I was surprised to discover a computer scientist as principal of a world-leading university the other day. I was even more surprised to discover that there have been several others.
Now I suppose I should first admit that I don’t know why I’m surprised by this — but I am. In most institutions computer science very much takes a back seat compared to other, more established Schools: physics, mathematics, biology, history and the like. It’s hard to see why this should be the case, especially given computer science’s central role in the new science and the fact that it’s often one of the highest-earning Schools in terms of research and innovation income (although St Andrews is unusual if not unique in having a humanity — international relations — as it’s highest-earning School, and from which we’ve drawn our current Principal).
The person I came across was John Kemeny, who was president of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire through the 1970s. Kemeny is one of the co-inventors of the BASIC programming language, which provided me (and many others) with their first introduction to computer programming. BASIC was invented at Dartmouth, of course, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he should have risen to such a position of influence. It’s hard to over-estimate how important BASIC was, in a world then populated by low-level assembly code or compilers of dubious quality: the first Pascal compiler I used used to spit-out assembly code so you could go through it, optimise and correct it by hand. As an interpreted language, BASIC provided a far simpler and more accessible introduction to what computers were capable of, and even on early 8-bit microcomputers was fast enough to be used for both serious applications and games.
Having tweeted my surprise at this, I was then told about other computer scientists who’ve led — or indeed lead — universities:
- Maria Klawe (algorithm design, accessibility), President of Harvey Mudd College
- Tim O’Shea (computer-assisted learning), Principal of the University of Edinburgh
- Ewan Page (mainframe pioneer), Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading
- John Hennessy (processor design), Provost and then President of Stanford University
- Jane Grimson (databases, health informatics), Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin
- Jeff Vitter (algorithm design), President of the University of Kansas
And of course an honourary mention for:
- Paddy Nixon (pervasive computing), Vice-Principal for Research, University of Tasmania
Before anybody asks, this is not a tradition I have the slightest interest or intention of following in — or indeed the ability to do so. But it’s great to see that techies can and do aspire to the top job.