Richard A. Auhll, 1941 - 2023

Monday, September 25, 2023

Richard Auhll, an aerospace engineer-turned-entrepreneur and a major donor to UC Santa Barbara and the College of Engineering who was named an honorary alumnus in 2020, died on September 5 after a brief illness. He had turned 82 in June and is survived by his daughter, Barbara Auhll, and his longtime partner, Martha Smilgis.

"Richard Auhll provided visionary leadership as a Trustee of the UC Santa Barbara Foundation since 1994, including serving as chair from 1999 to 2000,” said UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang. He contributed to our campus in countless ways over three decades, providing sage guidance and advice as a member of our Dean's Cabinet in the College of Engineering, generously endowing the chair for our Richard A. Auhll Professor and Dean of Engineering, and supporting student success through his inspirational gift for the Richard A. Auhll Engineering Student Center, in addition to many generous gifts throughout the years to support research, scholarship, and our dance program, and others. His legacy endures, and we will remember him always as a wonderful advocate, supporter, and friend of our university."

“It saddens all of us to hear about the passing of Richard Auhll, who was an extraordinary friend of the College of Engineering [COE]” said Umesh Mishra, the college’s Richard A. Auhll Professor and Dean. “He was extremely generous not only in terms of his philanthropic giving, but also through his tireless contributions of time and energy during decades of dedicated service on various high-level bodies at all levels of the college, the university, and the UC system. We cannot thank him enough for his tremendous leadership, loyalty, and friendship, and we will never forget him.”

“For nearly thirty years, Richard was a generous and engaged benefactor to our campus, serving as a trustee of the UC Santa Barbara Foundation, including as chair, and as a member of the Dean's Cabinet in the College of Engineering,” said Chris Pizzinat, executive director for development. “He will be greatly missed.”

Noting that Auhll participated in the UC President’s Engineering Advisory Council for all UC campuses and was a UCSB Gold Circle Society member, the university’s premier level of recognition, which honors philanthropists who have cumulatively invested more than $1 million in the institution, Pizzinat added, “His legacy will live on through the Richard A. Auhll Professor and Dean of Engineering Endowed Chair, and the Richard Auhll Student Center in the College of Engineering. Richard’s countless other contributions to our research and scholarship programs led to his receiving the 2020 Honorary Alumnus Award from the UCSB Alumni Association.”

Auhll, who was licensed as an instrument-rated jet-aircraft solo pilot, earned a BS in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, then landed what he called his “dream job” as a rocket engineer in the Advanced Design Group of United Technologies Corporation’s Rocket Division in the San Francisco Bay Area. While there, he earned an MS in aerospace engineering from Stanford University. Later, he left to pursue an MBA at Harvard Business School, where he identified a new goal of heading a high-tech company on the West Coast. 

Auhll moved back to California and was hired by UCSB benefactor (and Harold Frank Hall namesake) Harold Frank to lead one of his companies, Circon Corporation, which made ultra-miniature tools for microscope work on computer memories. Auhll eventually purchased Circon and served for thirty years as chairman of the board of directors, president, and chief executive officer before retiring in 1998. Based on his own market intelligence gathering, he refocused the company to manufacture the world’s smallest surgical instruments. That led to developing the world’s smallest color video-camera systems, which were connected to video monitors and used for teaching and to conduct microsurgical eye and brain procedures. Auhll received the Master Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Institute of American Entrepreneurs in 1992.

The micro-video system revolutionized endoscopy by allowing surgeons to use both eyes to view their procedures through ultra-small incisions magnified on color video screens, rather than squinting into a single eyepiece. 

When Convergence magazine, the print publication of the College of Engineering, profiled him as a "Champion of Engineering" and asked him in summer 2019 about the motives for his financial support of the campus, Auhll replied, “I am a true believer in higher education because of the very substantial benefits I have derived from it, especially as I was the first in my family to attend college. I believe that my success has been grounded in the knowledge, analytical thinking, and self-confidence I developed during my university education. I support the universities where I earned my degrees, and I also support UCSB due to the intellectual stimulation and the warm friendships I’ve developed with professors and staff there over time. I believe in what they’re doing here.” 

He was also drawn to UCSB’s physical location and its campus culture, saying, “The College of Engineering is small in some ways compared to competitor programs, but because of the spirit of collaboration, we have been able to work well together and spread the advantages of any one area to benefit all the other areas. I’ve been involved with other universities where people were not nearly as cross-disciplinary and were very secretive and defensive about what they were doing. UCSB is noticeably open. 

An immensely successful man who knew the value of hard work — and succeeded through it — Auhll also recognized that there is so much more to life. Pointing to what he called “another strength of UCSB,” he said, “We’re in a beautiful place where people like to live — on the ocean, not in a big metropolitan center. There’s more to living than just working on your computer.”

Richard Auhll was noticeably open about supporting all kinds of education, from engineering and science to the performing arts; about seeing the possibilities that allowed him to chart his own path to pursue his passions; and, of course, about generously contributing to UC, UCSB, and the College of Engineering during a long and mutually rewarding relationship. 

Richard Auhll

Richard Auhll, photograph by Matt Perko