Professor emeritus Tom Brackett explains how Colgate’s computer science department came to be.

It all began in 1965, when Colgate started offering the January program (colloquially called Jan Plan). Professor George Schlesser of the education department had an IBM 1620 computing machine, which he used for research, and I used that machine to teach FORTRAN programming as my first January program. The following year, Roswell Miller ’68, who had participated in that first Jan Plan, wished to do an independent study in assembly language. His project was to write a program to do the registrar’s task of assembling students into classroom and laboratory sections. So the registrar, in cooperation with the faculty, created the schedule of course meetings, including multi-section classes and laboratories, and the students created their desired schedule of classes and other meetings. The information was assembled from both groups onto punched cards to serve as input for the program. The result — names of students assigned to particular class and laboratory sections — was produced quite rapidly, saving a lot of time for the staff members who were doing the process by hand. What’s more, the process could easily be repeated, with some class and laboratory meetings changed to maximize student enrollment and, thus, to achieve the best possible fit of student desires and course offerings. Everyone — students, faculty members, and administrators — was happy. What better way to show the entire Colgate community the value of computers? 

But why would Colgate, a liberal arts university, ever want to study a machine? Several reasons. This was a machine you could talk to, and that raised questions about programming languages and the limits of what you could say. In fact, Jim Reynolds, a colleague in the psychology department, had already visited me to discuss the relation between this digital computer and the classic mind-body problem. This was a machine that assaulted human thought by defeating humans on certain intellectual tasks. Alan Turing, a founding father of computer science, had speculated that computers might become equivalent to or possibly even superior to humans in thinking power. Surely that thought was worth pursuing in an academic institution. In addition, computers were becoming useful for faculty research in many areas. 

Students working on a computer in the late 1960's.
Images courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives

Fortunately, the government was also interested in promoting the study and use of computing in colleges and universities nationwide; the President’s Science Advisory Committee implemented a program of support through the National Science Foundation (NSF). In January 1968, Jim and I wrote a proposal titled “The Development of Computer Activities in a Small Liberal Arts College” and submitted it to the NSF. Charles Holbrow from the physics department joined us in the proposal to provide additional professorial assistance.

Our idea was to create a student academic program, a faculty education program, and access to different types of computer facilities to determine which would best serve the University. We were to keep careful notes on our experience so that the results might be of use to other colleges. In fact, we hoped Colgate’s experience would become a model for others. 

The proposal asked for two years’ support; the total costs were more than a half million dollars, of which Colgate would pay less than 20%. As I recall, Colgate was one of four schools receiving an award from the NSF in 1969. The others were Johns Hopkins University, New York University, and the Ohio State University. Colgate was the only university of its type to receive an award that year.

In 1969 we set up shop in the basement of the O’Connor Campus Center: offices for a computer operator and a program director, a machine room, and a small area with terminal connections to a computer occasionally used as a classroom. 

The main objective of our introductory course, Computers and Society, was to develop an appreciation of the capabilities and limitations of computers. A second-semester course studied the main components of a computer and their organization. For students wishing to continue beyond this course, we offered advanced seminars on topics including artificial intelligence, nonnumerical programming languages, compiler design, and automata theory.

With respect to faculty education, we had two one-month summer seminars to educate faculty members in programming and to discuss subjects like computer impacts on society, the place of computing in a liberal arts university, and computers for research and scholarship.

On the whole, the Academic Computing Center encouraged computer use and developed a program that was a reasonable fit for education and research at Colgate. However, the computer science faculty needed to be organized into their own department. Furthermore, it was important that the department have its own computing facility for student and faculty research. This did not happen all at once; first an academic department of computer and information science was organized under the Division of Natural Science in 1979. It was the first academic department created at Colgate in 33 years. Eventually, the dean and president created a separate computing service — known as Information Technology Services today. 

Tom Brackett served as chair of the computer and information science department and director of the computing facility until 1982. He served as a professor of computer science until his retirement in 2000. Brackett wrote this history of the department he helped create because, he says, “It seemed like a story that was going to be lost, and I was the only one who was going to be able to tell it.”

$1 Million Gift Supporting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

As Tom Brackett and his wife, Liz, reflect on the parts of their lives that have been most significant, Colgate is a chapter that stands out. The Bracketts, now in their late 80s, joined the University in the 1960s. Both started in the chemistry department and then moved to computer science, teaching for more than three decades before retiring as professors emeriti.

“Colgate was an extremely important experience to me, and I have a very fond attachment to it,” Tom says.

To support other professors and students, the couple recently gave more than $1 million to create an endowment fund for diversity, equity, and inclusion in computer science. It will allow for the creation of academic opportunities for underrepresented students in computer science as well as support faculty members seeking to develop programs that will deepen underrepresented students’ exposure to computer science.

Brackett writes on the chalkboard.

“The field of computer science critically suffers from a lack of diversity,” says Joel Sommers, professor and chair of the department. “With computing technology becoming embedded in nearly every facet of life, it is especially important that the scientists and engineers developing those technologies are representative of the rich diversity of society at large.” 

Some of the ways the funds will be used include bringing speakers to campus to discuss and raise awareness of topics like bias in AI-based systems, purchasing loaner equipment for students whose computing devices may be insufficient for coursework, running coding workshops for underrepresented students in central New York, and funding student attendance at conferences like the Richard W. Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

“The department is so grateful for the Bracketts’ generous gift,” Sommers says, “which will significantly bolster department efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion.”  

In the ’70s and ’80s, Liz worked to increase diversity of the faculty when she served two terms (three years each) as affirmative action director. And, helping people gain access to education has long been a dedicated cause for the Bracketts. In 1992, they began their yearly trips to Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp with the Karen people and taught English lessons. Soon, they created the Brackett Refugee Education Fund, which has helped hundreds of young adult refugees obtain a university degree and thousands attend primary and secondary schools. 

Although they’ve done most of that work since retiring, the Bracketts did introduce the cause to a few Colgate students while they were still teaching. Hannah Newhall ’96 Sanger even went to Thailand with them one summer, lived in a refugee camp, and became so interested in the Karen people that she won a Watson Fellowship to continue working with them after graduation. 

Tom acknowledges that he was given an education of his own just by teaching at Colgate and interacting with other faculty members. “It was there that I received my liberal arts education,” he says. “It changed my view of life.” 

What are your memories of studying computer science at Colgate? Write to us:

Graph illustrating the steady incline of Computer Science majors over the decades.

Today, the department has eight full-time tenured or tenure-stream and three visiting faculty members as well as three lab instructors.

There are 160 computer science departmental majors, which includes computer science and computer science and mathematics. 

Women constitute 36% of computer science departmental majors.

Student Clubs:

<Colgate Coders>
Game Development Club
Women in Computer Science