[Published originally in the March 2003 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 15/No. 2, pp. 4, 20.]
CRA: 30 Years of Service to the Computing Research Community of North America
By William Aspray
The year was 1972. For about a decade, universities had been forming doctoral programs in computer science; and by this time there were about 65 of them. Students were beginning to graduate in significant numbers, but there was no obvious way for them to look for jobs. Various professional meetings were being held, but none was focused primarily on academic research. The major computing professional societies, ACM and the IEEE Computer Society, were doing many good things, but the computing research community was not their principal interest. These societies had many interests to serve, and the majority of their members were programmers and others working in non-research positions in industry who had little interest in research issues. The department chairs of these newly formed doctoral programs believed they needed more attention to their own managerial needs, such as information about curriculum, doctoral production, and salaries, as well as to research issues.
These department chairs had begun to take action outside of the existing professional organizations. In 1970 Earl Schweppe had convened a meeting at his home institution, the University of Kansas, to discuss research issues in computing. Many of the key researchers from North America attended. In the November 1971 issue of Communications of the ACM, Penn State's Preston Hammer called for a new winter meeting that could serve for both research communication and job placement of new doctorates.
The following year, a group of chairs from doctoral computer science programs--mostly from the midwestern United States, but also from Canada and other parts of the United States--met to discuss issues concerning doctoral production and research in computer science. Several meetings were held in Columbus, Ohio, convened by the Ohio State department chair, Marshall Yovits. The group included (among others whose names have not been recorded in the historical record): Bob Ashenhurst (Chicago), Sam Conte (Purdue), George Dodd (General Motors Research), Preston Hammer (Penn State), Harry Hedges (Michigan State), Gerry Salton (Cornell), Jim Snyder (Illinois), Bob Stewart (Iowa State), Orrin Taulbee (Pittsburgh), Joe Traub (Carnegie Mellon), and Albert Wouk (Alberta).
These discussions led to the first Computer Science Conference. At first, the effort was encouraged by the ACM, but eventually the negotiations between the ACM officials and Yovits's group broke down over how to run the conference, and the chairs decided to organize the conference on their own. They obtained funding from NSF in 1972 and held the first conference in Columbus, Ohio, in 1973. It was more successful than anyone had imagined possible. Yovits's group organized another conference the following year-once again successful.
Now that it was a proven entity, not just someone's idea, ACM took renewed interest. For a few years, the annual research conference was jointly organized by this group of chairs and by ACM. Eventually it was decided to let ACM, which had the organizational wherewithal to plan this annual research conference, handle it on its own. ACM continued the conference well into the1990s, when specialization and conferences of special interest groups took their toll on the annual general-purpose research conference, and it was retired. In the early years, the meeting was always held in February, in the heart of the recruiting season for new Ph.D.s. An employment register was organized each year by Orrin Taulbee. The meeting was also used to run panels or workshops for department chairs on effective departmental management.
The chairs had wider interests than just the research conference, so they decided to organize themselves into a free-standing organization called the Computer Science Board (CSB). Their charter called for them to organize computer science chairs, promote communication among them, and provide a forum for discussion. They set a ratio of representation on the CSB at three-quarters academic and one-quarter industrial. The Computing Research Association continues to follow that practice today, with only minor modifications. CSB held its board meetings at the annual research conference.
From the beginning, there was participation by Canadian as well as U.S. computer scientists. Albert Wouk from the University of Alberta was a member of the original board. For many years, John Brzozowski from the University of Waterloo was active on the board, and for a while served as an officer. John Tartar from the University of Alberta was board chair and a key figure in the organization throughout most of the 1980s. Maria Klawe from the University of British Columbia, Ken Sevcik from the University of Toronto, and Frank Tompa from the University of Waterloo continued this tradition in the 1990s and into the new century. In 2001, a new arrangement was made to better allow the Canadians to develop their own organization (CACS/AIC), while at the same time remaining active within CRA as an affiliate society.
In the early 1970s, the number of departments of computer science in North America was growing rapidly. As one of its first projects, the CSB decided to keep track of all the departments that grant doctorates in computer science, and to inform them about news of interest. (Later the list was expanded to include departments awarding doctorates in computer engineering.) The list was named in honor of George Forsythe, who had founded the program at Stanford University. The Forsythe list continues to be maintained by CRA and is used to inform the community today.
The department chairs decided they needed a place to come together and meet. There were too many other things going on at the research conference (the technical papers themselves, placing one's graduate students, recruiting) to focus on the more general departmental needs and the state of the profession. Because the field was a new and thriving intellectual discipline, there were many growing pains and a need for concerted action. Tony Ahern from the University of Utah told the group of a resort that would be ideal for their meetings, nestled in the Wasatch Mountains not far from Salt Lake City. Starting in 1974, the organization has held a meeting for department chairs in the summer of every even-numbered year at the Snowbird Resort and Conference Center. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Snowbird conference resulted in a white paper on the state of computing. As the number of participants increased in the 1990s, it became too unwieldy to obtain the group consensus needed to prepare a White Paper, and so the practice was discontinued.
As early as the 1960s, members of the computing profession had begun to collect statistics about academic computing. Tom Keenan from the University of Rochester and John Hamblen from the Southern Regional Educational Board had compiled information about computers in use on campuses nationwide. In 1970 Orrin Taulbee from the University of Pittsburgh began collecting information about national production of computer science doctorates. Taulbee's work became an activity of CSB when the organization was formed in 1972. In the early years the results were published in Communications of the ACM, in the 1980s in both CACM and Computer, and in Computing Research News since its first publication in 1989.
CSB addressed a number of issues in the 1970s and 1980s of concern to the computer science departments. The prominent issues from this era included the mismatch between growth and research funding in computer science, the ways in which computer time was being charged for in academic departments, and the shortage of good journal referees. As one can see in Table 1 of topics discussed at the 1984 Snowbird meeting, many are not all that different from those being addressed today.
Table 1: Topics Discussed at the 1984 CSB Meeting at Snowbird
There had been talk throughout the 1980s that the computer science community did not have adequate representation in Washington. The biologists, chemists, and especially the physicists had this kind of representation and used it effectively, for example, in increasing the level of funding for research in their disciplines. This issue was of interest not only to the academic computer scientists, but also to people interested in computing in the National Science Foundation and the National Academies. It was in this same time period that the National Science Foundation formed a directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, and that the National Research Council restarted its Computer Science and Telecommunications Board.
A lengthy discussion of this issue was held at the 1986 Snowbird meeting. As a result, changes were made to CSB that same year. CSB began to position itself to act as the representative for all of computing research, not just for doctoral computer science departments. It incorporated itself as a not-for-profit organization. It changed its name to the Computing Research Board so it would include computer engineering as well as computer science. It changed its election procedures so that board members were elected by the chairs of doctoral-granting departments, instead of by the board itself, so the board would better represent the computing research community.
At the 1988 Snowbird meeting, the problem of national representation for the computing research disciplines was again considered at length. There was still no organization representing the computing research community in a serious and sustained way. CRB recommended that the doctoral departments of computer science and computer engineering be assessed membership dues in order to hire a permanent staff. The departments were overwhelmingly supportive. A dues schedule was established that enabled the office to operate on a reasonable basis, with dues ranging up to $5,000 per year, depending on the size of the school's faculty and research budget. Start-up funds were raised from ACM and a number of companies (AT&T, Digital Equipment, Hewlett Packard, IBM). Apple supplied office computers. The IEEE Computer Society provided the original office space and furnishings. The name was changed to Computing Research Association.
The office opened in 1989. Terry Walker, a professor at Louisiana State University and a member of the board of directors, served as interim executive director. Walker began publishing the association's newsletter, Computing Research News, and provided staff support for some of the continuing activities: the Forsythe List, the Taulbee Survey, and the Snowbird Conference.
In 1990, CRA hired Frederick Weingarten as executive director. Trained as a computer scientist, he had several decades of experience in Washington as a program officer at the National Science Foundation and as head of the computing and telecommunications program at the Office of Technology Assessment. In his six years as executive director, he built up the office, leasing office space, hiring a staff, and building up the membership.
There were three major program areas initiated during Weingarten's tenure. Drawing on his knowledge and contacts in the policy area, Weingarten built up the organization's policy program--providing the computing research community with its first permanent advocate in Washington. Weingarten was influential, for example, in the passage of the High Performance Computing Act that served as the authorizing legislation for more than a decade in support of federal funding of computing research. Weingarten also succeeded in finding external support to run a number of conferences and workshops of interest to the computing research community and the Washington policy community. Examples include the National Information Infrastructure Workshop in 1993, at which 400 industrial and academic researchers drafted a computing research agenda for the Clinton Administration, and the Next Generation Internet Workshop in 1997 that resulted in a report identifying a research agenda for national networking initiatives.
Started in 1990 and supported by Weingarten, the CRA's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) was formed to "maintain and increase the number and status of women participating in computer science research and education at all levels." CRA-W developed many programs and became one of the most active and effective groups addressing participation of women in the scientific and engineering disciplines. Programs included the Grace Murray Hopper Conference, career guidance literature and workshops, programs for undergraduate women to gain research experience during the school year and the summers, a series of publications, and many others.
During the first half of the 1990s, CRA and its programs grew rapidly. A 1995 planning effort led the board to create a mission statement, with four major areas of concentration: community-building (such as the Snowbird Conference and the Federated Computing Research Conference, of which CRA was a cofounder); human resources (such as the programs of CRA-W and the Coalition to Diversify Computing, of which CRA was a cofounder, to improve the status for underrepresented minorities in the computing profession); information gathering and dissemination (such as the Taulbee Survey and the Forsythe List), and policy.
As CRA's programs grew and membership and staffing increased, it became increasingly difficult for one person to serve as both executive director and director of government affairs. In 1996, Weingarten decided to focus on government affairs and a new executive director, William Aspray, was hired. Weingarten remained with CRA for another two years before leaving CRA for a full-time policy position with the American Library Association.
Aspray, trained as a mathematical logician and historian of computing, joined CRA after an early teaching career at Williams and Harvard and with management experience in several university-based research centers. CRA was a growing organization, and part of Aspray's work involved formalizing the organizational processes and structures and rebuilding and growing the staff. Academic and industrial membership was increased, a financial reserve fund was built, and the number of committees was expanded. The four mission areas identified by the board in 1995 continued to define CRA's focus, but a number of programs were added or expanded. These included an Executive Fellowship Program, a Digital Government Fellows program, an Industrial Salary Survey, regional meetings of industrial lab managers, an IT Deans Group, an Academic Profiles Survey, several workforce studies, an annual Leadership Summit for the various professional computing societies, career workshops, an electronic news bulletin, and the Richard Tapia Conference for underrepresented minorities in computer science.
Aspray announced his departure from CRA in summer 2002 to join the faculty of the recently formed School of Informatics at Indiana University. He was succeeded by Andrew Bernat, who was the founding chair of the computer science department at the University of Texas-El Paso. Bernat brings NSF experience, a proven track record of working to increase minority participation in the computing research community, and many other skills to his new job.
Table 2. CRA Mission Areas
Meanwhile, the organization continues to attract board members and officers of very high quality, many of whom choose to serve for many years. The original members of the board were predominantly department chairs from midwestern U.S. computer science departments. Today the board is a more diverse and representative group. There are leading research scientists as well as department chairs and deans from universities across the United States and Canada, senior research scientists and research managers from industrial computing laboratories, and representatives--often former presidents--from CRA's six affiliate societies (AAAI, ACM, CACS/AIC, IEEE Computer Society, SIAM, and Usenix). We do not have records that allow us to compile the complete list of people who have served on the board since the founding days, but the complete set of officers and many of the board members from 1990-2003 appear below.
Table 3. CRA Officers
William Aspray, CRA's Executive Director from 1996 to 2002, is a Professor in the School of Informatics at Indiana University (email@example.com).
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