Short History of Computer Science at HMC

Today, Computer Science is the second most popular major at Harvey Mudd College, boasting graduating classes of almost 80 students in fields that also include Math and Computational- Biology. These graduates go on to work for tech giants like Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn and Amazon and earn PhDs from prestigious universities like Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley, MIT and Cornell. But it was not always this way.

Michael Erlinger, brought on in July of 1981, was Harvey Mudd’s first unofficial CS faculty member. Not hired into a specific department, the idea was that during his first year he would make recommendations as to whether Computer Science should develop in an existing department or a new administrative entity. His recommendations lead to the formation of a Computer Science Steering Committee that would draft and submit a proposal to the Board of Trustees and the HMC faculty.

Students were first introduced to the possibility of a new Computer Science program at an Associated Students of Harvey Mudd College (ASHMC) council meeting on September 30, 1984. On this day Professor Helliwell invited students and the entire HMC community at-large to join the faculty in open meetings of the Computer Science Steering Committee to discuss the implementation of a new Computer Science Program.

After a couple weeks of community input, at an October meeting, students were notified that a decision on the computer science program was on the way. The draft proposal was submitted to ASHMC on October 14 1984, and on November 18, 1984 President Baker confirmed to ASHMC that that it was soon to be approved by the faculty.

On April 20, 1985, at a faculty meeting, “the amended recommendations of the Computer Science Steering Committee” were approved. The recommendations included the establishment of a Department of Computer Science and a Department of Biology, with the two joined as a single administrative unit, and approval for a senior level appointment in Computer Science to help in the further development of Computer Science at the college.

The years following featured contentious debate over the future of the both the Biology and Computer Science programs. Well established departments, namely the Engineering and Humanities departments, pushed back against the programs. These departments resisted because the addition of the new programs would cause them to have to give up some of their places in the core curriculum. Other faculty, departments, and even students resisted because they didn’t want to grow the size of the school.

Current faculty with knowledge of the situation at the time credit Professors William K. Purves and Michael Erlinger with championing the programs through these time– without these two men, the program would never have gotten off the ground.

The Computer Science faculty discussed introducing a Computer Science major to the college in the 1989-1990 school year. The previous year, faculty declared that “beginning with the class of 1993, students should be able to major in Biology.” The topic was brought up often in ASHMC council meeting with reports from the Board of Trustees delivered by Professor Borelli. In the October 22, 1989 ASHMC meeting, Professor Borelli noted that the Computer Science major was a toss-up. Both faculty and students were split on the issue, and there was no resolution in sight.

Finally, on February 15, 1990 this statement was released from the faculty meeting “The faculty support the introduction of a major program in Computer Science under the auspices of the Computer Science Department after the senior-level position is filled… The Computer Science Department shall be an academically and administratively separate unit with the same status, responsibilities, privileges, and access to resources as the other departments in the sciences and mathematics.”

The first two computer science majors, Andrew Gray and Clifford Stein, graduated from Harvey Mudd in 1992. The 1993-94 Academic Year saw the start of Computer Science Clinic with 3 projects: Aerospace, Microsoft, and Optivus (Electus Technology). In 1994 Harvey Mudd graduated the first class of Computer Science graduates to finished all four years in the programs as well as its first female Computer Science graduate, Jill E. Flansburg.

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