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Gifts in Action: The Immeasurable Value of Named Faculty Positions

2/23/2021 10:16:47 AM Laura Schmitt, Illinois CS

Endowed chairs and professorships are the highest honors the university confers on prominent faculty members. Funded by individual or corporate gifts, these named positions reward, retain, and recruit exceptional professors who use the investment income to further their innovative research and teaching. At the same time, the positions are an enduring tribute to the donor who establishes them, or to the person a donor may name the position after.

“Endowed positions are critical to maintain our competitiveness in recruiting and retaining top faculty,” said Illinois CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato, Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering. “In addition to the honor they bestow upon the holder, they provide them with freedom and seed funds to explore new directions of research that may be a bit too risky for traditional funding mechanisms—those high risk, high reward ideas that we want to enable our faculty to pursue.”

Professor David A. Forsyth, the Fulton Watson Copp Chair in Computer Science
Professor David A. Forsyth, the Fulton Watson Copp Chair in Computer Science

Professor David A. Forsyth is among the 19 CS faculty members who currently hold named chair or professorship positions. A widely recognized expert in computer vision, Forsyth is best known for his distinctive contributions to human motion computing (detecting, understanding, and animating what people do), to how computers relate words and pictures, and to rendering objects into photographs.

In 2014, Forsyth was invested as the Fulton Watson Copp Chair in Computer Science, succeeding Michael T. Heath when he retired from the university.

Established with a gift from the estate of Fulton Copp (BS EE '25), the Copp Chair recognizes a faculty member who is an internationally renowned leader in computer science, has an ongoing research program central to the mission of the department, and is a prominent educator with a reputation for outstanding, innovative teaching.

Question: What does holding the Copp Chair in CS mean to you?

Forsyth: I’m extremely pleased and proud to be part of a tradition that includes Mike Heath and to be associated with the other eminent holders of named chairs around campus. Mike authored a fine textbook, “Scientific Computing: An Introductory Survey,” and I wrote three textbooks, “Computer Vision: A Modern Approach,” “Probability and Statistics for Computer Science,” and “Applied Machine Learning.”

I’d like alumni to know that a big part of The Grainger College of Engineering’s eminence is the result of exposition—a tradition that began with people like Mac Van Valkenburg, who influenced electrical engineering with his textbooks, “Network Analysis,” “Modern Network Synthesis,” and “Analog Filter Design.” One of the reasons Illinois engineering is great is because other people learned how to do things right from us. That’s a really big deal. [Interestingly, in the 1980s, Van Valkenburg received the first endowed chair in the Grainger College of Engineering—the W. W. Grainger Chair in Electrical Engineering.]

Question: How does a named faculty position benefit a professor?

Forsyth: As a professor, a lot of your career involves getting noticed, but sometimes what happens when you’re focused on getting noticed is you tend to follow trends with your research. The Copp Chair funding has acted as kind of a backstop, allowing me to pursue projects that will have an impact. For example, I wrote the “Probability and Statistics for Computer Science” book because I thought it needed doing for the classes I taught. I knew I wouldn’t get famous from it. The chair gave me some extra career wiggle room, so I could do things that I thought needed doing as opposed to doing things that may get me promoted. It sounds like a minor effect but it’s actually quite significant.

Question: How do you spend the funding that comes with holding a chair position?

Forsyth: I mostly try to use the money for fairly speculative things that I couldn’t fund with other research grants. The Chair funds help take an interesting idea from the ugly duckling phase to the point that it can be sold to government or industry funders.

For example, I’ve been very interested in what clothing looks like and using AI to generate pictures of people wearing clothes from just the photos of the clothing. That’s a delicate and subtle activity. I used Copp Chair funding to support one of my doctoral students, Kedan Li, who has developed technology that could potentially transform the online apparel domain. Kedan’s company Reveri.ai produces a Software as a Service (SAAS) app that provides online retailers with virtual try-on solutions for their E-commerce platforms. The app allows shoppers to select any combination of clothing items and visualize them on models of different sizes and skin tones.