Faculty member becomes one of the youngest African-Americans to become a tenured professor in computer science at a research university

By Rich Schneider, IU Communication Specialist:

Count competitiveness among the qualities that distinguish James Hill, an associate professor of computer and information science at IUPUI.

It was competitiveness that helped motivate the self-described jock.

“Growing up, I played sports,” Hill said. “During the summer, I played baseball; when baseball was over, I played football; and when football was over, I played basketball.” He excelled in track and field: He is a three-time All-American and was ranked as the top long jumper for his age at 14. At 15 and 16, he placed among the top eight long jumpers in the U.S. When he competed in a Tennessee state high school track-and-field championship meet, he did so well in five events he could have placed third if he had entered himself as a team.

And it was that spirit of competitiveness that inspired him as he pursued a Ph.D. in computer science, which led to him becoming one of the youngest African-Americans to become a tenured professor in computer science at a research university in the United States.

Hill gained that distinction in August, when his tenure appointment in the School of Science took effect. At the time, he was 33 years and 5 months old. Because of differences in complex university systems, it is challenging to say absolutely who is the youngest African-American to attain that position, but all indications are that Hill is among the youngest two or three.

James Hill

James Hill

The first notion that he could set a new mark as a Ph.D. in computer science came when he applied to several graduate programs, including the one at Duke University. When he toured the program at Duke, he was told that if he received a Ph.D. in computer science, he would be the first African-American to do so at that university.

He chose to go to Vanderbilt University, and the thought that he might become the youngest African-American to receive a Ph.D. from that institution came up as he was about to receive his doctorate in 2009.

It turned out he was at least the second to do so at Vanderbilt, but checking further, he discovered he was the ninth-youngest African-American in the country to obtain that degree from any university. In some cases, there were only weeks or months in age separating the degree-holders.

“Once I found that out, I realized I could be the youngest to become tenured,” Hill said. “My nature is that if I do it, I do it to the best of my ability. I thought, ‘I can get it; let’s make it happen.'”

Hill, who joined the School of Science faculty in 2009, credited the Department of Computer and Information Science and its dean for supporting his tenure effort. Bart Ng, a former dean of the school, had personally recruited Hill to come to IUPUI.

While it was satisfying to become one of the youngest African-American tenured computer science professors, Hill said, its importance lies with the example it offers others, showing them “if I could do it, so could they.”

“A Ph.D. in computer science is also important because it helps folks see there are more academic and career possibilities out there than what is always pushed at you,” he said. “When I started as an undergraduate, I didn’t even know there was a Ph.D. in computer science.”

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