CSE chair Brian Noble steps down abruptly

Friday, February 28, 2020 - 3:16pm

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Kelsey Pease/Daily

Brian Noble, department chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, has stepped down as of Friday morning. 

In an email sent to students in the department Friday morning, Engineering Dean Alec Gallimore wrote that Prof. Peter Chen will assume the role immediately. The reasoning for Noble’s decision was not specified in the email.

“Professor Chen has committed to making his priority to work with students, faculty and staff to bring resolution to current CSE challenges,” Gallimore wrote. “I will meet regularly with him throughout this term to review our progress. We welcome your continued input.”

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Dean Gallimore sent an email to the computer science department regarding the appointment of Professor Peter Chen as department chair.

In a joint email sent to CSE students and faculty Friday afternoon, Noble commented on his choice to vacate the position, noting that it “was not an easy decision” and asking the department to support Chen as he moves to fill the role. 

“Pete and I have spoken about this, and I know the Division will be in capable hands under his leadership,” Noble wrote. “I ask you to join me in supporting him as he guides CSE through its present challenges and opportunities. After taking some personal time, I plan to return to my role on the faculty, and I look forward to continuing to serve the mission of CSE, Engineering, and Michigan alongside each one of you.”

In the email, Chen thanked Noble for his leadership.

“He has poured much time and energy into the Division, and many of us (including myself) have benefitted from his warm, relational style of leadership,” Chen said. “Its a little daunting following after him, but I’m excited to tackle the pressing challenges and opportunities that CSE faces, including insufficient supply of classes for our growing student population, important issues with our climate and culture, a significant expansion of our facilities, and co-location with the School of Information.”

Chen said he intends to address the department’s challenges in his new position.

“Many of these issues are long-standing ones that will take time to address, but I'm confident that we can make progress on them if we work together,” Chen said.

 

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Former CSE Chair Brian Noble and incoming Chair Peter Chen sent a join email to students and faculty.

Chen previously held the chairmanship in 2017. Chen has also been a chief undergraduate program adviser and a faculty adviser to student group Code-M, formerly known as CSE Scholars, according to Gallimore’s email.

Chen has also been awarded the Theta Kappa Nu EECS Professor of the Year — an honor determined by undergraduate and graduate students — five times.

Noble’s decision comes two weeks after The Verge published an article Feb. 13 detailing a culture of harassment and silence at Clinc, an artificial intelligence company created by Mars and his wife, University professor Lingjia Tang. Clinc has ties to the College of Engineering and employs multiple current and former University students.

The Verge article detailed reports of sexually inappropriate behavior from Prof. Jason Mars, who is currently a tenured assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University and the co-director of the University’s Clarity-Lab, an AI research group. The Verge based its reporting on accounts from 13 current and former employees, including some who studied under Mars at the University, in addition to leaked phone calls, emails and documents.

Mars founded Clinc in 2015 with Tang and University alumni Michael Laurenzano and Johann Hauswald. The company, which creates intelligent chatbots, has worked with clients including Ford, Sprint and USAA and has raised approximately $60 million in investments. 

Mars stepped down as CEO on Feb. 10 in response to an internal investigation within Clinc.

Computer science and engineering faculty released a statement calling for Mars to take a leave of absence, according to The Verge. The School of Information announced it would be suspending its recruiting relationship with Clinc.

The day after the article was published, Feb. 14, Gallimore sent out an email condemning the recent allegations of sexual misconduct and stating the college would soon take action.

“Let me state in the clearest terms — the reported behaviors are not consistent with our values,” Gallimore wrote. “Although I do not have details to share today, I want to assure you that we will address these matters and take action as appropriate. We are working toward solutions to not only address immediate issues, but to also support a culture of respect within the entire College.”

On the same day, Engineering professor Westley Weimer sent out a lengthy statement to his EECS 481 class, addressing students’ concerns in light of the allegations against Mars and other University administrators and faculty. 

In his email, Weimer wrote that though he cannot personally address investigations into sexual misconduct claims, he has set up an anonymous dropbox and wants students to feel comfortable coming forward. He also noted there are other issues, including wait times at office hours, transparency in hiring processes and disrespect towards students from course staff, that the CSE department needs to address. 

“I may not be able to personally affect university-level policy about sexual harassment allegations, but I am working with a number of faculty members and administrators who have generously volunteered time or money to address some of those other climate concerns,” Weimer wrote.

On the following day, Feb. 15, Noble, who was still chair at the time, wrote in an email to CSE undergraduates that he had taken some steps to address the allegations. He said CSE faculty had discussed the department’s climate issues. In addition, he said he asked Weimer to accept a position as Associate Chair of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and had launched two new student committees. 

“There are profound problems with CSE’s climate,” Noble wrote. “I know that there is a lot of frustration, pain and anger, and I share it.”

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Former CSE Chair Brian Noble sent an email to undergrads addressing the climate in the program.

Engineering sophomore Katrina Sanchez said she does not think a new chair will impact her experience in the department. She said she is hopeful Chen will make the department better.

Sanchez said she wants Chen to address current issues she sees within the department, such as the long wait times and staffing problems in office hours for CSE courses.

“As a student, I don’t think the changing of the chair will negatively impact me,” Sanchez said. “I think that things will either stay the same, or hopefully get better, in the department.”

Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu