Roy Campbell

Freedom for researchers behind the success

Published Dec 16, 2011

Several educational programmes at the University of Illinois are ranked in the top ten in the USA. The university has also nurtured many of the world’s leading profiles within the IT industry. One explanation for the success of KTH’s new partner is that we have succeeded in combining the best from the private and the public universities’ different worlds.

The magazine U.S. News & World Report rankings, considered one of America’s most important, has in recent years highlighted a large number of Illinois university educations. Among the most prominent is the doctoral programme in computer science which is on a shared fifth place.

But advances in computer science cannot only be seen in the rankings. Several of the world’s leading IT profiles have a background at the University of Illinois. Talents such as Sohaib Abbasi, CEO of Informatica and former senior manager of the database giant Oracle were developed here. Ray Ozzie also gained his degree from here. He was formerly chief architect at Microsoft, but he was also highly involved in the development of IBM’s success with the software Lotus Notes.

Jawed Karim, who is among the founders of the video site YouTube, received his degree here. And according to Bill Gates, the University of Illinois is the American university Microsoft hires most of its computer science students from. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, the company’s founder and America’s third richest person, studied at the university. The list goes on and on ...

Professor Roy Campbell, with 35 years’ experience in the computer science department at the University of Illinois, has several explanations for this success.

“Our campus here at Urbana-Champaign is Illinois’ flagship, and the state has always been generous with regard to funding. The university is very democratically structured compared to private universities, and this is an advantage. It has helped us a lot in competition with others in our field,” says Roy Campbell.

Breakthrough in the 1950s

He believes that the governance of the university was critical to its success. It is the academic freedom, which meant that the university fared well with regard to the amount of applicants to its educational programmes, the graduate students’ successes and the amount awarded in research grants, he points out.

“The professors here can be very rebellious without anyone putting a spoke in the wheel. We have had much to say as to which direction the university has taken and what will happen in the future. It is an important base for excellence,” says Roy Campbell.

The breakthrough of computer science at the University of Illinois came at the beginning of the 1950s, when a group of researchers built one of the world’s first supercomputers. The machine that was built was called Illiac I and it weighed five tons. Two decades later, Illiac IV, the first supercomputer had been built, which was classed as a massive parallel computer system, that is to say a computer with many processors instead of one.

“The University of Illinois quickly decided to focus its work on “parallel computing”. We also realized early on that the simulations in research with the help of supercomputers were the future,” says Roy.

Alumni support crucial

As a result, the foundation for future computer science success was laid. It is no coincidence that the world’s fastest supercomputer, Blue Waters, is housed on the university’s premises today.

“Computer science has evolved with us for over 50 years and we have seen a large number of students gain their degrees.  In fact, we have alumni in virtually every IT company across the United States. It gives us much in return,” says Roy Campbell.

The support of our old students helped develop the university in many ways, he emphasizes.

“Besides the most obvious – more research funds – they invite us into their workshops. And they also come to our workshops. The alumni talk about what needs to be done and provide other important advice. Having a strong connection to the alumni is very important to the university, without them we cannot survive. By working closely with industry, the University of Illinois gains benefits that accrue to private universities which a number of other public universities to some extent lack,” he says.

Without a focused effort, computer science however, would not be where it is today, Roy Campbell points out. 20 years ago, the subject had a rather fragmented standing at the university.

We then decided to sit down in order to determine what we would invest in.  Cloud computing and “utility computing” or “computing power on tap”, i.e. to package and provide computing power for different users, became a key focus area.

“Nowadays, we do not jump on every opportunity that arises, as Berkeley does for example. At the same time I will admit that we study Berkeley very carefully, just as they study what we do,” says Roy Campbell.

Text: Peter Larsson

Facts - Here a few examples of how education at the University of Illinois is ranked according to the U.S. News & World Report

  • Education at The Graduate School of Library and Information Science is ranked in first place
  • The courses at The College of Engineering is ranked sixth at undergraduate level and fifth at graduate level
  • The Ph.D. Computer Science programme is ranked in fifth place
  • The Ph.D. Chemistry programme is ranked in sixth place

Footnote: An undergraduate degree is the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, i.e. two or four years of study after high school (upper-secondary school). Graduate is the equivalent of a Master’s degree  in engineering and a doctor’s degree.

Read more about the collaboration between KTH and the University of Illinois

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