Tech giant IBM has made a generous gift to endow two computer science professorships in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering in honor of Virginia M. “Ginni” Rometty ʼ79, ʼ15 H, the first woman to lead the company.
Rometty, who is vice chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, retired as executive chairman of IBM in December 2020 after working her way up from systems engineer to president and chief executive officer. Her career at the company spanned nearly 40 years. The two Ginni Rometty Professorships of Computer Science will support research and teaching related to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. They also align with Northwestern Engineering’s Computer Science Transformation Initiative, which launched in 2016 as part of a plan to hire 20 new faculty members.
“I cannot think of a better role model for our students and faculty than Ginni Rometty,” says Julio M. Ottino, Northwestern Engineering dean. “She has been a trailblazer in her field and has served as a valuable adviser and friend to the McCormick School of Engineering.”
The first Ginni Rometty Professorship is held by Jessica Hullman, associate professor of computer science and journalism. The second professorship, or chair, will fund the hire of a senior scholar who has attained distinction in AI and/or machine learning, with a preference for candidates who have demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“Jessica Hullman is an outstanding inaugural recipient of the chair,” Ottino says. “Her pioneering work, in uncertainty visualization and modeling of how people interact with data-driven predictions, is key to ensuring that AI and machine learning can reach human users in ways that are both easily understood and actionable.”
Hullman, who joined Northwestern in 2018, is a researcher whose work addresses the design and evaluation of software interfaces that let people interact with data-driven models and predictions — combining techniques from interactive visualization, statistics and mathematical models of cognition.
This latest gift from IBM follows its previous support of the University, which included in-kind gifts of analytic software and cloud computing resources to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and equipment to Feinberg School of Medicine. The professorships are supported in part by alumni Patrick G. ’59, ’09 H and Shirley W. Ryan ’61, ’19 H through the Ryan Family Chair Challenge, which matched gifts made by other Northwestern supporters to establish new endowed professorships across a wide range of disciplines.
Rometty’s passion for innovation is matched by her passion for education, making the professorships a fitting tribute. At IBM she was known as a champion of AI and a trailblazer for skills-based learning for the digital age. She also advanced IBM’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“I am deeply grateful to IBM and Northwestern University, which have had such a profound impact on my life, for this honor,” Rometty says. “Developing trusted, responsible and inclusive artificial intelligence is a central challenge of our time. Northwestern’s commitment to this endeavor is clear and inspiring, as evident by its Computer Science Transformation Initiative. It is a privilege to have my name associated with these distinguished professorships and the outstanding educators who will hold them.”