Remarks upon receiving Carnegie Mellon's Roberty E. Doherty Award for Sustained Contributions to Excellence in Education

April 25, 2012

I came to Carnegie Mellon in 1979, primarily because my CS major advisor said, somewhat incredulously, "You got into Carnegie Mellon? You have to go there! They're one of the best in the world!" Of course, back then I was thinking that I'd get my Ph.D. and be out of here before anyone noticed (after all, I was a New Yorker, and Pittsburgh had exactly 1 "record store" that sold classical music in the entire city). As is often the case in life, neither of those plans turned out exactly as I had envisioned. The second talk I heard as an incoming Ph.D. student in Wean 5409 went something like this, "What we do is research. We teach undergrads because, if we didn't, the university wouldn't let us stay here." As an aspiring teacher, I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?"

Two years later, my Ph.D. advisor, Jon Bentley, was leaving to go to Bell Labs, I was unhappy with my research direction, and I was looking for a place to land. As luck would have it, a teaching spot opened up (15-118, Intro to Computing for H&SS), and I volunteered. At the end of that semester, I had received the highest FCE's a CS professor ever had to that point and John McDermott, the Department Head at the time, told me, "You seem to like this, and you're good at it! You're hired!" And so began my teaching career here.

Six years after that, in 1988, CSD became SCS and the undergraduate program was born; the price of admission to "School-hood". SCS was looking for a "program director", but I didn't want to leave the classroom, so I didn't apply. When no desirable external candidates turned up, inagural Dean Nico Habermann asked me to apply. I told him I would do so only if I could keep teaching, as I really didn't want to leave the classroom — it's where I thought I would spend the rest of my career. Nico was great! He said, "Let me understand this — you'll only apply if I let you do more work?" I said, "Well, yes, if you put it that way..." He said, "Fine." 25 years, and 2500 students later, here we are.

Before anything else, let me say that it is a privilege to work here. Carnegie Mellon is a very special place, where smart, driven people achieve absolutely great things. I have been fortunate to have witnessed and been part of Carnegie Mellon transforming itself from a strong regional technical school (with a great Drama department) to a Research-1 powerhouse to a place that values undergraduate education and enables, and ennobles, that daily.

And what a great bunch of undergraduates we have! Not just in SCS, but in every college, in every major, we have many of the best and brightest in the world. What educator, what teacher, wouldn't jump at the chance to work with these students? At an alumni event this past weekend, a student 10 years out came up to me and said, "I just wanted you to know, without you I wouldn't have graduated. You believed in me when I didn't even believe in myself." But I ask you, "How is it hard to believe in these kids?" How is it hard to help good students achieve great things? Most of what I've done is not that hard — it's about listening, and understanding, and believing, and problem solving. These are not difficult things to do. But do NOT underestimate how important those things are. Listening, understanding, believing, problem solving. Not all problems are easily solved, but all deserve a fair hearing and our most serious thought in finding a resolution.

This was absolutely driven home to me about 6 years ago now. It was at commencement, in that "mingling/photo taking" time that occurs after we hand out degrees. A mother came up to me and said, "You're Mark Stehlik?" and I said, "Yes." She said, "You don't know how many times your name has come up around our dinner table." And she was RIGHT! I did have no idea that that would have been the case for her son. Now there were some students who, if their mom came up to me and said that, I would have answered, "Absolutely, your kid lived in my office!" But not this one. It totally caught me off guard and absolutely made clear the impact of even the most unassuming advising sessions.

Of course, a large part of any success that I have had is due to the environment here and the mentoring and help that I've enjoyed all throughout my career. Robert Mehrabian paid Indira Nair a supreme compliment a week ago. He said, "When they coined the word human, they were thinking of Indira." Yet Robert helped the university see the need for that human touch, was the first to recognize the importance of advising, and allowed Indira to embody all of it, so that many of us could then emulate her. I am deeply indebted to both of them, as well as to President Cohon for continuing to value the human side of education.

Bob Kail and Eric Grotzinger, my traveling companions along this journey, have been great mentors and friends as well as constant sounding boards. It was a privilege to learn from both of them. The faculty, in general, have always responded positively whenever I've asked them to make an exception and I could not have helped students without their cooperation. Kudos, especially, to all my Teaching Track colleagues, for "liking this, and being good at it" on a daily basis for an awfully long time.

Jim Roberts, the Moose to my Squirrel (think Rocky and Bullwinkle), was our first SCS freshman advisor and helped forge relationships with students that I was privileged to carry forward. Catherine Copetas has kept the soul of the SCS dragon beating for I can't say how many years (because she'll hit me). Catharine Fichtner has been my right arm for the past 12 years and has both been an invaluable administrator and has helped keep me sane, even when the job is totally insane. My kids have provided endless distractions as well as appropriate cultural touchstones at times when I needed both. Of course, they have also benefitted from my having 2500 parental models to sample and choose from! The most valuable lesson I've drawn from all that — parents need to worry more about character than circumstance.

My son Matt grew up playing CS volleyball on Friday afternoons in front of Wean Hall and is now coaching volleyball; my daughter Kristin just graduated from Mercyhurst College and provided some key insight into a UDC hearing a year ago when I asked her, "Have you ever heard of 4 Loco?" This was well before it had made it into the press and was banned for sale. Her response, after she stopped laughing, was, "Dad, it's like a gerbil on crack". I, of course, then asked if that was derived from personal experience, and she declined comment, but it nevertheless helped me understand the circumstances of the case. My wife, Syl, has been as stalwart a partner as anyone could ask over these 30 years. She has allowed me to take more than I deserved in terms of hours spent at the office, but always understood why (and also always knew that at least I wasn't at the local bar). I will be forever grateful for that; it has enabled this.

Thanks to my nominating committee; this clearly would not have been possible without your hard work. Many thanks, also, to the people who wrote for me. If you did so, it means that I was privileged to get to know and work with you and have been enriched by that interaction. And lastly, to all my students, it is to you I owe the greatest thanks for letting me into your lives for a little while during your time here. It's been a great ride, one I would gladly get on again.