Message from the CS Chair

At Cornell and other research universities, departments and research areas were once much more closely aligned. Physics was handled by faculty in the Department of Physics, anthropology was the purview of faculty in the Department of Anthropology, and so on. In those “Wild West” days, the department chair’s job was like herding researchers on the open range! With widely spaced academic homesteads, the primary responsibility was to guarantee “good grazing” up to and including the horizon. Chairs in fledgling subjects such as computer science had the additional problem of defining the horizon. My predecessors did an excellent job in that regard.

            Fast-forward to the age of multidisciplinary research, where it is impossible to say where one scholarly area ends and the next begins. As everyone knows, broad research agendas tend not to align with the university’s grid of academic departments. Well-known administrative solutions that address this problem include the joint faculty appointment, the cross-listed course, and the on-campus multidisciplinary research center. At Cornell, we are fortunate to have a fourth device that can also be used to track critical research trends—the graduate-field system. In this system we define the set of allowable thesis advisors for a given student by field rather than by department, a distinction that makes our approach to multidisciplinary research friendly and effective. The system’s inventors made Cornell a stronger research university because they challenged a department-centric view of graduate education. Thanks to their vision, our Ph.D. students see only the open prairie, even though it has long since been partitioned into a patchwork of administrative territories.

            Multidisciplinary research is also forcing us to rethink how we deliver undergraduate education, because on this campus we insist upon the tight coupling of research and the undergraduate mission. Narrow definitions of “college” discourage the creation of new undergraduate programs and the flourishing of others when the subject matter fails to align with the university’s subdivision into colleges. The Faculty of CIS addresses this issue in part by overseeing CS in a way that does not diminish the colleges of Engineering or Arts and Sciences, where our undergraduate majors reside. It is an administrative innovation that generalizes the concept of college so that membership issues are driven by intellectual considerations, just as they are in the graduate-field system. If all goes according to plan, Cornell undergraduates in computing and information science will likewise see just the open prairie.

            New structures like the Faculty of CIS make departments all the more important. Departments are the critical social unit within academia. The loftiest university-level strategic plan depends upon how well the participating departments hire, mentor, and promote their faculty and how outward-looking they are in terms of curriculum. Life on the prairie is defined by life on the homestead and the department is the homestead.

            In looking over our particular academic domicile, I am happy to report that we are stronger and more secure in our campus mission than ever before. Compared to last year, our research expenditures are up about 30 percent and the number of outside units that have representation in the field of computer science has doubled. (Psychology, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Science and Technology Studies join Electrical and Computer Engineering, Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, and Mathematics.) The number of departments that cross-list courses with CS has increased from a handful to about a dozen. This track record reflects our commitment to the university’s strategic plan for computing and information science and confirms that the CIS structure has had a very positive effect upon the department.

            Thinking about faculty, we have two new assistant professors in computer graphics (Kavita Bala and Steve Marschner). We have Sloan Fellowship award winners (Lillian Lee and Andrew Myers) and NSF Career award–winners (Johannes Gehrke, Andrew Myers, and Golan Yona). We have a record number of assistant professors (fourteen). It’s youth and creativity up and down the hallways of Upson!

            When it comes to the senior faculty and researchers, it’s youthful outlook and creativity that abound. (Note careful word choice!) We have joint appointments with the business school (Dan Huttenlocher) and the medical school (Ramin Zabih). There is outreach to other universities through the tri-institutional program for computational biology (Ron Elber) and an ITR grant concerned with high-performance code generation for scientific and engineering applications (Keshav Pingali, Steve Vavasis, Paul Chew). We have CS leadership in the Cornell Theory Center (Tom Coleman), the Financial Industry Solutions Center (Tom Coleman), the Intelligent Information Systems Institute (Carla Gomes), the Information Assurance Institute (Fred Schneider), the Program in Computer Graphics (Don Greenberg), the National Science Digital Library (Bill Arms), and the Cognitive Studies program (Joe Halpern). These multidisciplinary adventures are supported by the department’s commitment to collegiality and core CS research.

            Saddle up. It’s Big Sky Country!