Clarence "Skip" Ellis

2019 Distinguished Achievement Memorial Award

Professor Clarence "Skip" Ellis
Professor Clarence "Skip" Ellis

Clarence “Skip” Ellis was the first African-American to earn a PhD in computer science (PhD CS ’69). While at Illinois, he worked on computer systems, in particular the hardware, software, and applications of the ILLIAC IV supercomputer. 

Before coming to Illinois, Ellis received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Beloit College in Wisconsin. At Beloit, he helped set up the school’s first computer laboratory, a place where he spent many hours developing his interest in computers. 

Ellis held positions at Bell Telephone Laboratories, IBM, Xerox, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (now Los Alamos National Laboratory), and Argonne National Laboratory. From 1976 to 1984, he headed a group at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) that invented and developed Officetalk, the first office system to use icons and Ethernet to allow people to collaborate from a distance. Ellis continued to work in this area, and is considered one of the pioneers of the field of operational transformation, which examines functionality in collaborative systems. Operational transformation is now found in a host of computer applications, including Apache Wave and Google Docs. Among his many contributions to computing, he is most well-known for his pioneering work in groupware and computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) systems. 

In addition to his career in industry, Ellis held teaching positions at Stanford University, the University of Texas, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Stevens Institute of Technology. He also taught in Taiwan under an AFIPS teaching fellowship. Ellis finally joined the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1992 as a professor of computer science and retired in 2010. He was an early leader in that university’s research on human-centered computing. 

At CU Boulder, Ellis regularly taught the introductory computer science course in addition to offering advanced courses on groupware. He wanted to encourage students of all backgrounds to stretch their academic abilities and to consider careers in computer science. In the February 2002 issue of Black Issues in Higher Education, Ellis said he wanted to counter the approach some teachers early in his academic career took when they advised him to not take courses beyond the basic math level. “People put together an image of what I was supposed to be,” he recalled. “So I always tell my students to push.”

During his later years at Colorado and into his retirement, Ellis worked with higher education institutions in Africa. In particular, he maintained a close connection to Ashesi University in Ghana for several years. In 2013 Ellis received a Fulbright grant to support his educational work in Ghana.

Ellis was named a Fellow of ACM in 1998 in recognition of his leadership in ACM SIGOIS and his impact in the office information systems field.

He passed away in 2014 at the age of 71.