CS CARES Committee Sends a Clear Signal that Illinois CS Takes its Values Seriously

6/8/2021 12:49:48 PM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

The new CS CARES committee started in April at Illinois CS as the first CARES committee in an academic department at any university, dedicated to ensuring that the CS Values and Code of Conduct is upheld throughout the entirety of the department on a consistent basis.

But being the start of something is difficult – as described by Nancy M. Amato, Illinois CS Department Head and Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, as well as Sarita Adve, Richard T. Cheng Professor and CARES Chair.

The path from ideation to creation has been steep. The 11 selected committee members need to serve as the best of what Illinois CS is and will continue to be. To stand up for what is right, to hear others’ complaints and react accordingly takes people dedicated to accountability.

Each member’s charge includes serving as a resource for any person within the department – faculty, staff or student – who encounters behavior that conflicts with the CS Code.

Sarita Adve
Richard T. Cheng Professor and CS CARES Committee Chair Sarita Adve

But the challenge pales in comparison to the payoff, which includes ensuring that the Illinois CS community upholds the highest standards of ethical, respectful, and collegial conduct with no tolerance for discrimination, harassment, or abuse of power imbalances.

“Our goal is that by having the committee, we ensure that people here will not engage in problematic behavior that violates our values and code of conduct,” Adve said. “The CS CARES committee sends a clear signal to all involved that the department cares about, and takes seriously, our values.”

When problematic behavior occurs, those subjected to it may not know where to turn or what to do next. CS CARES is the mechanism for people in this time of need.

Nancy Amato
Nancy Amato, Department Head

“The CARES committee is not an enforcement mechanism, but it is a way for people to understand what is available to them,” Amato said. “We’re proud to provide an entity through which all people involved in the department have a place to go to find the help they might need.”

The committee encompasses members of the Illinois CS faculty, staff and student base. By design, this group is visible, respected, approachable and representative of our community.

Understanding that each committee member may encounter interactions both serious and delicate, Adve and Amato believe a few important traits will help set others at ease.

“The ability to display empathy is among the first traits we looked for when selecting our committee members,” Adve said. “Excellent judgement is another important aspect. There is almost never an exact right response to any of these issues and confidentiality is a primary concern. So, people who have good judgement in these scenarios are valuable.”

“One more trait that is similar to Sarita’s emphasis on empathy, is the ability to listen,” Amato said. “Our members need to be able to let people tell their story. They can guide them from there but first it’s important to hear the person who comes to you.”

Amato said that her discussions about CARES date to the time she started as department head. She and Rashid Bashir, Dean at The Grainger College of Engineering, intended to develop this as something other departments in the college and across campus could follow.

Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir
Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir

“From the very beginning, I’ve supported Nancy Amato and Sarita Adve’s vision for a CARES committee, because we should all strive to uphold the values everyone needs to feel comfortable in an educational environment that intends to provide the very best experience in all ways,” Bashir said. “The creators of CS CARES have accomplished exactly that by forming and structuring a responsive committee. Additionally, we now have a precise guideline to utilize in the other departments that encompass Grainger Engineering.”

Amato pointed to Adve’s previous experience as chair of the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture (SIGARCH) as instrumental to this effort at Illinois.

While Adve was chair of SIGARCH, she led the formation of SIGARCH CARES with the SIGARCH Executive Committee and colleagues Kim Hazelwood, Natalie Enright Jerger, Margaret Martonosi, and Kathryn McKinley. CARES went on to become an ACM wide movement, which received the CRA Distinguished Service Award.

Since then it has expanded to other research communities, including Amato’s community, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

“We now have a CARES committee with the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society that is 100 percent modeled after the SIGARCH CARES effort,” Amato said. “These are different communities, but there are similar issues in terms of power imbalances and the need to have a confidential way to bring forth concerns or receive advice. Work completed with SIGARCH CARES proves that this kind of committee can meet this specific need.

“That’s why we’ll be able to do this successfully at Illinois CS, and there’s no way we could do this as effectively without Sarita.”

Adve is also excited that this activity, which started in professional research societies, is now beginning at a university. She believes that it is important to close the loop throughout all elements of the research ecosystem when it comes to improper behavior.

Currently, there is a lack of effective communication between universities, professional research societies, funding organizations, etc. Adve hopes that over time, a proliferation of the CARES model will become instrumental towards a solution to closing this gap in effective communication.

“For CARES to succeed as a counter to bad behavior, all of the parts that encompass the research ecosystem need to work together,” Adve said. “This is important, because it’s quite possible that a person who engages in bad behavior does so in each of their activities.”

Adve credits Amato and Bashir’s support for the proper development of CARES at Illinois and hopes that other department heads and deans at Illinois and beyond will emulate it. She was also impressed with the faculty, students and staff who accepted a role with the committee.

“I can’t overstate the role Nancy played in making sure CS CARES exists, from convincing the upper administration to working together to produce the CARES operations documents,” Adve said. “Beyond that, I’m thankful for the response from those we asked to be members.

“That’s what is great about our department. People truly care about these issues. Everyone who agreed to serve did so because they felt its importance to others here at Illinois CS.”