Growth of a Department

A Personal History of Computer Science at UNC-Chapel Hill


For thirty years the Department has striven to discharge its mission of teaching, research, and service. I attribute its success in so doing in large measure to Fred Brooks, in particular his selection of people to join with him in growing and nurturing the enterprise, his emphasis on and examples in conducting a civilized department, and his leadership in striking boldly forth in new directions as opportunities arose suitable to the Department.

Major areas of present or former research, in approximately chronological order, have been CAI, interactive computer graphics, image processing (especially medical), computer system architecture, software engineering, VLSI design, distributed and real-time systems (including CSCW), computer and human vision, and virtual reality. In several of them we have pioneered.

We have taught at all levels from introductory programming and computer literacy courses, in both large lecture classes and small sections, to one-on-one interaction between a professor and a doctoral student. Until the University's budgetary woes in the 1980s, we never turned away a student for lack of space in a course. We initially made graduate education in computer science accessible to proven scholars who lacked strong preparation in computers. Our master's program has for much of its existence been among the strongest anywhere. And from the earliest days we have set and maintained a high standard for our doctoral dissertations.

As a Department and as a collection of individual members we have served the University, the local community, several regional enterprises (notably TUCC, NCECS, and MCNC), the state and nation. We have worked on boards and commissions, and testified before committees of Congress. Transcending geography, we have served the discipline, especially through professional societies, by holding major offices, lecturing, editing journals, and organizing conferences.

Among our most important accomplishments are our many collaborations. Our collaborators are located in other departments of the University, at commercial and university laboratories within North Carolina's Research Triangle, in institutions around the United States, and indeed throughout the world. To cite a particularly visible example, there is heavy flow of ideas and persons between Chapel Hill and the Netherlands, where we have several collaborators in image processing and in human and computer vision.

We are proud, too, of our designs. The two that strike me the most are GRIP and Pixel-Planes. The GRIP software, operational since 1972 in a series of versions, has been at the heart of our research in interactive computer graphics, particularly its application to the elucidation of molecular structure. The Pixel-Planes hardware, operational since 1982 in a series of versions, has included the fastest computer graphics engine in the world.

The Department has received recognition from within the University and from without. Internal recognition is exemplified by the award of four named chairs to faculty members. Fred Brooks was named Kenan professor in 1975; I have already noted the chairs awarded to Jay Nievergelt, Henry Fuchs, and Steve Pizer. External recognitions have been heaped on Fred Brooks and awarded in substantial but less spectacular amounts to several other colleagues. A major recognition of the Department was its naming as a National Research Resource for Molecular Graphics.

Our most important accomplishment, however, is our human output. Fred is fond of saying that "people are our most important product." The numbers of degrees awarded is an imperfect measure. It does not count our contribution to the education of candidates who never finished their degree, nor to that of many who passed through our courses without ever intending a computer science degree. The numbers are readily available, however, and appear in Figure 8.

I have been asked to name our best known graduates. Can you think of a better recipe for making enemies? We can make available a list of all our graduates; you can decide who's well known.

Where have these graduates of ours gone? A few, as is usual, have vanished into thin air; please try to put them back in touch with us. The others have gone into industry, probably in larger proportion than from most other computer science departments, a handful into government service, and many--although a minority even of the doctorates--into academia.

Our graduates in industry do everything from hacking code to running a major corporation in Silicon Valley, and work for everything from exciting start-ups to the venerable IBM Research and AT&T Bell Labs. Our graduates in academia have gone to public and private secondary schools, four-year colleges, and major universities. It often gives me pause to realize that some of the students I taught are now full professors. Perhaps they will one day write histories of their own departments. It would serve them right.

I am requested to state that some of the materials used in the preparation of this history were located "in the University of North Carolina Archives of the Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill." I am pleased to acknowledge the beyond-the-call-of-duty digging performed by Pat Levin, secretary to the Curriculum in Mathematical Sciences. Several dozen present and former members of the Department assisted me in ways too numerous to mention. The impracticality of acknowledging each one individually in no way diminishes my gratitude to all of them. Not only to them, but to all those whose lives have intersected that of the Department, I am pleased to dedicate this history.

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