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Rexford Takes ‘a Service Role’

A back-and-forth with the fifth—and first woman—chair of the CS department

Jennifer Rexford
Jennifer Rexford, the Gordon Y. S. Wu Professor in Engineering, became chair of the Department of Computer Science on July 1, succeeding Andrew Appel. A Princeton graduate (BSE, 1991), she returned to the University after working for more than eight years for AT&T, where her research focused on Internet routing, network measurement and network management. Now in her 10th year with the department, she took time to talk about herself and her new position.

What do you see as your biggest challenge during your term as chair?

The tremendous growth of interest in computer science, throughout the campus and throughout society, makes this an exciting time for the field in general and our department in particular. Computer science is central to addressing so many of the challenges facing society, and computational thinking is rapidly becoming as important to education as “reading, writing, and ’rithmetic.”

Our biggest challenge as a department is to expand our faculty to capitalize on the tremendous opportunities for research and education in the field. We have great support from the university administration. Yet, many other schools and companies are competing for the top talent, and it’s essential that a great department have a high bar for hiring faculty. Also, we are bursting out of our current building, making it hard for us to fit the new people we hire. We’re already far along in arranging interim space for the department as it grows, but the right solution is a new building.

Do you have any specific goals and ideas for the department as you assume the chair’s position?

Recruiting and retaining the top faculty in the field is the most important goal, as everything the department does — in research and in teaching — stems from that. We're a very outward-facing department, with collaborations all over campus, often in surprising places. That will continue and, if anything, grow. As we hire new faculty, we'll continue to bolster our strengths in the core areas of the field, while expanding to cover a discipline of ever growing scope.

In particular, computer science increasingly includes exciting research at the interface of computing with the real world, whether the interaction is directly with humans or with the physical environment in the form of robotics and cyberphysical systems. And we want to continue building the “connective tissue” within the department and other parts of the campus through interdisciplinary hires in fields such as sustainable information technology, IT policy, and computational science.

I see our department as a part of every student’s experience, a lever for everyone’s research, and a leader in using computer science to tackle major societal challenges. We are known for our intellectual excellence, through both foundational research contributions and long-term impact on the practice, and that will strengthen as we grow.

Why are these goals important to you and the department?

A great university needs a great computer science department, because computer science is front and center for so many areas of scholarship and opportunities for positive impact on society.

CS dept Chairs

At a gathering to celebrate the tenure of Andrew Appel's term as department chair, all of the chairs since the founding of the department posed for a photo.  From Left: Jennifer Rexford (2015-present), Robert Sedgewick (1985-1994), Andrew Appel (2009-2015), David Dobkin (1994-2003), Larry Peterson (2003-2009).
Photo courtesy of Scott Karlin


In recent years, the department has experienced unprecedented growth in nearly all areas. Do you expect that trend to continue?

The growth in undergraduate computer science is a national trend, as students “vote with their feet” to enter a field with great opportunities to influence the world around us. The vast majority of job growth in the STEM fields [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] is in computer science, and nearly every other career benefits from a strong background in computer science.  

We've had more growth than many departments. I think that comes, in part, because of the great undergraduate curriculum. Many of my faculty colleagues are unusually gifted and dedicated educators, and that has made our introductory courses some of the most popular courses on campus. More than half of Princeton undergraduates take our introductory computer-science course, COS 126, making it the most popular course at the university.

Do you expect that trend to continue?

For the first few years of growth, some people speculated this is a “bubble” like the dot-com bubble 15 years ago.  But this trend has legs, because of the central role of computer science in the innovations and jobs of the future.

What do you expect to be some of the ups and downs of the chair's job?

The most rewarding aspect of the job is the opportunity to make positive — and hopefully long-term — changes that benefit the entire department. Of course, making substantive change in any organization can be slow and difficult, and sometimes not fully under your own control, and therein lie the “downs” of the job. 

You’re the department’s first woman chair.  What does your appointment say about the department, its growth and its future?

Our department has a very healthy and collaborative culture, and we have a number of women among our senior faculty. The university administration is also quite supportive of faculty diversity. I think my appointment, and the appointment of various other women in leadership positions all over campus, is a testament to that.

Considering the development of the industry, the department and the University, it seems appropriate for the department to have its first woman leading the way forward at this time.

We’ve seen a marked increase in the number of women CS department chairs recently — at Columbia and Yale, and until recently at Stanford and UPenn, for instance. We're now at the point where more women faculty have made their way “through the ranks” to be in a senior enough position to serve as chair. I’m grateful to the women senior to me who broke through the glass ceilings and effected the kind of change in the field that makes my taking on this position not big news.

Your appointment likely will cheer members of Princeton Women in Computer Science, who organized in 2010 to encourage women to enter the field and support them in their academic and professional careers.

PWiCS is a wonderful group that played a major role in the increasing representation of women undergraduate students in our department. We now have more officers in PWiCS than we had women CS majors five or six years ago! They run great events that enable younger women students to interact with more senior students, for advice and encouragement, and also expose women students to a wide range of career opportunities. Not only do we have more women students now, but I see how much more confident and active they are in the life of the department.

What thoughts would you like to share with your colleagues?

At a university, the department chair is a service role, not a mandate to push one person’s agenda. I want my colleagues to view me as someone who truly listens and reflects on what I learn from my peers. I will come to work each day with the goal of making a positive difference for the department, and the university, with their help and support.

Readers can learn more about Jennifer Rexford at her website.


— Doug Hulette

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