Peter J. Denning, ACM President 1980 - 82
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.
Peter Denning served as ACM President from 1980 - 1982.
As of 2022, ACM has had 38 presidents. I was president 18, the approximate midpoint of the lineage. As of this date only two presidents prior to me are still with us (Anthony Ralston and Tony Oettinger), and all the presidents since my time are still with us. Few ACM members remain who were witnesses to the first 25 years of ACM.
I was president in a time of great turmoil in ACM. ACM had frequent financial crises in which they ran out of money and could not meet payrolls. This was because ACM received a substantial annual stipend from AFIPS for supporting the two annual Joint Computer Conferences every year. Some years were lean for AFIPS and thus for ACM too. This led to numerous debates over whether ACM should be part of AFIPS at all, and how it should spend its limited and precious AFIPS funds.
A financial crisis in 1971 was so severe that the ACM Council confiscated the substantial SIG accumulated surplus and applied it to pay ACM’s urgent bills. This happened when I was new chair of the new SIG Board. The SIG leaders were enraged. Council quickly felt shame over their action. I led the effort to rewrite Bylaw 7 for SIG governance, granting the SIGs considerably autonomy in conducting their business and protecting their accumulated surpluses from future expropriation. The ACM Council, approved the bylaw in mood of atonement for their past treatment of the SIGs. That led to the powerful SIG organization ACM has today.
In late 1970s, ACM adopted new accounting practices that would cope with seasonal revenue swings such as those caused by dwindling AFIPS distributions. Since then, ACM has avoided major financial crises since then and has established stable revenue streams for all its major activities. The digital library, which came on line in 1997, became an important, stable source of revenue. I led the Digital Library project from 1992-1997, when I was chair of the publications board. The internal political climate was much more collaborative in that time compared to when I was president 15 years earlier.
Because the finances could not support all the ambitions of ACM leaders, there were internal power struggles between players who had conflicting ideas about ACM’s future direction. Jean Sammet led a camp that wanted ACM to be strictly scientific within its charter and Herb Grosch led a camp that wanted ACM to be politically active in human rights issues. There were a lot of “dirty politics” as their two camps vied for leadership positions and what they saw as the future of ACM.
What motivated you to run for ACM president?
It was more of a gradual conscription. The context was the battles between the Sammet and Grosch camps about the future ACM. I was seen as a centrist candidate moderating their more extreme views. Carl Hammer and I were nominated for President in 1976. Outraged that he was not nominated, Grosch ran by petition. Sammet and others pressured me to withdraw because they felt Hammer had the best chance of winning over Grosch. I declined, with Hammer’s strong support, because such manipulation would set a bad precedent for future ACM elections. As expected, Hammer and I split the voters who did not care for Grosch and he won with less than a majority of voters. I ran by petition for vice president in 1978 because the Grosch nominating committee thought I was part of the shenanigans to keep him from being elected. I won that election. I was nominated in 1978 for president and won that election too.
The turmoil around candidates wanting to run for President against the wishes of the nominating committee continued for a few more years. Two presidents after me (Abraham and Kocher) ran by petition and won. Then finally everyone settled down and the nomination process has worked well ever since.
What are some of the most memorable moments from your term?
I sought the middle ground between the Sammet and Grosch camps. I advocated that ACM get involved in public policy issues when it had something valuable from its subject matter expertise to offer and avoid involvement otherwise. We developed several white papers: on a crisis of universities losing system-faculty to industry (called the “seed corn” issue), standards for experimental computer science, opposition to the public cryptography proposals, and the value of a computer science network (CSNET).
I also used my President’s space in the CACM on a monthly series of essays on aspects of computer science of interest to the public. All these working examples of how ACM could deploy its subject matter expertise had a positive effect. We got the ACM Council to start debating issues that affected society outside ACM, not just the internal processes of ACM.
In this time, we also had to deal with anger boiling over between internal factions. Twice in my term a council member preempted a council by a censure motion against another council member. Neither succeeded, but a lot of time was wasted and many council members were outraged that we had fallen to this level.
What were your most significant accomplishments as ACM president?
Leading the development of ACM white papers on public policy matters including the “seed corn” crisis, experimental computer science, public cryptography, and CSNET. Starting to turn Council’s attention to ACM offers for the public instead of bickering over internal matters and financial issues. Publishing 24 President Letter essays on computing issues of interest to the public.
How would you like your term to be remembered?
A time of transition from a fractious ACM to a collaborative ACM. This transition was only begun during my term. The next several presidents completed it.
In hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?
Not really. A substantial part of the job was shaped by events not under my control or even ACM’s control. I had to thread my way through a number of emergencies and still show by example how ACM could usefully be involved in public policy matters.
What are some of the moments from ACM’s history that you think we should highlight during ACM’s 75th anniversary?
Over the years, ACM implemented some foundational changes in the organization’s infrastructure that provides the platform positioning ACM to be the powerhouse it is today. These included:
- Establishing the SIG organization and institutionalizing it with a bylaw (1973).
- Instituting financial accounting that stabilized ACM’s services and stopped the chronic near bankruptcy crises (late 1970s).
- Establish collaborative working relationships in education and other areas with IEEE Computer Society (1985 and following).
- Establishing an IT department that has become capable of providing advanced services and publications via the ACM web (1990s). When I was President, ACM was well behind businesses in its use of computers to run its own business.
- Transformation of the publication enterprise with expanded journals, conversion of CACM to a magazine, establishing magazines for practitioners, and integrating with the vast SIG publication enterprise (1980s and following).
- Elimination of regional representatives on the Council, which shrank the Council and enabled phenomenal group of International ACM (1980s).
- Establishing the Digital Library (1997) and populating it with all ACM literature back to its founding in 1947. The business model for the DL included licenses that are very popular and have provided a significant revenue stream for over 20 years.
- Establishing new copyright polices for digital publications, providing a model that other societies imitated (1994).
- Establishing an option for authors to publish articles open to the public, not requiring login to access (2000s)
- Joining the coalitions of publishers using Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) to uniquely reference publications (2000s).
Do you have any interesting ACM memorabilia in your collection?
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 organized a special one-day conference to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This event was truly a memorable day of panels featuring world-leading scholars and practitioners on topics central to the future of computing. Panelists imagined what might be next for technology and society. ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration took place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on June 10. View the livestream on demand. Visit the event webpage for more details, including the program.