Dan Huttenlocher named College of Computing dean

Huttenlocher is founding dean of Cornell Tech, a graduate engineering and design school

Dan Huttenlocher PhD ’88, founding dean of Cornell Tech, has been named dean of the College of Computing.

Huttenlocher, whose name is pronounced “hut-in-locker,” will visit MIT for the College of Computing Celebration next week, but he will not officially step into his new role until this summer.

Huttenlocher helped found both Cornell’s School of Computer and Information Sciences and Cornell Tech, a graduate engineering and design school in New York City. He currently serves on the boards of directors at Amazon and Corning and chairs the board of the MacArthur Foundation.

In an interview with The Tech, Huttenlocher said he sees the College as having three main components.

The first is about computing fields and their evolution. Huttenlocher drew parallels between the current state of computing and the state of engineering at the founding of MIT.

There was “a lot of fluidity about what the disciplines were” in the mid to late 1800s, he said. “We’re about to enter a very similar time period of figuring out what computing is and what the different disciplines are.”

The second component involves what he calls “computing across the disciplines.” Computing is becoming increasingly important across different fields, and MIT should lead this trend.

However, he doesn’t believe computing will subsume the other departments at MIT, as some fear. Instead, over the next few decades, he said he expects it will become integrated into the curriculum, just as math is integrated into many different fields now.

“In many fields, there’s really significant math there, and the math is different in different fields. I think over time, computing will become like that,” he said. He added that MIT must take initiative in integrating computation into the curriculum. “We can’t wait around for twenty years.”

The third component of Huttenlocher’s vision for the College is a focus on the societal impact of computing and AI. As chair of the MacArthur foundation board, he has advised the foundation on various issues related to technology and society, for example, in the Technology in the Public Interest group.

He views his job as dean partly as “making sure [the college] stays focused” on the societal issues around computing,” though “exactly how that will manifest is a much bigger conversation,” he said.  

He also emphasized the importance of engaging people outside academia in the discussion of societal issues.

“These issues are not just academic issues,” he said. “They’re issues that will benefit from further academic study, but I think if we’re just doing academic work, we’re not taking advantage of the full breadth of people that we need to be working with.”

Huttenlocher, who obtained a masters in EECS from MIT in 1984 and a PhD in CS from the precursor to CSAIL in 1988, has previously worked as a computer science professor at Cornell and a researcher at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, and he co-founded a financial technology company called Intelligent Markets in the early 2000s.

He has also served on two MIT visiting committees, one for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs and the other for the MIT Media Lab.

One of the biggest lessons he will take from his time as a Cornell administrator is “to try to be really explicit about what the objectives are and where the objectives might be in tension with one another,” Huttenlocher said. 

He already sees a tension between his first and second components — the idea that MIT needs to maintain both the depth of its computer science research and the breadth of computer science applications in different fields.

“An inherent tension is that every discipline in academia really needs to make sure that it’s preserving its disciplinary depth as judged by peers,” he explained. However, “the flip side is that computing has become so important to so many different areas of academia.”

Next week, MIT will host a three-day celebratory event about the College of Computing, with speakers including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In May, working groups composed of faculty, staff, and students will produce a report on topics including the new college’s organizational structure, faculty appointments, curriculum and degrees, focus on social implications and responsibilities, and infrastructure.