1998 - 1999 CS Annual Report           Message from CIS Dean and CS Chair
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CIS-Dean Message     Chair Message

Charlie and I have adopted the theme of "transitions" for this report. He has become the new CS Chair, and I have become Dean for Computing and Information Science, leading the university's academic initiative in this area. I am responsible to the Provost for the CS Department, and the Department has become the nucleus of a new university-level administrative unit. As a dean, I will remain active in research and teaching, as I did when I was chair. Charlie also plans to follow the CS tradition that the chair stays engaged in teaching and research.

Even larger changes impacting CS are being proposed by the Task Force on Computing and Information Science headed by Dan Huttenlocher. Excerpts of their initial report, "Cornell in the Information Age", follow this introductory section. The full report appears on the department home page (under Quick Links).


 Robert Constable & Charlie Van Loan

Much has happened to the field of computer science since I started my term as acting chair in 1993 and as chair a year later. In 1993, the first web browser, Mosaic, appeared, building on the one-year-old Internet protocol, http, that enabled the World Wide Web. Only in 1995 were commercial restrictions on the Internet lifted. Before that, there was no amazon.com, no eBay, no electronic commerce to speak of. (We have heard it said that by 1995 half of the Web users had never heard of Mosaic --- that is internet-time!) The well-documented and unprecedented run of US economic prosperity was only in its second year. It continues to amaze the experts. Government studies had not yet confirmed that US economic growth is being fueled by the information technology sector.

In 1993 the biologists and we were just beginning to understand the new deep links that would connect us. (There have always been strong ties between computing and biology, e.g., Babbage influenced Darwin, and finite automata arose as abstractions of brain models.) The notion that a massive worldwide digital library would spring up in a matter of years was not widely foreseen. Gerry Salton was still alive and was only beginning to see his field of Information Retrieval move to center stage, and with it, his fundamental contributions. Scholars, historians and journalists are now telling us that there is an information revolution and that our field is at the heart of it. They foresee a revolution on the scale of the Industrial Revolution and beyond. We are fortunate to experience it in our lifetimes.

In 1993, the department had essentially no AI group, no systems lab, no database effort, and no computational biology, and it was just getting started in digital libraries with the launch of the CS Technical Report project in late 1992. We also had just launched our "multimedia" effort. There was no firewall around our computers, about 135 of them, all SUNs and Macs. Rhodes Hall had been around for only a year. We were receiving about $6 million in research funding (almost doubled during John Hopcroft's tenure as chair).

By 1996, the department felt the warm winds of change again gusting hard on our sails. The telltales were from increased research contacts across the university and from the number and quality of students taking CS courses and wanting to major in CS. There were occasional helpful gusts of hot air from the popular press. But even our more sober writings drew attention to something quite remarkable, that modern computer science was relevant to every subject taught at Cornell. Many disciplines were becoming either computational or data-intensive. Faculty in those fields wished to hire people who understood computer science and could  interact with us. Already by this time the central administration was trying to channel additional resources to CS. We formulated a plan for Cornell to broadly profit from the expertise and reputation of the Department of Computer Science and for the department to be enriched by interaction with other fields.

Our Vision Statement was intended to be a blueprint for the growth that we knew must come. We spent a summer faculty retreat drafting our plan, and in the fall of 1996, wrote a document that became known as the "revision statement" because we revised it so much, practically half of the department rewrote some of it. We also worked with Cornell's new President, Hunter R. Rawlings, III, who helped us understand how to build a "computer science community" at Cornell as he put it; even he spent time revising the document!

The Vision Statement has become sharper from the vantage point of a broader department; it has guided our hiring plans and shaped our dialogue with the administration. Eventually, it became the basis for a much wider definition of Computing and Information Science at Cornell. I am pleased with the Vision Statement and its consequences; and, of course, I am proud of the outstanding talent pool of faculty, researchers, and staff that is now assembled in the department.

During my term, we reorganized for growth; this meant more staff, better-trained staff, and new management structures, from the "Nuts & Bolts" advisory committee and senior financial manager to the new senior human resources manager. We needed to manage the increase in research funding to $15.5 million, the expansion of projects, and growth in the faculty and research staff and the legion of computers they brought along. The computing operation went through a phase transition as we created a hybrid environment of PC's, Sun workstations, and servers --- now over 500 machines.

Amidst all this change, salient defining invariants remain. We thrive in an unsurpassed research environment nurtured by one of the world's premier research universities. Cornell has attracted exceptional talent to all of its academic endeavors. It has helped the department remain one of the five best places in the United States to do computer science. We have managed to broaden considerably and yet maintain the quality that distinguishes us. The department is still renowned for its cohesion and collegiality despite increased diversity and breadth. The number of collaborations across subfield boundaries is exceptional. The faculty's open-door policy to students and the long tradition of regular faculty lunches continues, even without the institutional support of a university faculty club - now we rely on a friendly bagel shop with its outdoor patio (that we used even in February this year).

The fall External Program Review took an official hard look at the CS Department. The Review Committee was headed by Anita Jones and consisted of Hector Garcia-Molina, Randy Katz, Justin Rattner, and Margaret Wright. This was part of a university-mandated review of all departments, so we had help compiling a mountain of statistical data for the review team. Their extremely favorable report helped the university in its planning for CIS. Two of the phrases from the report that we especially appreciated said:

"... it is highly unusual for a small department to rank highly when the department does not cover most major sub-areas of the field. Cornell department leadership over the years has charted a most effective course and maintained Cornell as one of the top CS departments."

"Computation and information science and technology are crucial enablers for advancement in a multitude of disciplines in any university. Cornell is advantaged by having a truly excellent Department of Computer Science!"

We continue to find common ground in our focus on the scientific core that binds computer science into a coherent discipline. That core is documented as a rapidly growing body of knowledge on computing and information, created as the field repeatedly rose to the challenge of very hard technical problems about how computers can be used: what are the limits, what are the laws, how to compute well, how to compute correctly, what can computers help us do better, and what is possible in "cyberspace". This body of knowledge documents our field and has earned it a permanent place in all university curricula (some new universities have started with only CS and a couple of other departments). Its fundamental contributions are widely recognized, more than in 1993, because there is a burgeoning list of artifacts and phenomena whose behavior is governed by laws of information and principles of computation.

Our field is about information: its organization and retrieval. It is about computers: we interact with computers to create knowledge from information. It is about communication: sharing knowledge with others to achieve better understanding. CS also studies the process just described, and is thus about implementing intellectual processes. These concepts are currently grounded in digital computers, but they apply to all information processors, eventually perhaps to quantum computers, to biological computers, surely to the human mind, and to societies of minds. The universal and quantitative character of this body of knowledge ties it to the sciences, while the breadth and abstractness give it an uncommonly intimate reach to the humanities. It is a field that is accelerating the "unity of explanation" that E.O. Wilson has written about in his book Consilience. There he draws attention to this fundamental question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important to human welfare?

Anyone who watches an infant growing up knows that humans are inherently and insatiably curious and communicative. The Information Revolution rests ultimately on these basic human instincts. Our field is rewarded because software has enabled computers to satisfy many basic human needs. Their most significant impact is in discovery, communications, commerce, and entertainment. Consequently, the revolution is fueled by tremendous social energy, the energy that we all provide by wanting to know more, talk more, and experience more.

The next several decades will surely see stunning advances in computing and information science as we continue to ride the exponential growth of computing power. Already our computers are marvels, their speed and memory capacity extending the boundaries of many fields. This exponential growth and the corresponding decline in cost spreads both the technology and the ideas of CS into the fabric of science and scholarship, assuring that the field will become even more relevant to the questions of human inquiry, especially to Wilson's question which is central to universities. We intend to insure that Cornell remains a leader in the Information Age by providing the best environment for research and education in computing and information science.

Our faculty continue to make an impact at the national level. Juris Hartmanis returned to the department after serving as Deputy Director at the National Science Foundation. Fred Schneider chaired the National Research Council study on Information Systems Trustworthiness and was the editor of its final report, "Trust in Cyberspace". That report attracted considerable attention from federal policy makers and the popular press. Schneider gave briefings at the White House, NSF, DARPA, NSA, and the FCC about information systems trustworthiness; he was also keynote speaker at all four of the national conferences in Computer Security.

Several faculty received recognition for their accomplishments in research and teaching this year. Charles Van Loan was named the Joseph C. Ford Professor in Engineering. Dan Huttenlocher and Keshav Pingali were promoted to Full Professor. Eva Tardos received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Ken Birman was elected a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Several of our newer faculty received awards recognizing their research: Jon Kleinberg as an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator, Bart Selman as an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, and Greg Morrisett with a Career award from the National Science Foundation. Two faculty received honorary degrees: David Gries from Miami University and Juris Hartmanis from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Stephen Vavasis, Thorsten von Eicken, Praveen Seshadri, and Lillian Lee received College of Engineering Teaching Awards.

Chair's Message

First and foremost, Id like to thank Bob Constable, the previous Chair, for his visionary leadership and for taking us to the beginning of a new era. He has set the stage in a way that resonates perfectly with the mission of the University. Now the time has come for each of us to get up and play our part.

For me this is easy because a path has been cleared for me to put back into the system that which I have taken out. No surprise, then, that my highest priority is to make sure our assistant professors have the same quality environment that I enjoyed back in the late 1970s. There is nothing more important to the department than turning a fresh PhD hire loose in a supportive environment that is free of politics, rich in facilities, and dominated by great students.

Another item on my agenda is to foster the development of new courses for it is here that teaching meets research. A new course on machine learning gives the professor a chance to distill from years of research experience the essence of what is important to the undergraduate. A new course on scientific computing for molecular biologists is an occasion for the professor to articulate the connection between algorithms and applications, the long-term goal being the production of molecular biologists who ten years from now routinely connect algorithms and applications. Other examples could be given and they all point to the importance of the information superhighway-- the one that starts at the office whiteboard and ends in the classroom. For it is along this highway that straggly research ideas grow up and become polished syllabus items in thoughtfully constructed undergraduate courses.

Parallel to this is the trend for our colleagues in other departments to develop courses that relate various CS ideas to their own disciplines. We must be both encouraging and involved in this process, always remembering that we have as much to learn as to teach.

By being committed to basic research and the ideals of liberal education, we can effectively play our role in the larger information science picture that is unfolding on campus. The strength of that commitment will determine how well we maintain our identity as a department. I am confident because of the talent of the faculty, the skill of the staff, and the caliber of our students. It will be easy to meet with enthusiasm the challenges that are associated with research funding, industrial partnerships, and grad/faculty recruiting because I have been given the keys to a great All-Terrain Vehicle. Thanks!