Oral-History:Juan Gilbert

About Juan Gilbert

Juan Gilbert is the Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and Department Chair in Computer & Information Science & Engineering at the University of Florida. Dr. Gilbert’s main research area in human-computer interaction. He holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati and has formerly taught at Auburn and Clemson Universities.

Gilbert describes his family, his upbringing, and his formal education. He discusses his faculty and administrative positions he held in computer science at Auburn, Clemson, and University of Florida. He briefly discusses his research on voting systems and its use in the 2016 US presidential elections. He is one of the leading producers of African-American computer science PhDs, and he discusses his work with these students both individually and as part of a self- supportive community.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE Computer Society. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the IEEE Computer Society.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Juan Gilbert, an oral history conducted in 2020 by William Aspray, IEEE Computer Society

Interview

Interviewee: Juan Gilbert

Interviewer: William Aspray

Date: 17 November 2020

Aspray:

This is the 17th of November 2020. This is an oral history interview with Juan Gilbert, who I assume is in Florida some place. The interviewer is William Aspray. He's in Boulder, Colorado. We're doing this interview over Zoom. We're going to start this interview asking you about when and where you were born, what your parents did for a living, and anything you care to say about your siblings.

Gilbert:

I was born in Hamilton, Ohio. So, I'm originally from Ohio. My parents, I guess they, I don't know, met in Ohio. My dad is, was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. He had an eighth-grade education. He fought in the Korean War, and when he came back, he learned a trade, which was paint and auto body for cars. He did that for many, many years, ended up starting his own body shop. He did his own thing in Hamilton, Ohio for many years. So, I grew up, working on cars, under cars and things like that. My mother, she had a high school diploma. She actually ended up working in the school system as a teaching aid for hearing-impaired students. So, she would help the hearing-impaired students. She knows sign language and things. My dad passed away in 2008. My mom is 83 now and doing very well in Hamilton. There were three siblings. My oldest brother would have been 12 years older than me, but he passed away a number of years ago. Then I have another brother who's 10 years older than me. And then I have a younger sister a year younger than me; and they are in Ohio as well. So, that gives you a little background on where I grew up and my family.

Aspray:

As you were growing up, can you tell me something about how good a student you were? What kinds of topics interested you? Did you have hobbies? That sort of thing.

Gilbert:

I was always interested in science. I watched a lot of sci-fi movies growing up, and I was fascinated by the ending, where the guy who wore his lab coat saved the day because of science. He knew something no one else did. I was fascinated by how science could help society. So, with that in mind, I was always interested in science and math. I did very well in school. I played sports while I was in school: football, basketball and track, and ended up playing varsity basketball in high school, had the opportunity to play college basketball, but I took the academic scholarship instead and went to Miami University in Ohio. For me growing up, I was just always into science and sports. Those were two things that were critical for me growing up.

Aspray:

Did you have any idea of what you wanted to do with your life when you were still in junior or senior high school?

Gilbert:

Not really. I kind of said I want to be a scientist, but I didn't know what it takes to be a scientist. I didn't know what that really meant. Again, all I had was what I saw on TV, which was the sci-fi movies; and that kind of framed my context of what a future I would like to have.

Aspray:

Did your older brothers go to college?

Gilbert:

No. My oldest brother dropped out of high school and then my second oldest brother, I think he dropped out of high school. My sister graduated from high school and got a college degree, eventually took her several years to do so.

Aspray:

Were you the first member of your family going to college?

Gilbert:

Yes. I was the first in my immediate family to go to college.

Aspray:

Were your parents supportive of that?

Gilbert:

Oh yes. Very supportive and just proud and happy? Yes.

Aspray:

Why did you choose to go to Miami?

Gilbert:

I had offers from Florida A&M University. Also the University of Florida wrote me. I had a scholarship to University of Michigan actually. I picked Miami University because, when I graduated from high school, there was a racial incident at University of Michigan. I said, “I'm not going there.” And Miami was close to home. They gave me a scholarship, funding. It was an excellent school. I said, “Hey, I'm going to do this. That's how it happened.”

Aspray:

Tell me about your undergraduate education.

Gilbert:

Well, I started undergrad as a chemistry major, and I took advanced chemistry freshman year. One day, a senior TA pulled me aside and said, “You do really well in chemistry. You're going to be great. You're going to be successful here. You're going to graduate. You're going to go to grad school.” I said, “wait a minute, grad school?” “That's what we do in chemistry.” And I said, “I have to go to school again?” I thought I went to college to get a job, not to go to school again. So, I changed my major to systems analysis or computer science because my resident hall advisor was one of those majors and he was graduating and got a nice-paying job. And I liked it. So, that's what happened as far as my major went. And it was my junior year going into my senior year. I had a class with the Dean, Dr. David Haddad, called stochastic systems. I hated that class. I was not into it. I fell asleep in his class. I just didn't like it. One day he pulled me aside and said, “Juan, I want to see you after class?” And I'm thinking, Oh, I'm in trouble. I don't like this class. [The professor said:] “I know you don't like my class. I've been watching you and, you know what, you've done very well. I think you'd be a great professor someday. And if you get your PhD, I would hire you.” And I said, “you're kidding.” He said, “no, I'm serious.” So, I went and did my research on what it meant to be a faculty member. Because I never saw an African-American with a PhD in computer science or any science, and I knew nothing about it. I liked [it] except that graduate school thing, I was trying to avoid. But anyway, I ended up, as you know, going to graduate school and starting my journey. That's what happened for me [as an] undergrad. I started out as a chemistry [major and] changed my major. And ended up going to graduate school.

Aspray:

Were there other people that you want to mention who were influential during your college years? Maybe students, maybe faculty, maybe others.

Gilbert:

Well, Dr. Haddad was the most strategic as far as what I ended up doing long-term. I had other professors who were supportive. There were students in my major that I still keep in contact with till today. We were a small group; and Dr. Haddad had a son, Charlie Haddad, who ended up being a roommate of mine. That was kind of cool. That's about it. I mean, there were other people who were there, but Dr. Haddad, by far.

Aspray:

Did you go to graduate right after your undergraduate degree?

Gilbert:

No, I did not. When I was an undergrad, when I changed my major, I won a scholarship from NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio. With that scholarship came an internship. So, I ended up doing an internship at NCR; and, when I graduated, I went to work at NCR full-time and I went to school at night to get my master's degree at the University of Cincinnati. It took me three years to do that. Then I went back full time for my PhD at Ohio State. Many people don't know that because you wouldn't see it on my CV. I was at Ohio State for two years and my advisor did not make tenure. I ended up going back to Cincinnati and finishing my PhD in 2000.

Aspray:

I see. Tell me about how those two institution, those two graduate institutions, were for you in terms of your education.

Gilbert:

Well, they both played a significant role in my education and who I am actually. When I was at Ohio State, being the only African-American in the PhD program -- I think there was one who eventually had graduated from there; I met him at some point -- but I was isolated. So, what I did was, I hung out with the other African-American PhD students across campus, which helped me build a network; and, and in doing so, it was instrumental because I hung out with social scientists and learned a great deal from them that benefited me for years to come. So, going back to Cincinnati, same thing, building circles outside of my discipline because I was isolated. And having those people help me develop into a better scholar because I understood things from different perspectives. So, both of them were beneficial to me.

Aspray:

Okay. What did you do your research on?

Gilbert:

When I went to Ohio State, I was all about AI. For two years I studied AI, neural networks, and all kinds of machine learning algorithms. I did a lot of AI because I wanted to make machines smart. I also wanted to do some human-computer interaction. So, when I was at NCR, you know, NCR is a global company and they had this huge help desk. We wrote software for the company. I had the opportunity to manage NCR’s worldwide orders database. At that time, when I was managing, it was the world's largest database. Because Walmart was one of their customers. So, they had this gigantic database, and I learned a lot from that, and then we wrote software for the company enterprise-wide. Here's the cool thing I noticed. We had this help desk, which was very large, and I thought we could write software and people would use it, but why do we need such a large help desk? It isn’t intuitive, they don't understand it. That's what led me to start to study human-computer interaction. Because I started to say, the fact [is that I] could write software and it could solve world peace, but if no one could use it, it would be useless. So, I ended up wanting to study HCI in addition to AI, and my advisor at Ohio State was the only HCI person there. He didn't get tenure. So again, I ended up going back to UC studying HCI. And when I was at UC, my dissertation topic was in advanced learning technologies. So, I did an HCI-AI blend. That's how it all happened for me research-wise.

Aspray:

Okay. Are there other things that you want to tell me about from either your undergraduate or graduate days before we move on?

Gilbert:

No. Other than again, I was isolated and I sought out a community. I will say this, we may get to this later, but I started now to connect points if necessary because of my isolation. I started looking around when I was at Cincinnati, looking around my lab and I noticed there were a number of Asian students there, primarily from China and India. And in my observation, I started looking at particularly Chinese students. I thought, wait, they come from a different country, learn a new language, but they're making this PhD thing look easy. How do they do that? I was isolated and it was a struggle for me, and I didn't understand it. So, I said, you know what, I'm gonna do, I'm gonna go hang out with them. I'm going to go learn about what they're doing and in doing so I made a discovery; and that discovery was: it wasn't that these people were predisposed to be smarter than me or anything like that. They have what I call ‘footprints in the sand’. What does that mean? Well, when a student in China was accepted to the PhD program at Cincinnati, from the time that plane landed in Cincinnati, they had footprints off that plane all the way through the university, to being hooded on a PhD stage. They knew what classes to take, who to take them with, when to take them. They knew where to eat, where to live. They had everything. How did they do that? Well, my observation was that they had at least two other members from that group at every stage of the PhD pipeline. And they shared information back down; and I said, “wow, is this strategic? Are they doing this on purpose?” I started looking around, I could not, until this day, I could not find a single instance of a PhD program in computer science or engineering with a single Chinese [student]. They were always in groups. So, I thought maybe this is organized strategically. And I said, “you know what, I'll be a professor someday. And when I get my PhD, I get to select my students. I think I'm going to replicate this model with underrepresented domestic students.” And that's how I started.

Aspray:

What happened when you finished your PhD?

Gilbert:

Well, I finished my PhD. I was on the market interviewing. I interviewed at a number of places. I want to say [I had] two or three offers. I went to Auburn University. I interviewed there. It was the only place I interviewed that I remembered all the faculty by name. So, I ended up accepting the offer there and [it] turned out that one of the faculty members [there] was a UC graduate too. I didn't know that till later; he knew my advisor. So anyway, I ended up at Auburn: finishing my PhD and started as a tenure track assistant professor there.

Aspray:

Was it a congenial place for you?

Gilbert:

Yes, it was awesome. It was a great place for me. Definitely.

Aspray:

I see from looking at your record online that you moved pretty quickly through the ranks to get to be a full professor. You want to talk about… well, I'll let you talk about your experience at Auburn. Maybe just leave it open-ended.

Gilbert:

Okay. So, when I got to Auburn, as I was discussing a few minutes ago, I said, “I'm going to hire the students I want.” So, I ended up hiring students of color, primarily African-American. I replicated that model where I had two at each stage of the PhD pipeline. Long story short, Auburn became the number one producer of Black PhDs in computer science. The model worked. So ,for me, I got there. I was able to do my teaching, research, service. It was very conducive. The department was great. I truly, truly was appreciative of my start there. I was there nine years, and then Clemson called me up [saying] we're creating this school of computing, and we have a division called human-centered computing, which is something I had termed. They said, we want you to lead it. So, in 2009 I moved to Clemson and became chair of the division of human-centered computing.

Aspray:

How did Clemson compare to Auburn?

Gilbert:

Similar. Clemson, because they had created this school, it was a different feel. It was still like, it was like a large department, but now I had a leadership role where I could do some hiring [of] faculty and things like that. So again, I replicated the same thing I did at Auburn, but now I could hire faculty. We ended up hiring faculty and I hired a bunch of women in, Black faculty. We had the nation's largest group of Black faculty in computer science at Clemson, and I was still able to do research again and connect with students. I kept doing the things I was doing at Auburn. I was at Clemson for five years. And then Florida came knocking and said, “look, we had this initiative called Preeminence. The University of Florida has been designated by the state legislature as a preeminent institution. They gave us money to go out and hire a preeminent faculty. And you've been designated as a [principal] prospect.” What this means, we're trying to become a top 10 public university and you could help us get there.” So, long story short, they made me a great offer where they moved my faculty. At the end of the day, they moved five faculty, two post-docs, and 20 PhD students.

Aspray:

Wow. That's pretty impressive!

Gilbert:

Yes. So, I came to Florida, and a year later I was chair of the department. It's been a transition from place to place, but each place was positive and just instrumental in my development  

Aspray:

Is Florida on the way to becoming a top 10 public university in computer science? Gilber: Well, it was overall ranking of the university. Not only did we come top 10, we're pushing to become top five. We're number six. I think. So, we're moving up fast

Aspray:

Very quick! So, the strategy appears to have worked. Do you want to talk about your research subsequent to your dissertation?

Gilbert:

Yes. After doing my dissertation work in advanced learning technology, I started to work in voting technologies, election technology. A lot of that had to do with the 2000 presidential election. I was at a conference with my students, and the keynote speaker was talking about how you couldn't use technology in our elections. I [saw] this real depressed look on their faces. And I said, what's the matter? They said, “look, this person stood up and said what you can't do. And they have a PhD. I thought PhDs were people who fixed things. All they did was say it was broken and can’t be fixed.” So, I say, “well, I said, let's do it [ourselves].” So, we created a voting system called Prime III, it’s Open Source, a universal design, which means everyone can use it independent of your ability or disability. It became the only open-source voting system to be used in state, federal, and local elections in the United States, Also, voting machine manufacturers have created similar machines modeled after Prime III. After our technology, we have set the stage for this area of voting, and I become an expert in the field. In fact, on Friday of this week, I'm giving a distinguished lecture for Rice University, and I'm going to introduce a new voting system, new voting technology. It's patent pending as well. So, that was an area we took off in. I used my background in AI to create a software patent, a software called Applications Quest, which [is] used to address affirmative action in admissions in universities, [addressing] the use of race, gender, national origin. I wrote software to address that. It's an AI that can take a group of qualified admission applications and give you a resulting recommendation that is holistically more diverse than the committee can do. And at the same time, [it can] achieve the same academic achievement levels in a fraction of the time. The University of Florida uses this software, and we're in negotiation with a company to license it. So, I ended up working in areas of, you know, learning technologies, AI, and elections; and the elections [research] is [about] usability, accessibility, and security.

Aspray:

Okay. Are you able to continue to be active as a researcher, given your administrative and other duties?

Gilbert:

I have been. It's not easy, but I don't have to teach at the University of Florida [since I am the] chair. So, I'm able to do some research. It has worked out, I've made it work.

Aspray:

I suppose you use a lab model anyway; you bring your community together. I noticed that you've been at three universities in the South, but you were raised in the North or at least the upper Midwest. Is this a conscious choice to be in the South?

Gilbert:

I guess it was afterwards. Because remember I applied to several [other] places: an offer from Virginia Tech DC campus. The main campus wouldn't give me an offer. I had an offer from somewhere in New York and a couple other places. DePaul in Chicago. Auburn just happened to be the thing. And when I moved to the South, I loved it. Now, I will say that, remember my dad is from Pulaski, Tennessee. So, I was raised in a Southern home in some sense; so, coming to the South was not a big adjustment for me. And it just so happened that, you know, Clemson knocked on the door first, and then Florida. So, it wasn't anything intentional. It just worked out that way.

Aspray:

Okay. You've been very active in the larger computing community, especially about issues of diversity. Do you want to talk about some of the things that you've done and your general reflections on these issues?

Gilbert:

Well, the thing that I've done is again, been able to recruit and retain and graduate minority, PhDs, women and minorities. I don't know [but] I'm pretty sure I have produced the most Black PhDs in computing in the country. No-one has produced more than me, most universities haven't. I've had the opportunity to lead an NSF Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance called the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences. We refer to it as “I am CS” [IAAMCS]. I had an opportunity to work with several individuals across the country on BPC efforts and sharing what our findings have been, not only from practice and research, and try and replicate things, other places. So, I've been active in the community, supporting scholars, undergrads and grad students mentoring them, helping them find their way. This is just something I'm passionate about. And I find something I just want to do and I will continue to do.

Aspray:

Do you want to talk a little bit more about your BPC?

Gilbert:

Yeah, I think we're coming to the end. I don't know if we'll have an opportunity to renew in ‘21, but it allowed us to bring a group together as a national resource for all of computer science and all things related to the recruitment, retention, and graduation of African-American graduate students and hiring a faculty. We had the opportunity to mentor several PhD students. In fact, we published a paper about this, the black PhD students who engage with our alliance had a significantly higher retention rate than those that didn't. We looked at the Taulbee survey and did an analysis and found that approximately 50% of the Black students that enter computing PhD programs drop out. Whereas with us, we had like an 80 - over 80% - retention rate. I'm proud to say that we played a role in increasing the number of African Americans in the computing research field at the PhD level.

Aspray:

What do you want to do next?

Gilbert:

I get asked that all the time. It's hard to say, I can tell you what I'm not interested in at this time. That's how I always say it. I'm not interested in being a dean or provost or president. I don't have an aspiration for that now. I just agreed to be chair for another five years. After [being] chair, I don't know what I'd do. I [will] likely return to the faculty. I may lead an institute or something like that. I find our research to be important. And so to think about this, we worked on elections. People have died for the right to vote. We just had a presidential election where, in the heat of it, Congress calls me call me for advice on this. And I have students work on our open-source system. We changed voting in the United States with our research. Think about how profound that is. We have put our fingerprint on the future of voting in the United States. So, I feel like the research that I'm doing has an impact and will continue to have an impact. I'm more inclined to do more of that after [being] chair, versus a dean or provost or something like I could imagine

Aspray:

[I suppose you could] go to a, a large nonprofit foundation, for example, where you could continue to build the kinds of programs that you've built at the various universities.

Gilbert:

Yeah. I hadn't thought about that, but that is something that could happen as well. You know, it's really hard to say, I don't know, I'm taking it one day at a time and I'm figuring it out.

Aspray:

Right. So, what would you like to talk about? This is a forum for you to get your views out or your concerns out, or to tell me about another dimension of your life that we haven't talked about so far. Where should we go next?

Gilbert:

Uh, dimensions of my life, I would say, I have a family. I got married. My wife was born in Trinidad and Tobago, came to this country as a little girl, went to college at Washington and Lee University. We got married in 2000. We have two sons. One's about to go to college next year. So that's very critical. And again, the work that I do and things I've done, the role that they've played in supporting me – so family's important. My students are important to me. It's funny because they all think, “well, I can’t wait to graduate. When we leave the university, we are going to go do our thing.” I talk to many of them even more after they graduate than I did in the lab. They always call and say, “Oh, guess what happened? I need some help with this. Can you tell me about this?” I spent a lot of time with them even beyond the PhD. And I'm fine with that. You know, that's something I'm fine with. Other than that, those are my passions, things I care about. I care about our community, our nation, and that's, again, why I feel I would probably lean towards the research side because things we're doing, we're impacting society. We're fixing problems. Another thing we did is interesting. I walked into the lab one day and a group of my students were sitting around a table, looking depressed. “What's the matter?” This is about, I want to say, three to four years ago. They said, “well, we're tired of seeing Black people get shot by police.” I said, “Oh yeah, me too. Let's do something about it.” We went to the lab, created this technology called the ‘virtual traffic stop’. And we created a way for police officers and drivers to have a video conference; before the officer, approaches the car, to deescalate any tension. We're hoping to license that technology soon with a company. So, things like that keep me going. Those are the things that are important to me.

Aspray:

You've been successful at all three universities you've been at as a faculty member. Could you talk about your management style and your leadership skills?

Gilbert:

Yeah. Management. So, the way I managed my lab, I need independent individuals. That's who I recruit. I interview everybody, my students interview each other. We vote. No one joins the lab without consensus from others. I help guide them, but they have to have the drive. For example, I don't give them a dissertation topic. They have to find their own. I do that purposely because I want them to be passionate about it. I want them to own it, not a piece of something I'm doing or mine. So, [regarding] management of my students, I give them the ability to be independent; and they work in teams and they demonstrate independence as well. From my perspective, we use what I call a ‘constellation of mentors’. So, they have peer mentors, they have me and others, then with my faculty. It's very individualized. What I've learned is that people need different things at different times. And if you understand that, you can develop your management style accordingly to accommodate the people you are managing at the times in the context that they need assistance. So that's kind of my philosophy around management and leadership, obviously leading by example. You don't want to ask people to do things that you don't do or haven't done. Those have been things that have been important to me as well.

Aspray:

The University at Florida was very supportive of putting a package together to bring your whole community together. Have they continued to be supportive?

Gilbert:

Absolutely. Yes, they have been; it has been great. My dean has been supportive. We hired, I mean, nothing stops. So, we're still going.

Aspray:

A decade ago, maybe two decades ago when people looked to Richard Tapia, they said, “He's been really successful at what he's [doing], but maybe it's because of who Richard Tapia is [and is not replicable by others].” Is there a way of replicating the things that you've been so successful at, at your three universities, without your presence? Or do you have examples of those that you can point to?

Gilbert:

Auburn and Clemson, I'm no longer there, but all of our [work is] still [in place]. Auburn has three Black faculty now, and they're still producing Black PhDs. Clemson has one Black faculty member, which is one of my PhD graduates. So, they hired him and they still have been producing Black PhDs. So, although we left, for example, Clemson, we changed the culture there and it has persisted. That was a change that's reflected, not only amongst Black faculty, but all faculty; so, to leadership. Got it. To me, I'm very proud of that. The fact that I left and these things are continuing so many people would say, “well, Juan left and things will end”, but you know, it's still there. We didn't, it's not just about me.

Aspray:

Do you have advice to other departments to other chairs, to other deans if they want to build programs that are diverse and inclusive?

Gilbert:

Yeah. That's an easy one. Call me, because what happens is I'm happy to have discussions with other departments – as we're doing. Some of that now with the University of Washington. [We have] been engaged with Cornell. We've been engaged with a number of places, but you know, typically what happens is [that] I need to know more about them. I can't give general guidance. It's personal. It's, let me look at your history. Let me look at your demographics. Let me look at your programs. Let me see what's happening. And let's talk about how you can improve at broadening your participation. So, we've done this at a number of places and I'm happy to do it with others.

Aspray:

What have we not talked about that we should talk about?

Gilbert:

I don't know. I think you hit all the points. You hit what I've done, where I've come from. My story of the work we've done. What I want to do moving forward. I will say moving forward at the end of the day, when I retire, the thing that I would like to be able to say is we changed society for the better, right? That we invented. The things that we created made voting better, made people safer, made whatever you want to say. We improved society.

Aspray:

Well, you have a pretty good start on that, I'd say! I don't want to take up any more of your time. I know you have lots of things to do, I'll be back in touch with a transcript of this interview. I appreciate your taking the time for this and it's good to see you again.

Gilbert:

Good to see you, Bill. You take care.