Western University Computer ScienceWestern Science

    The Irene Years

    by Irene Gargantini (1996)

    This installment of departmental history skips some interim departmental chairs and continues with Irene Gargantini. Irene served as the Department Chair from 1986 to 1991 and retired in 2000. In retirement, Irene started a new career as an author of fiction. In 2012, she won the Royal DragonFly Book Award for Fiction under her pen name of Rene Natan.

     

     

    Irene Gargantini

    "You are going to make history," said my old boss, Ted Elcock. It was the spring of 1986. According to Elcock, I was about to become the first chairwoman of a computer science department in the country. When Kee Dewdney, a co-editor of Interface, asked me to describe my term as the chair of computer science, I had mixed feelings. Being chair had been, simultaneously, an honour, a challenge and a test of endurance. As far as the honour went, I found out later on that I had to share it with Eshrat Arjomandi, a young professor at York University.

    An Emerging Discipline

    When I first came to Western in 1968 (on leave of absence from the IBM Research Laboratory in Switzerland), I soon realized that most academics at UWO hardly knew the difference between a calculator and a programmable computer. For most of them the name "von Neumann" evoked Teutonic ancestry and little else. In 1986, when I took over the Chair, I realized that campus perception of computers had improved, but not by much. Scientists still viewed computers as research tools for their individual disciplines, ignoring the fact (somewhat unscientifically) that in order to become a reliable research tool, a computer first had to become a research object in its own right. Computer science is the discipline which addresses that issue.

    Because of the huge number of operations (mainly arithmetic) that a computer could perform, scientists were enthralled by the possibility of attacking problems that had been previously out of reach. For my colleagues in the other science departments, that's all a computer was for - a tool to satisfy their research needs.

    The exploration of new topics such as the design of user-friendly languages, the need to guarantee correctness of programs, the linking of microchips that would permit the rapid passage of messages (even in different formats), the distribution of computing among several processors to speed up solutions, 3D rendering software, even flight and cockpit simulators (a milestone of virtual reality) were all dismissed by our learned colleagues as "Games! That's what you do in that department - play games!"

    Machines of Our Own

    The consequence of this attitude was an underfunded department, in comparison with others in the Faculty of Science. Being an emergent department, Computer Science needed little, but consistent, nourishment. That was not to be the case, however. There was little understanding, no matter how much some deans tried to help. Instead of providing tools and funds for vigorous, healthy development, only temporary remedies were devised. For example, faculty from other departments (with lower student/faculty ratios) were seconded to Computer Science to teach introductory computer courses. The department was also forced to use central computing facilities that were totally inadequate for our students.

    I should make it clear that our colleagues from other departments did a splendid job of teaching first year courses. But they could not contribute to the establishment of our research environment.

    As for the inadequacy of the centralized computing facilities, I remember trying to get to my office on a brisk Monday morning in the fall of 1987. I had to fight my way through a crowd of second-year students whose Cobol assignment was due that day. The central computer, a DEC-10, had been inaccessible to them since early Friday night. The reason? A chemistry graduate student had set a "priority key" to have exclusive access to the computer for his graduate work!

    The time had come to mount a vigorous campaign to take the choice and management of teaching facilities into our own hands, an advantage that other departments had enjoyed for decades. I wanted to be sure that our teaching staff had equipment adequate to their teaching and research needs. In order to protect everyone from the cantankerous director of the computing centre, I held a secret ballot in which I asked whether a collection of personal computers, suitably connected by two file servers, would make a good learning environment for first year students. The answer was 17 "yes" and one "no". The secret ballot protected those faculty who, even if disgusted by the management of the centralized facilities, were afraid to express an opinion openly. The time for PCs had finally come and the department would choose the equipment!

    Another example of the somewhat puzzling attitude of the university at large is the acquisition of three supercomputers (over the last 12 years) for use in science and engineering. Their performance in numerical calculations is impressive, but the paucity of other functions is astonishing. Supercomputers are not very useful to computer scientists, by and large. We need performance of many different kinds: fast links to other computers, large and flexible memory caches, imaging capability, compatibility with various peripherals, and so on.

    The university has spent a lot of money to satisfy the computational hunger of our scientific colleagues, but very little on the computer science research environment. By my calculation, a proportional allotment of funds to Computer Science (based on income units for all Science departments over the last twenty years) should have exceeded $800,000. We got about a third of that for our research network in the 1980s and not one penny more. We currently need funds to restructure the network and to modernize the graphics computing environment by providing group work facilities, animation, and data visualization, not to mention an effective multi-media centre.

    Real Concerns

    Panic with a capital "P" struck in April 1987. At a time when the department could least afford it, four faculty members all decided to resign at the same time. This left more than 17 courses uncovered for the coming year. Some of the graduate courses would simply have to be cancelled, but we could not leave undergraduate courses untaught. I can still recall resorting to an international recruiting agency that dealt with eastern Europe and appealing to faculty from other universities to take their sabbaticals in our department just so they could teach some of our courses. As for me, I taught two courses over my entire term as Chair, just to help keep us afloat.

    Between 1986 and 1991 I examined about 150 applications and interviewed some 50 candidates. This resulted in the hiring of seven new members, about a third of our current faculty. Most of them proved to be effective teachers and excellent researchers.

    As a female faculty member I was not treated equitably with my male counterparts. For this reason, almost immediately after my election, I examined the salaries of female colleagues and compared them with the salaries of males in equivalent positions. As I expected, things were far from perfect. I did my best to straighten out the problem, just as my former dean, John Bancroft, had tried to do for me in the early 1980s.

    Except for an unhappy remark about the percentage of female faculty members that the university was supposed to have ("Nowadays, to get a good position, men have to have appropriate surgery!"), I did not experience any discrimination. I was treated fairly as a chairwoman. On the other hand, I tried to treat everyone fairly, men and women alike.

    Last Words

    As I hinted at the beginning, being chair has been, overall, a gratifying experience. It might not have been so had I not met a dean, Dr. Bill Fyfe, whose vision included computer science from the beginning. It might not have been so had I not enjoyed the cooperation of most of my colleagues, the unflagging assistance of three wonderful secretaries, and the constant inspiring presence of students, eager to learn and to face life with an enlarged vision of the world.