Adele Goldberg, ACM President 1984 - 86
As ACM celebrates its 75th anniversary, we invited ACM’s former presidents to reflect on their terms in a brief Q&A. In revisiting some of the milestone moments from ACM’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of computing to guide us forward in the next 75 years.
Adele Goldberg served as ACM President from 1984 - 1986.
What motivated you to run for ACM president?
What were your most significant accomplishments as ACM president?
How would you like your term to be remembered?
What are some of the most memorable moments from your term?
I had participated in local ACM activities while working at Stanford University that led to some involvement with SIGCAI (computer-assisted instruction) in the early 70s, a special interest group that is no longer active. At the time, David Brandin was chair of the SIG Board and, noticing my attending a SIG Board meeting, involved me as a Board member and gave me an inside look at how ACM operates—both politically and financially. Perhaps I should have learned from that initial look and run in the opposite direction. Instead, having met many of the ACM leadership, I was asked to serve as Editor-in-Chief of ACM Computing Surveys. I served from 1979 to 1982. And thus began a number of years of getting deeper into volunteering for the organization.
In 1982, David Brandin’s next step was to run for President, primarily because it was clear that ACM was digging itself into a financial hole that he wanted to turn around. He asked me to run for Secretary in order to add to the management expertise of the volunteer executive team. The financial issues were not surprising given that the ACM membership in those days was primarily US-based and the US economy was suffering through a deep recession. Even with a rebound in 1983, ACM would need to rethink how to control available financial resources while still attempting to serve a broader membership base, specifically to expand from a focus on serving the primarily academic computer science community to providing activities of more immediate interest to practitioners. David looked to increase partnering opportunities with other professional groups, such as the IEEE Computer Society, in organizing tutorials, standards activities, and publications, as well as tightening some of ACM’s discretionary spending. But two years—the length of term for ACM officers—is not enough to complete the task at hand, especially as there was not as yet a return to spending by organizations that pay its employees’ expenses for membership dues, conference travel, journals, and other professional learning activities—the bread and butter of the ACM.
By this time, I had built a relationship with ACM staff and had good knowledge of the next steps we might take. So, I agreed to run for President, knowing it was not going to be all fun.
Starting with the budget: ACM had a bad habit of budgeting for spending against wishful income, and to do so without the culture of understanding that a budget to spend is constrained by actual as versus projected income. We did not have a lot of budget cutting options…mostly travel by volunteers, which, as you can imagine, was not well received. But I came up with a fairly aggressive idea. ACM’s bank account actually was not a big problem when you looked at the sum of the general fund and that belonging to the collection of SIGs. The SIG operations were, in fact, healthy. The general fund paid for a lot of long-running activities that rarely received renewal scrutiny. I was able to cut those activities from the general fund but give those volunteers running the activities a lifeline—make a proposal to the SIG Board why you should receive funding and get a grant from the SIG side of the bank account. I am grateful to the then chair of the SIG Board, John White, for agreeing to this proposition and shepherding it through SIG Board approval. By shifting the money for funding projects in this way, a significant financial burden was temporarily relaxed until ACM could build longer term growth.
The general fund also paid for participating in conferences organized under the umbrella of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies, which consisted of three large information technology organizations—ACM, IEEE Computer Society, DPMA—and a number of smaller (in terms of financial status) groups. AFIPS represented these groups to IFIP, its international counterpart. For years, these groups benefited greatly from successfully running the National Computer Conference (NCC) and the Office Automation Conference. ACM’s share of profit was around $500,000. As President, I represented the ACM on the AFIPS Board. Around 1983, there was a clear shift downward in the ability to sustain attendance and trade show booths for an oversized conference that expected to cover every aspect of the computer industry/academic interests. At the same time, ACM’s SIG conferences, which were smaller, specialized conferences that also offered focused trade show opportunities, were showing increasing interest. Meeting after an unsuccessful 1983 Office Automation Conference, ACM recognized that it was at risk to cover a large portion of likely high losses and announced its intention to pull out of both the Office Automation Conference and the NCC unless certain success criteria were met. Other AFIPS Board members agreed to the shut down if either (a) projected attendance would decrease significantly as measured by lack of early registration, and/or (b) there would poor interest in signing up for the next year’s trade show. Both criteria became true.
As President, I did one thing technically and, frankly, self-serving. I agreed to provide initial funding out of the President’s discretionary fund to start a new conference: OOPSLA (Object-Oriented Programming Systems, Languages and Applications). After a very successful first year in 1986, this conference and its publications were properly transferred to the appropriate SIGs—SIGPLAN and SIGSOFT. The conference was organized with two budgets—an optimistic one and a pessimistic one—to guarantee no financial losses. I am happy to note that the $5,000 seed money I provided was returned to the ACM coffers. Also, I do think that if the ACM President has some direct knowledge of new and potentially field changing results in computer science, that it is the President’s responsibility to seed ACM initiatives to bring information about this new field to the membership.
In the area of expanding our approach to publications, I also provided funding from the President’s discretionary fund for Peter Neumann to initiate the CACM Risk Forum which proved very informative and popular and exists to this day as both a CACM column and an online dialogue that discusses risks to the public in computers and related systems, discussing such topics as human safety. I especially recall the day that the space shuttle Challenger sadly exploded (January 28, 1986) and the Risk Forum discussants (from NASA) countered the initial accusations of a software failure. Also during my presidency, I negotiated a publication deal for a book series on the history of various fields that would be derived from a conference. The first such conference was the “History of Personal Workstations," which I organized in Palo Alto, California and for which I did the book’s editorial work.
Council did one thing that should be noted here. ACM member Jack Minker, Chair of the ACM Committee on Human Rights and Scientific Freedom, came to Council with evidence that ACM members were being denied visas to attend an ACM co-sponsored conference in Russia. Council passed a ruling that, unless there was a guarantee that all ACM members would be able to get visas to attend an ACM-sponsored conference in the country in which the conference was scheduled to be held, then that conference could not be sponsored by the ACM.
In hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?
I am envious that Paul Abraham, the ACM President after me, was able to get Council to cut down its own size as a way to reduce the expenses associated with Council meetings. It was a significant step towards reducing the inefficiencies in pairing a volunteer organization with a professional paid staff. And I do think that the representation on the Council from the Board chairs and SIG Board members reaffirms the need to have specialized fields in computer science well represented on Council.
What are some of the moments from ACM’s history that you think we should highlight during ACM’s 75th anniversary?
I think it might be interesting to build a timeline of changes to the computer science field and see how responsive ACM likely was to creating the organizational elements for relevant publications and conferences. Maybe this relationship can be seen in the creation of new SIGs, partnering by new and existing SIGs, or journals and other publications.
Do you have any interesting ACM memorabilia in your collection?
No, just my little wood mallet that I assume all presidents get.
I do still have the purse that was returned to me by the NYC police after the young man who robbed me on the street jumped bail. But that is a story for some other time.
During ACM’s 75th anniversary, we promote the accomplishments of ACM’s former presidents. To better understand how they served the organization, we invited each of ACM’s living former presidents to participate in a brief Q&A. Through the Q&As, we also learn about important milestones during ACM’s history.
ACM has organized a special one-day conference to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This event will truly be a memorable day of panels featuring world-leading scholars on topics central to the future of computing. Panelists will imagine what might be next for technology and society. ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration will take place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on June 10, with a reception following the panels. The conference will be free and open to members, but registration is required. Space is limited, so reserve your spot today. Visit the event webpage where you will find registration information.