The Legacy of Mervin Muller at OSU (1985-1994)

Posted: March 12, 2019

On December 3, 2018, our beloved Mervin Muller passed away at age 90. A celebration of life was held on December 9, in Upper Arlington, Ohio. About 150 relatives and friends, including about 20 former and current CSE faculty and staff, as well as dozens of former chairs of other departments and colleagues, attended the brief service with a string quartet (J-AM) playing solemn music. Several of his old colleagues and former students also sent in their condolences and praises of his accomplishments, some of which were read during the service, which was followed by a warm and friendly reception. Regarding Mervin’s education, extensive industrial and academic experiences, reputation for leadership, professional and social activities, we can find them on the CSE website posted on December 7, 2018, as well as his obituary published in the Columbus Dispatch.

The purpose of this article is to document the legacy of Mervin Muller during his 9-year tenure as chair of the CSE (then CIS) Department from September 1985 to August 1994 (2 terms plus 1 year). Merv retired from OSU in 1998. Specifically, we can identify two significant infrastructural improvements and two important initiatives that have long lasting impacts on the Department’s growth, success and further enhancement of its reputation for excellence in CSE, 25 years after his tenure as chair now and more decades to come!

Before we go down to the detail, it is proper to report how Merv was recruited to OSU. Dean Glower took an extraordinary step of appointing the CSE chair search committee, chaired by Associate Dean Redmond, with members from a group of heads of Chemical Abstracts Service, Battelle, OCLC and Mead Data Central; faculty from other departments; and our own Bruce Weide. An executives search firm, Heidrick & Struggles, was hired to help the search. Merv was interviewed three times. The first time it was held at Merv’s office at the World Bank in Washington, DC, where he served as Director of Computing Activities. The purpose of the visit was to assess Merv’s interest in the position, and he made a strong impression on those who interviewed him, including  Bruce Weide. In the ensuing negotiation, both President Jennings and Dean Glower were convinced by Merv that a top university needs a top CSE department, and both agreed to provide additional funds to hire senior faculty and to greatly enhance our computing facility. President Jennings also promised to allow Merv to find funding for a CSE building. At the third time Heidrick & Struggles interviewed Merv, he accepted the offer to be the CSE chair.

1. Dreese Lab II. When the CSE Department was formally established in September 1968, it was housed in the fourth floor of Caldwell Lab. As the Department grew in size, it moved to the second floor of Bolz Hall in 1975. The rapid growth of both faculty and student enrollment in the late 1970s and early 1980s created a space problem that our offices were scattered in several adjacent buildings, namely, Hitchcock Hall, Communication Lab, Welding Engineering and Ives Hall. With the promise of President Jennings, Merv started to search for  funds for a new building, and within three years he raised $22 million. Ground breaking of the new building took place in September 1992, and it was completed in November 1993. The Department started moving to occupy the new building in the spring of 1994, which can house all offices and several new labs under one roof! The new building, named Dresse Lab II, was dedicated on October 28, 1994, by President Gordon Gee. The dedication was held in conjunction with the CSE 25th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion, which was originally scheduled on October 8-9, 1993. About 300 persons (faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends and distinguished guests) attended the 2-day joint celebration.

Merv was also a member of the OSU Arts Council and got them agree to his selection of an artist for art works on the exterior of the building, named the Garden of Numbers. The Garden is still a beautiful sight that many enjoy. It is one of top attractions on campus for visitors. Many people take their pictures inside the zero (0), thinking it is the O of Ohio State. However, it does not matter since CSE is a part of OSU.

2. IICF (Interactive Instructional Computing Facility). Merv also raised $4.6 million for a 6-year plan to establish IIFC which has provided a state-of-the-art distributed but integrated interactive instructional facility. It included individual PCs/workstations integrated through a network to a shared file system as well as other network-wide services such as printer servers. Initial implementation included 305 Apple Macintoshes, 43 AT&T UNIX PCs, 20 Sun workstations, 4 IBM PCs, 4 DEC LSI 11/23s, and others, which were scattered in 6 adjacent buildings: Bolz, Hitchcock, Welding Engineering, Caldwell, Hagerty and Baker. During Merv’s 9-year tenure, those old and aging PCs/workstations were upgraded and replaced with new ones. When he stepped down as chair in1994, IIFC had 300 HP 715/64s, 208 Sun SPARCs, 100 Sun SLCs, 61 Sun ELCs, and others.

The IICF technical staff consists of a full-time manager and several professionals as well as part-time graduate and undergraduate students whose focus is the implementation, development and deployment of cutting-edge technologies to facilitate instruction as well as research. They also provide technical support to several CSE research labs in AI, databases, graphics, networking, parallel computing, and performance evaluation. The establishment of the technical staff within IICF was an important milestone of the CSE Department. It has now become a part of the College of Engineering Technology Service staff, providing computing service to the College in addition to the CSE Department.

3. Buckeye Byte. The first initiative by Merv that has a longtime impact was the publication of a departmental newsletter, Buckeye Bytes, to supplement the department’s annual report which was started by Marshall Yovits (founding chair, 1968-1978) for the academic year, July 1976 to June 1977. The purpose of the newsletter is to serve as a vehicle for exchanging information, in a frequent and timely way, about activities and events affecting CSE alumni, faculty and students. A new staff member, Virginia (Strawser) Jenkins, who was major in English, was recruited to serve as Editor of both Buckeye Bytes and the CSE Annual Report. The inaugural issue was published in Spring 1987, featuring the department’s 20th Anniversary celebration during the academic year 1986-87. Six well-known guest speakers from industry, academia and government, including Fred Kilgore (OCLC founder; October 9, 1986) and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (COBOL inventor; February 5, 1987), were invited to deliver their speeches in the Distinguished Lecture Series as a part of the celebration.

The scope of Buckeye Bytes has been expanded and renamed as Buckeye Blog by Xiaoding Zhang (chair, 2006-2018). The first issue was published in Autumn 2007, in colorful print as well as on the CSE website. In addition to Buckeye Bytes’ regular features, Buckeye Blog has started publishing a list of names of CSE alumni and friends who directed their OSU gifts to CSE. As a result, CSE is able to set up more scholarships to support both undergraduate and graduate students for education and research.

4. Advisory Board. The CSE Advisory Board was formed by Merv in May 1987 and held its first meeting in conjunction with the College of Engineering’s annual ACE (Alliance with the College of Engineering) celebration. It consists of a highly knowledgeable group of individuals who help review, evaluate and make recommendations on matters pertaining to the instructional, research and service roles of the Department. The inaugural members were high-level executives and managers from IBM, HP, Apple, Pyramid Technology, Battelle, OCLC, Chemical Abstracts Service, NIH, MIT and GMU; one private consultant, and 2 CSE distinguished alumni, a total of 13. Over the years the membership has been changed and expanded. David Cohen, a distinguished CSE alumnus who also served on the College’s Advisory Board for many years, is the longest continuing member since 1988.

The formation of the Advisory Board is another milestone of the CSE Department. In addition to its advisory roles, the Advisory Board has been helpful in fund raising for the Department and in the accreditation of its undergraduate program by the ABET/CSAB.

In addition to the aforementioned achievements, Merv also recruited 31 full-time, tenure-track faculty members, including two full and one associate professors. Two of the assistant professors, both recruited from USC in 1989, DeLang Wang and D.K. Panda, have received OSU’s top research award, the Distinguished Scholar Award, which is  given to only six faculty members out of more than 3,000 each year. As of now, the Department has five recipients, and two have retired. The graduate program was greatly expanded, both in enrollment and the number of MS/PhD degrees awarded, during Merv’s tenure. There are many other Merv’s contributions, which can be found in the Buckeye Bytes and the Annual Reports from 1985 to 1994.

In summary Merv worked his best to lead the Department on a path to excellence and relevance, that is, to bring in a real-world perspective that was needed to typical university settings. Only time can tell how much success he made to the Department!