People of ACM - Carla E. Brodley

May 10, 2022

What led you to your current research focus in the areas of CS education and broadening participation in computing?

In 2014 I was happily focused on my machine learning research, having just stepped down as chair of the Computer Science Department at Tufts University, when I was called by a search firm to see if I was interested in being Dean of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University. I had not anticipated pursuing a career in academic administration, but I thought long and hard and determined that I wanted to see whether, in the role of dean, I could create an environment in which all students would be able to discover, enjoy, and persist in computing. My goal was to create a college that embraced and embodied CS for Everyone – meaning people of all intersectional identities would feel welcome in computing.

I was also very interested in leading a college that would be truly interdisciplinary in both education and research. After seven years as dean–very much inspired and informed by my time in that role–I was interested in the idea of working at a national level to work with other universities to identify and remove the barriers that prevent students from historically marginalized genders, races, and ethnicities from persisting in computing. I have thus decided to focus my research on broadening participation in computing and, in particular, how to create systemic and sustainable change in academia.

How did your experiences in the field lead you to make inclusion a core focus of your work?

In the second semester of my sophomore year at McGill University, I took a FORTRAN programming course because my roommate Paula, who was a metallurgical engineering student, had come home the prior semester, thrown a pack of computer cards (it was 1982) on the table, and said "you would like computer science." I did, and I changed my major from English to math and computer science. I often think about what my life would have been like if I had not discovered computer science, a field that I love. Today students from identities historically marginalized in computing often don't have a pathway to even find out if they might enjoy computing. And if they do like it, when they arrive in the classroom, they are often discouraged by the culture and institutional barriers that suggest to them that they are not welcome.

Northeastern's Center for Inclusive Computing (CIC) provides grants to higher education institutions across the US to cover the cost of collecting detailed intersectional data related to enrollment, persistence, retention, and graduation. Why is collecting data a necessary first step for universities to foster an inclusive environment in their computer science departments?

Many people have pointed out the need for intersectional data to pinpoint where we are failing to attract and retain people from identities that have been historically marginalized in tech. Quantitative data helps us see when and where, and qualitative data helps us understand why. In addition to data about students, faculty, and staff, we also collect data about universities and computing programs that help us see the institutional barriers that need to be addressed. For example, data analysis uncovers insights like the pitfalls of GPA-based enrollment caps, the additional time to degree completion that requiring excess science classes adds for students who do not begin college with the intent to major in computing, and how high advisee to advisor ratios correlate to students not persisting in the discipline.

What trends do you see taking shape with respect to inclusivity in computing in the near future?

I think there will start to be accountability for not working on broadening participation in computing and, in particular, for not directing the resources to efforts that create systemic change. Why is it that some universities are able to have the demographics of computing reflect the overall demographics of their university, whereas others retain policies and cultures that perpetuate the lack of demographic diversity in the field of computing? I am optimistic that we are experiencing a shift from these challenges being assigned to a small group of champions within a department, to an understanding that these challenges must be addressed across all parts of the university ecosystem.




Carla E. Brodley is Dean of Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University, where she serves as the Executive Director for the Center for Inclusive Computing (CIC) and is a professor with the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. The CIC helps higher education institutions across the US improve gender, racial and ethnic diversity within their computer science departments. Brodley’s research interests include applied and basic machine learning, CS education, and broadening participation in computing.

She is a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Brodley was named an ACM Fellow for applications of machine learning and for increasing participation of women in computer science. She was also recently chosen as the inaugural recipient of the ACM Frances E. Allen Award for Outstanding Mentoring. Brodley was cited for significant personal mentorship and leadership in creating systemic programs that have increased diversity in computer science by creating mentoring opportunities for thousands at Northeastern and other universities across the United States.