Interview with Randy Bryant
Dean, School of Computer Science,
and recently named University Professor, the
highest academic distinction Carnegie Mellon faculty members can achieve.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? Let’s
start with where you’re originally from.
I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. I went to high school there,
and then went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. After
I finished there, I went to MIT for my graduate degrees (Masters &
PhD). Then in 1981, I went to Los Angeles and was on the faculty of CalTech
for 3 years. In 1984, I came back towards the East and took a position
as an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon, and have been here ever
So what got you into computer science in the first place?
It was a pretty easy decision for me. At the time, computers were not
widely available (as in personal computers or even small scale access)
so I never had a direct encounter with a computer until I started as a
freshman in college. But the day I did, I thought, ‘this is it for
me—this is what I’m interested in.’ Plus, I’ve
always been interested in math and engineering type subjects, and I like
to build things.
And what’s your favorite aspect of computer science?
I think what I like the best is that it allows the style of research that
has a very close connection between mathematical foundations and things
that are useful to people.
How do you feel as the new Dean of the School of Computer
Science? Does the title bring on any fear or nervousness with its magnitude?
[Laughs] Right now, I’m still very much in the middle of trying
to understand what this job is about and all the things that I have to
do. I’ll admit that I’m not fearful, but I am a bit overwhelmed.
There are a lot of people, and a lot of issues going on…I’m
trying to make sure that everything that needs to happen, happens. But
the day is too short to get everything done!
So far, what has it been like being Dean? Is it really
different from being the Department Head [Computer Science Department]?
Yeah, it’s very different from being Department Head…so first
of all, it [CSD] was an organization that I had sort of “grown up”
with, and I knew much more about how it and all the people who were involved.
The School is much bigger, and it has a lot of people who I may have never
even met before. Also, there are a lot of differences between the individual
departments in the School, especially in research styles.
This job, as Dean, has much more of an external focus—I have to
worry about raising money for the School, I’m much more involved
in public relations with newspapers, etc. Those kinds of things have been
really big changes.
What’s your favorite thing about Carnegie Mellon?
I’ve always liked the atmosphere…the people here are very
much of the ‘let’s just dig in and get things done’
attitude. There is very little squabbling, and people just do what they
need to do. Also, I think we’ve managed to create an organization
with a lot of very high powered and very smart people, who also have a
sense of working together for a common good. Sometimes, you get people
who think that they are so special that the whole world should revolve
around them—that doesn’t really happen here.
You have been at Carnegie Mellon since 1984—what
changes and developments have you noted in those 20 years?
Well, there have been a lot of changes. The biggest two are, first of
all, we created an undergraduate CS major. We’ve put a lot of our
resources, time, and effort into making it a really strong undergraduate
program. And it’s been very enjoyable, but it’s also been
a lot of work. When I first came, the emphasis was very clearly on research,
and teaching was secondary—but now it’s very balanced. There
are a lot of faculty here who feel that teaching is a very important part
of their lives. So that’s been a big change…and the result
of that has been that we now have a lot of very smart undergraduates in
our environment who are not just taking courses, but are getting involved
in research projects as well.
The other big change is that there has been a big shift in funding. When
I first came here, there was so much research funding available that it
was relatively easy to get, and so we, largely, could just assume that
we’d have the funding for all the research we wanted to do. So,
we could concentrate heavily on our research and other activities. But
nowadays, because of shifts in policies in government funding agencies,
it is much more difficult for us to get the funding for the research going
on. So, all of the faculty are spending really too much of their time
trying to write proposals for grants and funding from different sources.
Fortunately, everyone is doing a really good job, but I think a lot of
people feel overworked by the process.
Even as Dean, you plan to keep teaching. Do you ever
foresee yourself ever letting go of the teaching?
[Laughs] I really want to keep teaching because I think it’s important
to keep that contact with students. It would be very easy as Dean, or
a high up administrator, to just kind of float your way up, so you spend
your whole day doing administrative type work and just never have contact
with the students. I really wanted to have that contact with the students,
and I am hoping I can do this because the course that I will be teaching
is one that I have taught 5 times before…and that I co-wrote the
textbook for! [15-213, Introduction to Computer Systems] So I’m
hoping I’ve got that one down pretty well teaching-wise! [Laughs]
Did you always want to teach?
I guess for me it’s been something like I’ve always liked
school so much that I’ve always wanted to stay in school…and
teaching is a way for us old folks to stay in school!
From all the experiences you’ve had at CMU, what’s
been your most cherished memory?
I was awarded a chaired position in computer science in 1997, and my family
was able to come for that, including my father, who then died several
weeks after that. It was really very special that he could take part in
that, and be a part of my success.
If you didn’t go into academics or administration,
what would you have done in another life?
If I didn’t have to worry about money, I’d be a nursery school
teacher. I just love being with kids that age…they have this complete
openness and imagination.
When’s your birthday?
Are you married and do you have children?
Yes, I’m married, and have been for 21 years. And I have 3 children.
The oldest is a freshman at Harvard, the middle one is an 11th grader
here at Schenley High School, and the youngest is an 11-year old in 5th
Do you think your children will pursue computer science
or come to Carnegie Mellon (not the oldest one, but the other two)?
No…somehow that part I didn’t manage to get them hooked onto
well! My oldest looks like he’s headed for majoring (or they call
it “concentrating”) in government, mostly with an interest
in international relations. And then my high school daughter is sort of
really leaning toward linguistics, and I don’t know what my 11-year
old will do, but she’s crazy about animals!
The two older ones both really want to get out of Pittsburgh—so
I don’t think it’s so much Carnegie Mellon—it’s
just that they grew up in this city, and really want to see other parts
of the world at this point.
What is your favorite kind of animal?
I guess dogs. Right now, in our house, we have six dogs, because we had
this litter of puppies. We sold two, but it’s getting a little too
much—6 dogs are too many, and 8 dogs were way too many! [Laughs]
What’s your favorite food?
I guess Japanese food. We lived in Japan for year—1990 to 1991.
I was a visiting researcher at Fujitsu, and my two older kids came along
(my youngest one wasn’t even around), and we’ve always been
interested in and had a sort of fondness for Japanese things.
Where’s your favorite place to go in da ‘Burgh?
I think Frick Park is my favorite place to go. It’s amazing to have
a city park that is just woods and trails. I enjoy the outdoor activity.
What’s your favorite color?
It’s green these days [Laughs]
From your personal website, it seems clear that you are a big fan of rowing.
How long have you been into this sport?
I started rowing when I was a graduate student at MIT. And I was pretty
serious about it—even though I was a graduate student, so I couldn’t
possibly be that serious, but I even competed in national competitions.
Then after I graduated, I tried rowing in Los Angeles for a bit, but it
became clear that this wasn’t something that a new assistant professor
should be trying to do along with all the other stuff. So I dropped it.
Then, in 2000, I started up again rowing in Pittsburgh. I really enjoy
it a lot.
It’s really interesting because in Pittsburgh, we have all these
rivers that to most people are just sort of a nuisance, because they cause
all these traffic jams (trying to get on to cross the bridges, etc.) But
it’s really quite pleasant and peaceful to be out on the Allegheny
River—I was just out there this morning, and it’s really quiet
Do you also enjoy any other water-based sports?
I like to swim, and I like to do stuff like kayaking and rafting, but
I don’t do it very often.
What other hobbies or passions do you have?
I don’t actually spend a lot of time on hobbies, but I guess I’ve
been pretty interested in photography these days, especially with digital
photography. It makes it possible to work with pictures and do things
that would normally take a dark room and lots of time. So, I kind of enjoy
it, but I’m not that serious about it.
What’s your favorite vacation spot?
My family goes to a family camp that is run by the University of Michigan
Alumni Association. It’s on this beautiful, large, blue lake up
in Michigan, and it’s really very nice. It’s very relaxing,
and there are a lot of activities to do. Boating, sailing, things like
What’s your favorite quote?
I like the quote from Andrew Carnegie that is in our motto, “My
heart is in the work.” I think it pretty well captures what people
at Carnegie Mellon are like: we work hard, but we do it because it’s
really what we want to do.