Message from the Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Cornell

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 10 percent. The number of outside departments 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 been a success.

Let me briefly mention a few of the honors and awards won by CS faculty members during the past year. Steve Marschner, together with co-authors Henrik Wann Jensen and Pat Hanrahan, received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Steve and Rich Caruana received NSF Faculty Early Career and Development (CAREER) awards. Johannes Gehrke was a co-recipient of the Provost’s 2004 Award for Distinguished Scholarship. Lillian Lee received Best Paper Award at the joint Human Language Technology Conference and Annual Meeting of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics (HLT–NAACL) (with Regina Barzilay).

Dexter Kozen became a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The department has two new endowed professorships: Keshav Pingali is the India Professor of Computer Science and John Hopcroft is the IBM Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics—a pair of well-deserved honors.

CS’s faculty members continue to have leadership roles within the university making possible new collaborations and initiatives. David Gries continues as the associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Engineering. We have joint appointments with the Johnson Graduate School of Management (Dan Huttenlocher) and the Weill Medical College (Ramin Zabih). There is outreach to other universities through the tri-institutional program for computational biology (Ron Elber) and an Information Technology Research (ITR) grant concerned with high-performance code generation for scientific and engineering applications (Keshav Pingali, Steve Vavasis, and Paul Chew). We have CS leadership in the CTC (Tom Coleman), the Financial Industry Solutions Center (FISC) (Tom Coleman), the Intelligent Information Systems Institute (IISI) (Carla Gomes), the Information Assurance Institute (IAI) (Fred Schneider), the PCG (Don Greenberg), and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) (Bill Arms.) Ron Elber was named director of the Library of Life, which is part of the new Bridging the Rift Center to be located on the border between Jordan and Israel. These multidisciplinary adventures are supported by the department’s commitment to collegiality and core CS research.

Saddle up. It’s Big Sky Country!