Computer Science Department

Statement from the Chair

When I was first learning about computer science, it was tempting to think that technology was all that mattered: the programming languages, algorithms, and operating systems; the hardware that they run on; the networks that connect everything; and all of this working together in some pure, mechanical fashion to accomplish a broad set of goals. As I've grown older, I've come to realize that we should pay more attention instead to the people, including those who build and operate our systems, as well as those whose lives are impacted by the ways that they are used. As computer scientists, we often celebrate the innovations that have been driven by the visions of industry or intellectual leaders; by chance interactions and meetings between small groups of individuals; or by the efforts of larger teams working together, whether in a small garage, a tech start up, or a larger company. Embarrassingly, we have not been as willing to recognize or counter the presence of systemic issues in our field that work to exclude, diminish, or discourage the participation of many people who do not fit the cultural stereotypes for what it means to be a computer scientist. This is not a matter for debate. If you have any doubt, then picture the days, not so long ago, when you might have found yourself in a classroom filled with computer science students, and consider whether the people you would see there are truly representative of the society that we see outside.

In recent days, we have witnessed protests and deep unrest, both locally and around the globe, that have drawn attention, once again, to pervasive systemic racism and injustice. It is a deeply uncomfortable reality that many of the people around us, even when they live in the same place, with supposedly the same facilities and opportunities, will nevertheless experience our same world in very different ways. Many of these differences can be traced to differences in the color of a person's skin, and to a long and ugly history surrounding the ways in which people of different races have been treated. This is unacceptable, and it is important to state, not as a slogan that is easily said, but as a personal commitment and focus for my own work, that Black Lives Matter.

What can a department like ours do to address the issues that people of color, and those in other underrepresented groups, have to deal with on a daily basis in computer science? I believe that our obligations begin with the need to listen very carefully to understand the experiences of those around us, both in our immediate community, and further away. But we also need to learn from what we hear, and to be proactive in reaching out to improve our education and understanding of these critical topics. Beyond that, but most critically, we need to act, with empathy and urgency; every one of us has an important role to play in working to build the only kind of future that is acceptable, where everyone's participation is welcome, and everyone's contributions and accomplishments are properly recognized.

The task ahead is daunting and challenging. It will require dedication and perseverance, and, for many of us, a significant investment of time and energy as we confront unpleasant truths and rethink the way that we structure and conduct our work. In my role as chair, I pledge to make this a top priority for me and for the department. Many of you may have personal insights, recommendations, or criticisms that might help inform our work. I urge you to share those with me, and I promise that I will listen with openness, humility, and a commitment to act on what I learn. But building a fair and equitable future for everyone in computer science will be the biggest innovation that our discipline can deliver, and every one of us has a key role to play in making that a reality.

Thank you and best wishes,

Mark (