Barbara Liskov Named Institute Professor

Associate Provost for Faculty Equity Barbara H. Liskov became an Institute Professor, achieving the highest faculty rank at MIT, on July 1.

With this role, she joins a group of 12 other current Institute Professors, which includes Chemical Engineering Professor Robert S. Langer ScD ’74 and only one other woman, Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems Professor Sheila E. Widnall ’60.

Liskov has built a name for herself at the Institute for her work in research, teaching, and the promotion of faculty equity over the 36 years since she became a professor here in 1972.

Liskov, head of the Programming Methodology Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, was involved primarily in the development of programming languages earlier in her career, but now focuses her research on distributed systems.

Colleagues and students admire Liskov for her intellect and attitude towards her work. “Barbara is very good at cutting to the heart of systems,” said Benjamin M. Vandiver ’00, one of Liskov’s recent students who graduated with a doctorate in 2008. “This allows her to understand systems quickly and also to present them succinctly.”

Vandiver noted a group meeting in which Liskov spoke in place of a student who could not attend. “Barbara stood up and gave his talk for him with basically no preparation — probably better than he would have done,” Vandiver said.

A current student of Liskov’s, David A. Schultz G, noted her meticulousness and echoed Vandiver’s appreciation of her ability to understand complex systems. Schultz recalls a time when he went in to discuss his research with Liskov and, following the meeting, she e-mailed him a set of notes of their discussion that were clearer and more thorough than his own.

In the lab

Liskov and the group she leads have made significant advances in the robustness of object-oriented programming languages. Her group produced the first language to support data abstraction and, more recently, developed the first practical protocol for securely replicating data on distributed systems and a language for application development on distributed systems.

A current project on Byzantine-fault tolerant systems may help sensitive data on future computers be more resilient to malicious attacks and software errors.

One researcher in her group developed X Windows, the windowing system used on Linux and Unix operating systems.

Liskov has been recognized for her accomplishments in the field of computer science with both public and technical awards. In 2005, she was given an honorary doctorate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and in 2003 was named one of the 50 most important women in science by Discover magazine.

Discover wrote that Liskov “paved the way for writing far more complex and subtle computer programs” and called her a “key figure” in the development of software for distributed-system application development.

Promoting faculty equity

Liskov has witnessed women in her department and the Institute as a whole make strides during her tenure. She has created some of this change herself.

Liskov was the first woman hired as a professor of computer science and, in her time as an associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from 2003 to 2006, she oversaw the hiring of five female faculty members.

She has continued her involvement in the promotion of women faculty at MIT as Associate Provost of Faculty Equity, a role she took on last year.

So far, she said, she has focused her efforts on making adjustments to the hiring process that could allow more women to be interviewed and considered for faculty jobs.

Wesley Harris, who shares the Associate Provost of Faculty Equity position with Liskov, called her appointment as an Institute Professor “spectacular” and described her as an “analytical, committed, and professional” colleague.

In the classroom

While Liskov is no longer involved in curriculum development, earlier in her career she developed and taught some of MIT’s best-known Course VI classes, including the storied 6.170 (Laboratory in Software Engineering), which was discontinued after Fall 2007, and 6.033 (Computer Systems Engineering).

Liskov spoke highly of 6.170, calling it “one of the hallmarks of MIT computer science curriculum” because of the way it “gave graduates a unique perspective on how to build software.”

She said she was “very sad” to see the class retired.

“Barbara has taught countless undergraduates and graduate students who have gone on to help lead top universities, research labs and IT companies,” Provost L. Rafael Reif said to the MIT News Office. “As a computer scientist, she has made a tremendous impact not only through her groundbreaking research, but through the legions of those she has taught along the way.”