How I got here

A year ago today, I was at the CRA‘s biennial chairs’ summit at Snowbird, having never been a department chair myself. At home, I was preparing to teach a new software development course, putting up jam, and planning a renovation project. I had no interest in leaving Grinnell and no idea I would soon be founding a new computer science program. So how did I get here?

The story starts on February 3, 2014, when my first post-tenure sabbatical was just underway. I received an email from Barry Balof, then chair of mathematics at Whitman. He wrote:

Whitman is in the beginning stages of establishing a program in Computer Science.  I was given your name and information from Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington as someone with particular expertise in the integration of Computer Science at a liberal arts college.

This got my attention: Ed was chair of UW CSE when I had started as a graduate student in 1999, and he has been a consistent voice supporting diversity in computing. I was flattered that he thought of me.

Barry went on to share an advertisement for a one-year visiting position in CS. I offered some possible candidates and recruiting venues, ultimately posting the ad on the SIGCSE-members email list. I thought nothing more of it.

About a week later, Barry wrote again, inviting me to attend an advisory committee meeting on February 28 in Bellevue, WA. He wrote:

Your input would be valuable as you know the challenges and opportunities that Computer Science in a liberal arts setting provides. At this stage, we’re not only looking for answers to some questions, but kerso trying to figure out which questions to ask.

I was intrigued. I doubt I would have even considered an invitation on such short notice had I been teaching. But I was on sabbatical, and my time was my own. I was not sure how the meeting would proceed, but I thought surely I would learn something. Why not?

The meeting was interesting, to say the least. It was good to see Ed. I met my now-colleague Albert Schueller for the first time, as well as President Bridges. I also met the trustees and friends of the college—captains of industry, for the most part—who were driving the new computer science initiative. I was both the youngest person in the room and the only woman, yet I was listened to. I came to realize I had the most relevant expertise in the room.

In a follow-up email later that day, President Bridges wrote:

Janet, I am very drawn to your idea of identifying and recruiting a more senior person, either now or next year, who can play a strong leadership role as founding chair of the program. I would like to discuss this with you in the weeks ahead in order to get a better sense of what will be needed to recruit a person of the caliber we discussed.

Little did I know.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to participate in the email discussion. I shared an article on CS curriculum design by my Grinnell Colleague, Henry Walker.  As the 1-year visitor position was still open, I reached out to a few more potential candidate. I served as a reference check for Allen Tucker, professor emeritus at Bowdoin College, who ultimately was hired. I answered questions about searches and space needs.

At the end of March, Albert invited me to a Computer Science Symposium on June 16 at Whitman College. I readily agreed, and suggested he also invite someone from the CS2013 steering committee. The symposium speakers included Ed Lazowska, Allen Tucker, Andrea Danyluk (of Williams College and the CS2013 committee), Valerie Barr (who had revived Union College’s computer science program)—and, of course me.

On May 2, Albert wrote to all the symposium speakers:

Just so you know the full context, the intention to launch a CS program was announced to the faculty about 10 days ago. While most on the faculty are on board, there are a few faculty (primarily in the non-sciences) that are a bit on guard about this move. The afternoon Q&A is, in part, seen as a forum to address the concerns of those members of the faculty.

Before the symposium, this group also fielded questions about typical CS search timelines as Whitman College geared up to hire its founding computer scientist. I personally fielded questions from the Dean about “the typical salary for a newly-minted Ph.D. in computer science who elects to take a position at a liberal arts college” and “for someone recently-tenured and promoted to the rank of associate professor.” Again, little did I know.

United Airlines did its best to ensure I would not arrive in Walla Walla in time for the symposium, but I nonetheless prevailed after spending a full day at SEATAC. Walla Walla is not an easy place to get into or out of.

The symposium agenda had individual talks in the morning, break out groups over lunch, and a panel discussion in the afternoon. I had been scheduled to speak second, but as soon as I learned that Allen Tucker planned to speak on the history of CS at liberal arts colleges, I offered to trade slots with him. That gave me the last slot, just before lunch. I was in top form, if I do say so myself, even getting some laughs from the group.

At lunch, I met David Sprunger, Director for Instructional and Learning Technologies, and Sharon Alker of the English department. I remember eating Olive’s amazing summer stone fruit salad. The panel discussion was lively and thoughtful. The next day, I spent another long layover at SEATAC and arrived home without further event.

On July 3, I received an invitation from President Bridges to call him on his cell phone so he could “learn [my] reactions to the June 16 meeting devoted to Computer Science here at Whitman and some ideas we are considering for the first faculty hire.” During our conversation, he encouraged me to apply to Whitman’s position when it was posted; I demurred. I was happy at Grinnell and had no intention of leaving. On August 5, I got a similar email from President Bridges, asking me to speak with him and the new Interim Provost, Pat Spencer. I ignored this email for a week. When I finally did speak with them, the Provost asked, “Have you always dreamed of starting a new computer science program?” My answer: “NO.”

George Bridges concluded the call by asking me to give some serious thought to “what it would take to get me to consider the position.” A few days later, I wrote:

It’s not just that 2015-6 is a spectacularly bad year for me to move because of my new ventures at Grinnell, let alone our dramatic leap in CS majors and enrollments. More than that, I love Grinnell passionately, both the college and the town. My husband and I have invested a lot here that we’d be walking away from – as I’m sure you understand. I imagine we would grow to love Whitman and Walla Walla just as much, but you would have to pry us out of Grinnell first. Consequently, I think the only way I would seriously consider the position is if I knew Whitman could make me an offer I would be stupid to refuse.

I was invited to “dream on.”

Over the next month, George and I played phone and email tag over the nominal topic of designing the CS teaching laboratories. Our last phone conversation was on September 19. By the time Whitman’s headhunter called on September 26, I had already decided to apply. Later that day, I wrote to George: “You’ve persuaded me it’s a worthwhile opportunity, and I’ve persuaded myself that life would go on if I left Grinnell.”

I spent the next Saturday writing a cover letter and polishing up my CV, planning to submit the other materials later if my application progressed. The online application system required me to submit references to complete the application. I wasn’t yet ready to ask anyone for a recommendation letter, so I provided email addresses I knew would bounce.

Life went on at Grinnell. I taught my classes. I traveled with a group of students to GHC 2014 in Phoenix and came back with a nasty cold that left me exhausted for a week. At some point I told my friend and colleague Mark Peltz, with whom I co-chaired the Wilson Program Committee, that I had applied; he readily agreed to write me a letter. It was harder to tell Sam Rebelsky, my colleague in computer science, but he characteristically offered to write me a letter before I even asked. I hoped to talk with Henry Walker, whose office was next to mine, but that semester we had opposing teaching schedules and hardly saw each other; I would have to ask for a letter by email. I also emailed an outside reference who I knew had written one of my external tenure letters.

I recovered from my cold just in time for Fall Break, which Brooks and I spent in three different Bay Area locations. I learned that I had made the list of finalists and called in my letter requests. I spent the better part of three days writing teaching and research statements in a Redwood City coffee shop, working to obtain my college and grad school transcripts while pacing in the living room of my AirBNB, and struggling to scan my teaching evaluations in a hotel business center.

Ten days after returning from fall break I received my official invitation to interview at Whitman. The next two days I spent at a symposium at the University of Iowa: Designing the Digital Future. I found myself taking notes not on the content of the talks, but on how the each speaker summarized 5-10 years of research in a 50-minute talk. I also found myself less focused on some of the discussion and more on travel plans for my interview (complicated by my family’s long-planned Thanksgiving visit). Fortunately, being in Iowa City for the symposium also gave me the opportunity to go shopping for interview clothes.

It was very strange to read applications for Grinnell’s tenure-track CS position—the successor to my irreplaceable colleague Henry Walker—while being on the other side of Whitman’s search. Since Sam and Henry already knew about my application to Whitman, I decided to tell my other CS colleagues, Jerod Weinman and John Stone. Sam encouraged me to talk to the Dean sooner rather than later, perhaps so that he could prepare to negotiate to keep me at Grinnell, perhaps so he wouldn’t be blindsided by a request to expand Grinnell’s search to a second position.

My campus interview was December 2 and 3. Despite only getting five hours of sleep for three nights in a row, I felt good about it. My research talk and teaching demonstration showed me how far I had come since my interview nine years earlier at Grinnell. I enjoyed my conversations with the CS steering committee. I felt they were asking the right questions and providing the information I needed. The strangest moment was when David Guichard in the math department offered to let me rent his house during his upcoming sabbatical.

Back at Grinnell, I participated in the campus interviews for our first three candidates, hosted alumni mentors visiting for the final presentations in my software development class, and went to holiday parties. I would like to say I was too busy to think about Whitman, but the truth is I analyzed my interview days and found several things I could have done better.

On December 16, two weeks after my interview, I got a verbal offer. The next day I wrote in my diary, “Gave in to being sick”; apparently I spent a few days under the weather. Brooks and I had a friend who is a real estate agent come look at our house. We changed our holiday travel plans so we could visit Walla Walla in the new year.

The next Monday, December 22, I talked to the Provost first thing in the morning, flew out to Washington midday, and finally drove with my husband to his parents’ house in the Columbia Gorge. I told my father-in-law the whole story.

My negotiations with the Provost were difficult and interrupted both of our holidays not once but many times. The less said about them, the better. On December 29, we agreed that there were no deal-breakers remaining. All that was left was for my husband and I to visit Walla Walla and make our decision. Looking back, it is hard to believe these negotiations lasted only a week; it seemed far longer.

On New Year’s Eve, Brooks and I drove from his parents’ house to Walla Walla. With three dinner invitations, we felt embraced by the community. We walked around town, checked out all the grocery stores, visited a local brewery and the Salumerie (where we were expected), and met with a real estate agent. On January 3, our last night in Walla Walla, we had dinner at Whitehouse-Crawford to celebrate my job offer. I decided to accept.

What finally decided me? Two reasons.

  1. Brooks told me that if he were choosing between Walla Walla and Grinnell without having lived in either place, he would have chosen Walla Walla. I found myself missing the West, too.
  2. I realized that if I turned down the position, I would regret it. I would have always wondered what would have happened. Whoever did take the position, I would have looked at them and told myself I could have done as well or better.

Sunday was spent in travel. On Monday, January 5, I told Whitman’s Provost of my intention to accept the offer and Grinnell’s Dean of my intention to resign.

Finalizing my contract and a memorandum of understanding took another week; I signed on January 13. There is more to say about the process of leaving Grinnell, but I will leave that story for another time.

Shortly after I agreed to join Whitman, Albert brought to me two important orders of business: (1) the search for a visiting professor and (2) the proposal for a minor in computer science. Our starter curriculum will be the subject of my next post.

5 thoughts on “How I got here

  1. Liz Queathem

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and illuminating post! I think many people will find it fascinating (and many will find it useful!). We will miss you tremendously here in Grinnell, but I really understand why you made the move.

  2. Darakhshan

    What a story! I landed here via twitter, but I’m going to watch this space now, I am so excited to see the things you will do! 🙂
    All the best,

  3. Sharon

    It was me who had the very great pleasure of going to Olive with you when you were here for the symposium. I was very impressed.


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