Getting To the Next Level: Zvi Galil Talks About His Plans for the College of Computing

Friday, September 3, 2010


On July 1, 2010, Zvi Galil became the third John P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech. Previously Galil served as president of Tel Aviv University in Israel and Morris and Alma A. Schapiro Dean of Engineering at Columbia University.

Why were you attracted to the College of Computing and what makes it poised for success?

The College is very unique, with a very special set-up. First of all, being a college of computing rather than a department is very unusual, and that’s the right way to do computing education and research in the 21st century. Second, we are a pretty good size, and with a larger size you can cover many areas. You can be flexible and get involved with interdisciplinary research. You have enough faculty to venture into new areas. The field of computing keeps changing, and it’s important that some of our faculty try to develop new areas. I hope we will do that.

Can you talk about some more things that make the College different from its peers?

We have an ideal infrastructure, especially the Klaus Advanced Computing Building, which is quite an advantage over our peers. Our Threads curriculum has made us a leader in computing education, and it’s actually being copied in a lot of places. Another factor that distinguishes us in education is the Computational Media program, which brings students from outside of computing, students from the liberal arts, to do computing.

Let’s talk about alumni. How important are alumni to the College’s success and what role will they play?

Alumni are critical to the College’s success, and we will make a concerted effort to involve them more. Of course, one important way they can help is a financial and monetary way, but beyond that, they actually can help set our direction. Many of our alumni and friends are in the computing industry, and it’s important that our research is relevant to them. They can give us feedback; they can tell us what the industry is looking for, and we can work with them to make sure our graduates are learning what’s relevant. It’s a relationship that’s very important to us and one I plan to spend a good deal of time cultivating.

How will you achieve the goals you’ve set for the college?

We have to be leaders, not followers. We have to initiate new directions. We need to hire a few more superstars to make us stronger. We are very strong in many areas and our faculty is world class with many rising stars, but it’s important for us to bring in two or three senior figures in some important fields of computing.

What are some ways the College has already been a leader?

Going back to what makes us different, there is the fact that we are not just a college but also three constituent schools. That’s important because the School of Computational Science & Engineering is quite unique, and we are out in front helping to define that field. We have our Computing for Good initiative, which gets our students involved with all sorts of societal challenges using computing to help improve society in various ways. We have Georgia Computes!, a program that enables us to work with Georgia K-12 students to encourage them and expose them to computing early on so later they may be more likely to pursue a career in the field., And of course there’s Threads, which made us a genuine leader in 21st century computing education.

What about exploring some intersections of computing with other fields?

The great thing about computing is the fact that computing is everywhere—everywhere in the sciences. Even in other fields in academia, in the humanities and social sciences, it’s everywhere. But today computers also are everywhere in our daily life. So for example we’ll explore some interactions with law, with business and with health. We already have many research projects in the health care domain, and we plan to pursue even more. With business and law, we don’t have anything yet, but there are limitless possibilities. We’ll have to pick and choose, because we won’t be able to do everything.

How about student recruitment and recruiting a diverse student body, how important is that?

This is very important. The College is very proud to have perhaps the most diverse freshman class we’ve ever had in Fall 2010. We have a very diverse faculty, especially vis a vis women—we have 34 women faculty, including our researchers and instructional faculty. We consistently have one of the highest percentages of female faculty, if not the highest percentage, among Top 25 computing programs.

Entrepreneurship is a vital element of computing, on the faculty side, the research side and the student side. What kind of culture of entrepreneurship do you see at the College and how can you use it to further its teaching and research mission?

In research and teaching we already see one kind of entrepreneurship represented very well in the College, by faculty getting into new areas at the forefront of research. With teaching, Threads and Computational Media are quite innovative, and they represent an entrepreneurial approach to education. It’s about taking the lead. However I know that when people say “entrepreneurship,” they usually mean getting ideas of research into the marketplace and training the students to be aware of what’s needed in order to be entrepreneurs. This is already part of our culture; we think it’s very important. We have many faculty, students and young alumni who have gone out and founded startups, worked to make them successful, and enjoyed the benefits when they became so—I can think of about 10 happening right now. We need to leverage those people and have them show others how it’s done. And we’ll probably add elements to our curriculum that will help students think about starting companies and bringing their ideas to the marketplace.

Speaking of career skills, what are employers looking for in a computing graduate?

Employers today want students who are both technically skilled and broadly educated enough to see the “big picture.” That was the idea behind Threads, to give students an education that would enable them to see across boundaries in their professional lives. My predecessor Rich DeMillo called it “symphonic thinking,” this ability to combine different fields and talents, like a symphony conductor. The Wall Street Journal recently asked employers to rank universities in the quality of their graduates, and overall Georgia Tech finished No. 7 in those rankings—but our computer science graduates ranked fourth in the country. So we’re already doing some things that employers like, and I believe we can do those things even better.

Why did you become a computer scientist?

In the early ’70s, I was finishing my masters’ degree in applied mathematics, and I was wondering, what should I do next? At that time computer science was just being born, and it was very exciting to join a new area, to help develop and contribute to an area where there was huge progress to be made. That was what attracted me to the field.

Do you think computing is fun, and what makes it fun for you?

Computing is a lot of fun, and different areas of computing are different kinds of fun. I’m a theoretical computer scientist, and I have my own strange way to have fun. It’s mostly to develop algorithms and show that they are faster than anybody else’s algorithms, or to prove theorems about complexity that nobody else could prove. But there are many other areas of computing—like video games, for example—that entail lots of fun.

You’ve been a dean for a long time, before you came to Georgia Tech and now here. What motivates you to get up every day and do a job like this?

When you’re a dean, every day there is a new challenge, and these challenges motivate me. There is fund raising; there are decisions about whether to fund this program or that one; there are decisions about which faculty to hire; there are the day-to-day decisions in running an organization that employs about 150 people and educates nearly 2,000 students. All of these challenges motivate me.

This is an exciting place, the Georgia Tech College of Computing. We have a mission. Our mission is to take the college to the very top. Something else that really motivates me is working with people, with faculty, with students, with alumni, with parents and friends, and with other administrators at Georgia Tech. it’s very exciting to embark on this journey and try to take the College to the highest level.