From the Community | The 2020 ACM Turing Award is a step against diversity, equity and inclusion

Opinion by Mahdi Cheraghchi
May 12, 2021, 9:00 p.m.

The Turing Award, dubbed the “Nobel Prize of computing,” is bestowed upon computer scientists who have demonstrated long-lasting impact and “trend-setting technical achievements” in computing, and is generally considered a lifetime achievement award. As such, the announcement of the award is a moment of celebration for the whole community. This was different for the 2020 award, announced in March 2021 by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to be shared between Alfred Aho of Columbia University and Jeffrey Ullman of Stanford University.

Within hours of the award’s announcement, social media was flooded with concerns by members of the computer science community over the selection. They recognized Jeffrey Ullman as an outspoken opponent of diversity, equity and inclusion over the past decades, arguing that the selection violates ACM’s own commitment to diversity and inclusion, listed as one of the four core values of the organization, as well as its declared mission of “promoting the highest professional and ethical standards.”

The significance of the social and ethical implications of the Turing Award is heightened by the fact that it commemorates the legacy of Alan Turing, who pioneered modern computer science, helped end World War II and faced a great deal of discrimination in his tragic life before dying by suicide. Posthumously, he received an apology from the British Prime Minister and a royal pardon by Queen Elizabeth II.

Soon, many congratulatory notes to Ullman were taken back. Some of the leading figures in the community, including Shafi Goldwasser (past Turing Award laureate and member of the Turing Award committee) expressed concerns in solidarity with the victims of Ullman’s discriminatory behavior, joined by others including the Turing Award committee Chair Olga Sorkine-Hornung and Yann LeCun, a recent laureate of the award. Within days, an open letter condemning the selection emerged that quickly amassed over a thousand signatures, including by such influential scientists as fellows of ACM, MacArthur fellows and laureates of the Nevanlinna Prize, Abel Prize and Turing Award itself. 

Like many of my peers, I learned much of computer science from Aho and Ullman’s excellent textbooks. In fact, the educational contributions of the duo in the form of their textbooks has been included in their award citation. Senior undergraduates at Sharif University in Iran, where I studied, often apply to graduate programs abroad. For us, the leaders in computing were the names on our textbooks, such as Knuth, Sipser, Hopcroft, Aho and Ullman. We thought of them as influential educators, people to look up to and people to seek advice from. Some of us contacted Ullman, and he actually did respond. His words were, however, nothing about graduate school or computer science. They were rants of hate and bigotry against Iranians. 

In the mid 2000s, tired of having to respond to emails from Iranians “every few weeks,” Ullman set up his infamous “Answers to All Questions Iranian” webpage, which he maintained until late 2020. In this page, he records his views against Iranians and other groups, such as Native Americans. Despite this, he continued to correspond with Iranian students. One such correspondence (as detailed in the above-mentioned open letter) was made public in 2011, causing public outrage and a complaint to Stanford by the National Iranian American Council. In response, according to The Stanford Daily, Stanford dismissed the allegations, saying that “there is no plan to discipline Ullman for his statements.” In contrast, in 2003, the University of Oxford suspended a professor for sending one email of such nature to a student.

Ullman maintains that Iranian students who are in Iran or have grown up in Iran past the 1979 revolution should not be educated in the US and calls for a blanket ban on admitting them to US schools. He has set a personal policy of wanting nothing to do with them: He won’t work with them and he won’t advise them, solely based on their national origin. He has also expressed a similar assertion regarding Chinese students, in a Google+ post in 2015 as well as in private correspondence as recently as 2020, though it is unclear if he has gone as far as declaring a ban on that group.

There is no question that Ullman is entitled to his opinions. However, when he turns those opinions to actions and policies against students, a red line has been crossed. At Stanford, “national or ethnic origin” is an explicitly stated protected category in the university’s non-discrimination policy. Moreover, Stanford’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, as stated in 2019, asserts to “support all members of the community independent of cultural background, ethnicity, gender identity, or political affiliation.” Stanford’s “Core Policy Statements” (Section 4.2.2) considers exclusions for faculty’s conduct “directly related to academic values” in reference to the extent of their academic freedom. 

Ullman and Stanford argue that he has no involvement in admissions. However, an outspoken and influential senior faculty (who has also chaired the department) can affect a department’s climate as a whole. Moreover, in graduate admissions in nearly every US school, despite the existence of an admissions committee, selection is directly influenced by individual faculty members. As a crude heuristic, I looked over the list of 1,074 Ph.D. theses, as of this writing, done at Stanford Computer Science. Among the authors, I notice only 6 Iranian names, only one of whom has done an undergraduate degree in Iran. In contrast, Stanford Electrical Engineering lists 4,731 theses, and among those, I can identify about 176 Iranian names (the contrast gets sharper in recent decades). Of course, that might not prove anything for such a complex issue, but at least signifies a telling gap. 

Regardless, for a faculty member to set a unilateral policy of discriminating against a group of students is already an action, one that goes against academic values that they have the duty to uphold. Furthermore, just being subject to Ullman’s behavior could have been enough to deter young students from graduate studies altogether. Several computer scientists from Iran are now on the faculty at Stanford. The late Maryam Mirzakhani, a Stanford professor and the only woman so far to be awarded the Fields medal, completed her undergraduate studies in Iran. In Ullman’s view, all these individuals should have been excluded.

Ullman’s controversy is not about freedom of speech, nor politics. It is a purely academic one. It is not about separating the artist from the art. It is about the art itself. At a time when the computing community is struggling to broaden participation, Ullman’s egregious actions are a disservice that goes against his own educational contributions for which he received a Turing Award. Factoring this into his overall academic impact, ACM’s selection does not seem clear-cut anymore.

ACM first reacted to the controversy by tweeting that Ullman’s “statements do not reflect the views of ACM.” In response to the open letter, ACM released a statement providing answers to precisely the two questions asked on the letter. Fourteen ACM Special Interest Groups released a separate statement expressing commitments to diversity and inclusivity. In summary, ACM’s response is that the issue was missed since no complaint against Ullman had been on file with ACM, and that in future ACM will require nomination letters to indicate whether they are aware of any behavior inconsistent with ACM values. This is while ACM could have easily discovered the behavior by a simple web search, and of course nominators would have a conflict of interest to disclose any red flags.

While ACM’s response is a positive step and promises long overdue reforms, it is far from sufficient. As time is now judging Stanford’s dismissive reaction in 2011, which is partly responsible for today’s controversy, it will judge any action ACM takes today. Ullman has had ample opportunity over the years to acknowledge harm and correct his behavior. Unfortunately, his April 2021 interview with San Jose Inside suggests otherwise, concluding that “the conversation thus far hasn’t swayed the professor.”

I hope that, at the very least, ACM takes genuine and measurable steps to prove commitment to its stated values by impactful action and not just words. ACM should, foremost, recognize the damage done to the computing community and directly empathize with the victims of Ullman’s actions, rather than strategizing to minimize the immediate impact on the organization. Since Ullman’s behavior is directly entangled with the educational impacts that contributed to the award, if ACM does not indeed share his views, the award citation and its public record should at least be amended with a disclaimer to reflect that. ACM should think of more effective reforms such as publicly announcing the nominees in advance and establishing clear mechanisms for rescinding awards in rare cases when relevant misconduct is discovered after the fact.

It is important to ensure that a clear precedent is set today by ACM that would not give a free pass to any future abusers of academic freedom. The computing community, which ACM aims to represent globally (as an international organization), needs to establish equal opportunity for everyone and ACM’s selection this year has diminished much of the hard-earned progress. ACM needs to do better and bring back trust and hope to the community.

Mahdi Cheraghchi is a theoretical computer scientist and an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. He is a senior member of ACM and IEEE.

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