Professor Jeffrey Ullman sat in his Stanford University office and absentmindedly twirled a tuft of his white hair as he contemplated what constitutes a “home run” in the computer science world.
He’s not sure the two 1970s textbooks he co-wrote qualifies, but many of his peers and the powers-that-be in computer science disagree. Ullman was recently awarded the industry’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, called the A.M. Turing Award, named for Alan M. Turing, who decrypted Nazi communications using the Enigma cipher during World War II. The award is given by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to those who helped propel the industry into a new era, and Ullman helped author textbooks and other works that did that.
“What can I say? It's a nice thing to win,” Ullman told San Jose Inside over Zoom. “I guess I am suffering a little bit from imposter syndrome. If you look at the things for which the Turing Award has previously been awarded, it’s for hitting a home run. The [textbooks], to me, represent a lot of singles; they didn't disappear into oblivion, but they didn't really revolutionize the world the way some of the recent ideas [did].”
But the award also set off a controversy that may change how the A.M. Turing Award honoree is vetted and chosen in the future.
The spotlight on Ullman brought to the fore some of his controversial political opinions published on his now-deleted Stanford webpage that some say are racially and culturally insensitive. The postings called into question Iranian students’ loyalties, intentions and abilities amid the decades-long, oil-driven U.S.-Iran crisis—a stance he defends to this day. He also seemed to rationalize land theft from Native Americans as par for the course in human history, in which more technologically advanced civilizations overtake others.
Unlike Ullman, fellow industry academics and professionals didn’t question whether his technical contributions to computer science warranted the award. Many did ask, however, whether the ACM’s process for choosing its honoree is holistic or transparent enough, particularly after a year of reckoning over racial justice, paired with calls for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the tech industry.
More than 1,000 people—primarily from the computer science industry and academia—signed a letter urging the ACM to take into account its own code of ethics and stance on diversity while picking winners in the future. The association now says it will rethink its nomination and decision process before the next award is announced.
But even before the outcry, Ullman had a muted reaction to the $1 million prize he and his co-author Alfred Aho, a retired professor in New York, will share.
The soft-spoken professor has worked at Stanford for more than four decades and describes the work the ACM is recognizing as “dumbing down” information from the most abstruse, and lifting it up from coding “recipes.” Their contributions ultimately sped up the process of writing and translating code, eventually becoming a teaching standard.
The books, called The Design and Analysis of Computer Algorithms and Principles of Compiler Design laid bare foundations of how humans’ code is translated so computers understand its Python, C++ or Java instructions in a process called compiling. Today, the latter book is colloquially known as “the dragon book” for its fantastical, colorful covers.
Suzanna Schmeelk, an assistant professor at St. John's University Queens Campus, who started using the books 20 years ago and also studied under Aho while at Columbia, says Aho and Ullman’s ideas were fundamental in compiler theory.
“These books, even though they are somewhat singles, they're fundamental singles,” Schmeelk said. “Everybody reads that textbook if they want to graduate with that degree, and that's around the world. … Pretty much, you walk in a Silicon Valley headquarters [or one] in Manhattan and you'll run into a picture of either Ullman or Aho.”
Ullman graduated from Columbia University and earned his doctorate at Princeton University, where he also taught. He then worked a short tenure at Bell Labs. The 78-year-old retired professor admits he’s just trying to put one foot ahead of the other while balancing the influx of interviews, calls and meetings about receiving the A.M. Turing Award.
He is still actively publishing work with his students, adding to his library of hundreds, if not thousands, of authored publications. He also teaches one class, which was kickstarted by students and is designed to tackle societal issues, from regulation of social media posts to President Donald Trump’s campaign’s fundraising techniques.
The first signs that some may have a problem with Ullman receiving the award came March 31, when Pooya Hatami, an assistant professor of computer science at Ohio State University, wrote a Twitter thread about Ullman’s controversial postings. Timnit Gebru, an AI ethicist who was forcibly ousted from Google in 2020, chimed in, boosting the conversation’s reach throughout an industry in which she’s become a leading advocate for improving inclusion.
The conversation also reached Mohammad Hajiaghayi, a computer science professor at University of Maryland, College Park who dreamed of being one of Ullman’s students after reading the professor’s books while he was still in high school. He wasn’t accepted to Stanford and admits he wondered at the time whether it was because he is Iranian.
Today, Hajiaghayi, an ACM Fellow, is one of the signatories asking the association to change its processes.
“In the letter I signed, there is nothing about getting the award back; his scientific contributions deserved that award, I don’t have any doubts on that,” said Hajiaghayi, who is an ACM Fellow. “But I think he should consider that if he has done some harm from an opinion, apologize and possibly compensate for that. I believe that's a good outcome if it happens.”
Hajiaghayi is not defending any government, he says, but rather trying to defend the people caught in the middle.
“You're entitled and completely free to have your opinions, but as a corporation, ACM is responsible to its members and the values it has,” Hajiaghayi said. “If these values are not kept, then I believe ACM cannot support them. I think it's a very fair thing.”
The buzz about Ullman’s opinions also became a “big flap” among Stanford faculty—that’s where he first caught wind of the reaction, he said. Ullman said he’s not opposed to ACM’s views on diversity and inclusion and doesn’t blame ACM if they disassociate his views from the organization, but he is concerned about freedom of speech.
“I question myself whether I deserve the award, but that's got nothing at all to do with what I think about the government of Iran,” Ullman said. “If the risk that somebody might be offended trumps your ability to say what you want in a nonthreatening, appropriate manner, that’s rather scary. … There will always be somebody who doesn't agree and will twist it as an attack on them.”
Indeed, the conversation thus far hasn’t swayed the professor. Though many peers, colleagues and strangers disagree, Ullman stands by his opinion that the United States should sanction Iran from accepting its students until the government changes, similar to how folks most recently are boycotting the state of Georgia for passing restrictive voter laws.
“I’m not going to back down,” Ullman said. “I think the government of Iran is horrible. Like any religious fundamentalist government, it harms its people and knows no bounds on the kind of mayhem it can support.”