Pioneering Associate Chair H. Venkateswaran Retires
H. Venkateswaran, known as Venkat, pioneered the role of associate chair for graduate education to better serve graduate students in the School of Computer Science (SCS). The SCS faculty member, who has been with Georgia Tech for the last 32 years, has always seen himself as an advocate for students.
“It happened organically because I liked interacting with students,” he said. “Going through a Ph.D. program is stressful. Students need to know how to navigate through the system by satisfying milestone requirements in a timely manner while conducting dissertation research, and that life doesn’t go in a straight line. I wanted to be of as much help as possible.”
Working with students
Venkat joined Georgia Tech in 1986 and established himself as a student resource early on. He always enjoyed teaching because he got to interact with students and challenge himself.
“Every time I’d walk into a new class, I’d feel nervous because even though I may be comfortable with the subject material, there could still be students who could ask me something I didn’t know,” he said. “Teaching curious students is like having the chance to become young again and again.”
Ultimately, he wanted to inspire students to learn rather than just transfer his knowledge. This respect for students made him a natural fit for a role as Ph.D. coordinator in the College of Computing, where he managed all aspects of the CS Ph.D. program in the College following the path laid by his predecessors in that role.
Becoming associate chair
When SCS was created in 2007, though, this type of role didn’t transfer directly to the school even though it was vital. Students are the lifeblood of the school, but if they don’t have a strong support system, the school won’t be healthy. Professor Eric Vigoda, who was SCS’s associate chair at the time in a different capacity, and SCS Chair Lance Fortnow knew this and wanted to create an associate chair for graduate education position to help students. Given his prior experience in the College, Venkat was the perfect person for the job.
However, being an associate chair was a much larger responsibility than Ph.D. coordinator. Venkat was in charge of everything related to graduate education in the school, including managing admissions and curriculum issues for both master’s and Ph.D. degrees. This entailed ensuring students got matched with the right advisor, completed degree milestones in time, and were assigned teaching assistantships. He also reviewed new courses to confirm they fulfilled curriculum requirements.
Yet the main task was offering a support system to students. Venkat had an open-door policy, and students would come in for advice about everything from what classes to take next to what to do if their advisor left the school.
Venkat’s success in the role was evident to everyone.
“When Venkat took on responsibility for graduate students, it was as if he had come home,” Professor Ellen Zegura said. “His steady and careful approach was a perfect fit for the needs of the school and the students.”
The other schools took note, too, and now the schools of Interactive Computing and Computational Science and Engineering also have associate chairs for graduate education.
Leaving a legacy
In preparation for his retirement at the end of December, Venkat stepped down from the role in August and passed the torch to Associate Professor Alexandra Boldyreva. He looks forward to spending more time with his family and also getting back into his research in computational complexity.
Venkat is passionate about this work in one of the foundational areas in computer science. Of his many contributions to the field, one of the most influential was finding new ways to model complexity classes, which gave deeper insights into efficient computation.
“His algebraic circuit characterization of the class #P, which counts the number of solutions to search problems, helped set the stage for understanding the surprising power of interactive proof systems,” Fortnow said.
Yet, for Venkat, Tech was never about only research. It was about the people and helping them see just how special it was to be part of the Institute.
“The secret is this is a very good place, where researchers can set their eyes on what they want to accomplish and do it here,” he said. “There are no blocks, no constraints. You can contribute to your growth and the growth of the place.”