Reputation 2/11/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

There is something about having seen (and paid attention to) history for yourself.  When Trump spoke of building the wall, I was transported to when the Berlin wall fell.  When George W. Bush was floating reasons to start the ground war in Iraq, I remembered the Kuwait invasion and the no-fly zone imposed by his father George Bush.  When terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, I remembered the bomb attack decades earlier against the same target. 

And it’s not just politics and war.  I was around when the internet was changing the way science is done, and before the web.  Many people don’t know the difference between the internet and the web, but my friends were graduate students who worked on making the web a reality.  I myself was not involved in that aspect of computer science, but I had my own role as well.  I was writing computer programs for mathematical models of chemical systems (easy, right?).  It was more number crunching than graphics, but it did put me at the forefront of the new burgeoning field.  Today, many programmers know where to look to nab public domain programs to perform what it is that they want done, but I was one of the ones developing that code. 

But on the web side, my office mate and her then-boyfriend (now husband) were really involved.  Today they both work at a highly prestigious network laboratory and are far better versed in modern computer technology than I as I always focused on chemistry and, more specifically, chemistry education.  In the mid 1990’s, I had resigned my first teaching gig and was heading to a new position in a state university (let’s call it XXU) that was basically the computer technology institution for the state.  Each state university had its specialization (mines, agriculture, and so forth).  This one was designated for computer science, but I really had no idea at the time.  It was a challenging position, and I was asked to build the physical science program, a challenge I took on and was quite successful considering the circumstances.

I was talking with my firmer office mate (and still great friend) about my new position at XXU.  Excitedly, she blurted out, “you mean THE XXU?”  I had no idea what she was talking about, but yes, it was the same one.  Working in her network lab, as it turns out, she had heard of this university and their outstanding reputation in computer science.  She was so excited for me. 

While I was there, a few things occurred that, frankly, I felt hurt the program, and it hurt me to see it happen.  At the time, there were a few organizations vying for setting the standard of an “accredited” computer science program, and as the university wanted accreditation for the program, they looked into these organizations and their standards.  I remember when they explained the three major sets of standards, and how excited they were to have chosen one because it was the easiest. 

My jaw dropped.  A program with this reputation looking for the easy way out?  I was both disappointed and afraid for the reputation of the institution.  Other issues came up (that I’ll let go) but the net result was a watering down of the quality of the computer science program, and the reputation.

At the edge of town was a restaurant that my friend and I would frequent every Thursday.  We enjoyed each other’s company (never anything inappropriate), and they had the best beer cheese soup I’ve ever tasted.  The bar changed ownership, and the new boss decided to stretch out the beer cheese soup sales, not by making more, but rather by watering it down.  And people noticed.  It became easier to find tables on our Thursdays, and eventually we stopped going as well.  The reputation of that beer cheese soup was shot.  I was told, some time later, that they stopped watering it down, but the reputation had already been tarnished, and it never rebounded.

Reputations are enigmas.  They are so tough to build, yet so fragile once set.  If the reputation is damaged, it takes much longer, and much more work, to rebuild it to the former glory.  I am fortunate enough to have some great friends still at that institution so I’m very happy to say that the reputation of the computer science at XXU did rebound.  Not only did they rebound, but they’ve grown far more than I would have imagined. They found their niche, and many years and incredible government grants later, they’ve built a reputation that far exceeded anything they had accomplished before, or during, my tenure there.  But, on occasion, I remember their reputation when I started, and how fragile it really was.  I’ve learned great lessons from this, and it seems as though their computer science people have as well. 

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