years — settling north of Denver, in Loveland, but with international management assignments that took him to England, Ireland and Singapore. While Vice President of Research and Development for Vision Research, he and three colleagues received a 2012 Scientific & Engineering Academy Award for the design and engineering of the Phantom Digital Camera, which records at very high speeds and can play back in slow motion. The team also received an Emmy for their camera modifications for sports photography.

Since 2012, Toftness has headed Tasterra Design and Consulting in Loveland, a small consulting firm that takes on select, highly technical projects. Also, he continues to be involved in activities for the IEEE High Plains Section, which serves members in northern Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. Currently, Toftness is Secretary for the section, which, of course, meets online during these pandemic times.

Toftness has also begun work on a 2021 Presidents Forum. It’s a safe bet that John Meredith, his late friend and colleague, would be very pleased.

Seeking Nominations for 2020 IEEE-USA Awards 

IEEE-USA is now accepting nominations for 2020 awards — recognizing excellence, outstanding service and contributions in furtherance of its objectives. The deadline to nominate is 15 September. For a full list of awards and for more information on how to nominate, visit: https://ieeeusa.org/volunteers/awards-recognition/

See also: 2019 IEEE-USA Awards Honor Eight Members for Excellence, Service, Contributions


Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

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