Letter from Ron Kay

Back to ICSI Gazette, Spring 2014

Ron Kay, ICSI’s first acting director, worked with Norbert Szyperski to found the institute

The most appropriate retrospective of ICSI’s 25 years would be to identify the major scientific ideas that have been pursued and show their impact upon computer science.  Not qualified to do this, I will leave that to some future historian.  What I will attempt is to call attention to some of the contributions to ICSI not subject to the best paper award.

The accompanying profile of Norbert Szyperski speaks of the seminal role he played in the conception and establishment of ICSI.  This was something that had never been done before; it required imagination and commitment to an idea, once formulated.  But it also required the support of people who could make a difference.

Among the earliest supporters who made a difference was Michael Rabin, Turing Award Laureate, of Harvard and the University of Jerusalem. Rabin served on the initial Board of  Trustees of ICSI and he was instrumental in recruiting Jerry Feldman to the ICSI directorship. It takes someone of Rabin’s stature to convince a well-established professor of computer science to commit his future to something never tried before.

Early on, there were four people on the Berkeley campus who made a difference in the  establishment of a novel organizational entity, associated with the university:

  • Calvin Moore, Professor of Mathematics, co-founder of Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) at UC Berkeley
  • Joseph Cerny, Professor of Chemistry, Provost for Research, UC Berkeley
  • Ernest Kuh, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Chair  of the EECS Department, UC Berkeley
  • Domenico Ferrari, Professor of Computer Science, Chair of the CS Dvision, UC Berkeley

Moore was most generous in sharing his experience in founding MSRI, an independent institute housed at UC Berkeley, in 1982.  He had faced many of the problems encountered by ICSI and had shown organizational genius not usually associated with professors of mathematics.

Cerny, in his role as provost, was instrumental in bringing together the interests of the university, the EECS faculty, and ICSI; a brilliant scientist and an exceptional administrator, he exemplified what made UC Berkeley great.

Kuh and Ferrari, as heads of the department, had the job of rallying the faculty in support of ICSI.  Anyone familiar with the task of getting a large faculty to agree on a course of action will appreciate the accomplishment of a joint faculty proposal.  In the course of site selection it had become evident that even institutions of great renown could not marshal such concerted action.

I can honestly say that, without these four individuals, ICSI would not have materialized.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there were others who made a difference. Foremost was Dr. Uwe Thomas, a director in the German Ministry for Research and Development, then known as the BMFT. At the time, German officialdom was ill prepared to consider the idea of a German-funded institute in the United States.  Thomas immediately appreciated the potential of Szyperski’s proposal. He asked the right questions and defined the appropriate conditions to be met to realize such an undertaking. One of these rare individuals able to think outside of the box and a mindset to get things done, he understood how to make the system work.

Another such individual who played a significant role in the establishment of ICSI was Friedrich Winkelhage who became the acting director of the Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung when Szyperski left to take over as CEO of Mannesmann-Kienzle.  Winkelhage took over in the midst of negotiations between the German Government and the Förderverein, newly established to assume formal responsibility for the funding of ICSI.

Winkelhage was another exceptionally competent individual who put his dedication to the idea of ICSI above the many other demands made upon him.

In the world of science, we rarely speak of management as a praiseworthy activity. On the other hand, there is no hesitation in our reaction to poor management. This is unfortunate in my view. Jerry Feldman and Nelson Morgan, who have carried the burden of running ICSI for the better part of 25 years, deserve our admiration and gratitude for their willingness to perform an essential service which has benefited everyone associated with ICSI.

And what is more – to have done it, and continue to do it, well.

The extra travel, the time away from the family and the voluntary deferment of doing science is only partially compensated by the satisfaction which comes from doing something for the community at large. This community includes everyone who has ever come to the director with a personal problem, the dedicated staff who look to the director for recognition of their work, and the visitors who benefit from the services that have been put in place to make their stay productive and enjoyable.

Speaking of dedicated staff!  The extended tenure of much of the staff speaks of their loyalty and sense of pride in being part of ICSI. I have come to know them as an exceptionally competent group who, through their initiative, have made ICSI a world-renowned place and, for computer science faculty, a favored place to do research.

For many of the postdocs who have participated, ICSI has been an important part of their professional career and, for all of us, the basis for lasting friendships.

Within the context of this laudation there is a need for recognition of the Board of Trustees. These fine people, recognized leaders of their fields, have given much of their valuable time – and not only at board meetings – to help the director and the institute as a whole.

Let me single out Wolfgang Wahlster, mainly because I know him well. Director of the German Research Center for AI, he was one of the first visitors to ICSI. With UC Berkeley Professors Peter Norvig (now director of research at Google) and Robert Wilensky, he helped organize an ICSI-supported conference on planning in the UNIX domain  in 1988.* Since 2002, Wahlster has been one of the most active members of the ICSI Board; for all these years, he has been instrumental in securing German government support for ICSI. As member of numerous commissions and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, he is today one of the most influential computer scientists.

ICSI is fortunate indeed to have the support of such distinguished individuals.

ICSI’s future success will continue to depend upon its contribution to computer science.  Such success will largely be due to the responsible group leaders. Here, I can only add my sincere admiration for their past accomplishments and untiring effort to stay on top.