Growth of a Department

A Personal History of Computer Science at UNC-Chapel Hill

Characterizing Principles

Several fundamental principles have characterized the Department from the beginning. Most were established explicitly by Fred. They continue to contribute markedly to the Department's success. Here, in no particular order, are those I judge most important.

Cooperation. The atmosphere is one of cooperation rather than competition. Faculty view graduate students as junior colleagues, and not as members of some inferior order. The University's tenure policy, which does not force assistant professors to compete with each other for a fixed, smaller number of positions, is a great help.

Garden Party meeting for incoming graduate 
students in 1980 (Photo by Mike Pique)

West House "Garden Party" meeting for incoming graduate students in 1980. (Photo: Mike Pique, © Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Pressure cooker. To make a good stew, one blends top ingredients. We recruit the strongest graduate students we can, often favoring exceptional scholarly skill and accomplishments over specific knowledge, mix them together, give each one a desk, screw down the lid and turn up the heat. They learn from each other as much as they do from us. Although we welcome part-time students, our program is designed for full- time students, and the full-time students get more out of the program.

Governance. Although the statutes of the University give the department chairman substantial powers to act alone, especially with respect to faculty appointments and remuneration, our practice has been for chairmen to consult widely and to share governance. All our chairmen have routinely consulted faculty and students on academic appointments and have often consulted faculty and staff on nonacademic appointments. The administrative work of the faculty is conducted through committees as small as one person and as large as six or eight. They do the homework and report to the full faculty, which either delegates decisions to the appropriate committee or acts upon the carefully studied advice of a committee. For us it works.

Student participation. Singly, in small groups, and in meeting assembled, students have been consulted on such issues as curriculum, examination structure, and faculty recruiting. In earlier years, most students were organized into a student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, a major professional society. The SACM chapter president was considered the students' official representative, and also had a vote at faculty meetings. It was eventually realized that students who elected not to join the ACM were disenfranchised, and the inclusive Computer Science Students Association (CSA) was formed instead. The CSA president now exercises the vote.

CSA provides guides and hosts for visiting prospective students; sponsors athletic activities, social gatherings, and an annual T-shirt design; and nominates students to serve on Department committees. In fact, one or more student members sit on almost every committee. Usually they do much more than merely represent student opinion; they contribute substantially to the work of the committee. As a committee chairman, I have more than once been saved by a student from shooting myself in the foot.

One student was able to participate even after graduation. Joan Bardez made a modest parting gift of cash to the Department, which created the loan fund named for her. Swelled by later contributions to some $900, it tides five or six students each year over until the next payday, and has probably been recycled ten times over.

Politics. We have as low a level of internal politics as I have seen in an academic setting. When the faculty votes on an issue, the stupid colleague who fails to see things my way is also the perceptive colleague who on a different issue supported my view. We continue to respect each other, and we vote on the issues, not by cliques. This offers, of course, a climate conducive to faculty stability, and permits faculty members to concentrate on teaching, research, and service, not on jungle survival.

Outside reviews. We are not too proud to seek advice. We have welcomed outside reviews of our graduate programs and of our research projects. We have typically prepared hard for these reviews, asking ourselves fundamental questions about what we are doing, often writing reports circulated to the reviewers in advance. We have occasionally made a major change suggested by outside reviewers, such as increasing our emphasis on the doctoral program as opposed to the master's program, in the early 1980s.

Driving problems. Our most successful research efforts have often been focused on a real problem, important to persons in other disciplines than ours. After all, computer scientists are toolsmiths, to quote Fred, and we obtain many valuable insights from working with persons who need our tools. Examples are molecular biologists elucidating the structure of protein molecules and physicians planning radiation treatment for a cancer patient.

Multiple interests. In recruiting faculty, we have sought persons with broad and multiple professional interests rather than narrow focus. This permits us to deploy critical mass for research in more areas or with fewer faculty members. That was particularly important when the faculty was small.

Classroom teaching. In recruiting faculty, we have sought persons interested in classroom teaching and either already skilled in it or with the potential to become skilled. We believe strongly that the lifetime teaching roles that our graduates will fill, whether or not they hold traditional academic positions, are so important that we require our own Ph.D. students to acquire a semester of classroom teaching experience.

Progressiveness. We remain open to new approaches to graduate education. In particular, we have participated in cooperative education with the computer science department at Duke University. We have at times had a joint colloquium series, we have scheduled classes jointly to take advantage of each other's strengths, and we have had Ph.D. students at each university with a major adviser at the other.

We have also participated in distance education, by offering and receiving courses since January 1985 over the superb television facilities of a microwave network established by the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC). The first operational link joined us to the department at Duke in Fall 1983; since then we have imported courses from and exported courses to several other universities in the state.

Visitors. To supplement a small faculty, Fred occasionally invited distinguished visitors to present a series of lectures over the course of a few weeks, or to teach for a whole semester. These stays have generally proved more inspiring and beneficial than an equal number of lectures, each by a different visitor. C. A. R. ("Tony") Hoare, then of the Queen's University, Belfast, gave eleven lectures. Niklaus Wirth, of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, gave nine lectures in a three-week visit. Among the significant longer teaching visits were those of Gerrit Blaauw, of the Technical University of Twente (Spring 1974); Carlo Ghezzi, of the Politecnico di Milano (1979-80); Tony Marsland, of the University of Alberta (Fall 1987); and Bernie Witt, of IBM's Federal Systems Division (1982-83).

Among the steady stream of one-time lecturers, the most distinguished have been Howard Aiken, on his seventieth birthday; John Backus, of IBM; John Cocke, of IBM; Andrei P. Ershov, of the Soviet Academy of Sciences; Grace Hopper, of the U.S. Navy; Kenneth Iverson, of I. P. Sharp and Associates; and Maurice Wilkes, of Digital Equipment Corporation (after retiring from the University of Cambridge).

More recently, we have been receiving a steady stream of visitors and collaborators from around the world. And our own faculty have become the distinguished visitors invited to share their expertise elsewhere.

Next Section: "Toddlerhood: 1967-70"

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