Monday, April 28, 2014

The outsized influence of Harvard computer science

Please forgive a bit of bragging about the program of which I have been a part for fifty years, forty of them on the faculty. I started at Harvard as a freshman in the fall of 1964 and became Assistant Professor of Computer Science in the fall of 1974.

Until very recently, the process of building up computer science has been painfully slow. Around 1978, while I was till junior faculty and was more reserved than I now am, I raised with my colleagues that idea that we might have an undergraduate major in computer science. "Computer Science?" one of the engineering faculty snorted indignantly. "Why would we have a major in computer science? We've never had a major in automotive science!" (Actually, we call these "concentrations" rather than "majors," just to be different.)

I did not press the idea again for a few years, and the first undergraduate CS degrees were awarded in 1982 or 1983.

Those days of indifferent commitment are a thing of the past, happily. Now half the college takes our introductory CS course and next month we'll be awarding about 100 CS degrees to graduating seniors (out of a class of about 1670).

Of course, even though the faculty size never broke into the twenties until the past few years, Harvard  College has been producing lots of important computer scientists for decades. Some of them, like Butler Lampson, had been math majors. Some of them, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, didn't bother sticking around to collect their degrees. Some, like Marvin Minsky, are so associated with other great institutions that most people forget they were ever at Harvard. But we had many of them when they were young.

I knew that, and yet I was stunned to see the results of a study of top-50 computer science departments. Among the questions asked was, where had the faculty been undergraduates?

More top-50-CS-department faculty had MIT undergraduate degrees than degrees from any other institution, by a large margin. But Harvard came in second with 67, more than twice the number who had been Stanford undergraduates. If you divide these numbers by number of departmental faculty, another table listed on the site, the comparison becomes even more dramatic (Harvard is near the bottom of that list, and our number is higher now than it has ever been in the past).

Probably Harvard's number of undergraduates-turned-faculty-in-top-50-CS-departments should be counted as 68, since Sheila Greibach graduated from Radcliffe College in the days when it still awarded its own degrees, even though all instruction was done coeducationally in the regular Harvard classes. On the other hand, the data are a bit rough--a fair number of faculty on the roster don't have any undergraduate degree listed. (It's a Google Doc. You can't sort it in place, but you can make a copy and sort it by any column.)

Details. Whatever the exact counts may be, the data scream to me the importance of recruiting top talent at the undergraduate level, people who know how to take advantage of opportunities and how to look into the future rather than simply learning what they are taught.

The dramatic reversal when you ask instead where faculty earned their PhDs--there are more than three times as many Stanford PhDs as Harvard PhDs on the roster-- is a dramatic indicator of the years of lost opportunity at Harvard while Stanford CS was flourishing.

Those days are over. We have a strong faculty group now, we are still growing, and we're planning our move to a new campus in Allston. And the students are better than ever.


  1. So in 1978 Harvard was asking `why should we have a major in Computer Science', but by 1983 or so they had one. The obvious question- is this
    ahead of or behind he curve? How many places had a CS major in 1978?
    How many had one in 1982? I ask these rhetorically but my point stands- was
    Harvard behind the times. Two data points: SUNY stonybrook had one by 1976 (my first year there) and Univ if MD at College Park had a CS major starting in 1973 (we had our 40th anniv in 2013)

  2. FYI, from one of my favorite blogs. There's a strong positive correlation between the number of CS PhDs and arcade revenue in the US.

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