Pitt Prepares To Depart Illinois CS, the Department He Helped Shape Over Three Decades
As Lenny Pitt finished his PhD at Yale University in 1985, he thought he would head home to Michigan. The young computer scientist loved Midwestern college towns, and believed Ann Arbor would be ideal.
“But they weren’t hiring in my area that year,” he said.
This month, after more than 30 years at Illinois Computer Science, Professor Pitt is retiring with no regrets about choosing orange and blue. OK, maybe one small one.
“Aside from football games against Michigan, I’m delighted to have settled here,” he said.
Pitt will leave behind a broad legacy, defined in part by his devotion to teaching everyone from graduate students and undergrads to teachers and students in local elementary schools.
Pitt also served in a number of leadership roles in the department, including director of undergraduate programs beginning in 2007 and, since 2015, associate head of department for education.
And he was a strong advocate for the department’s teaching faculty, as well as one of the key drivers behind Illinois Computer Science’s successful and growing stable of CS + X blended degrees.
Beyond those and other achievements, Pitt has long been part of the glue that holds the department together, a keeper of the kind of institutional knowledge and culture that isn’t written down.
Former Department Head Rob A. Rutenbar said he learned that quickly after arriving at Illinois CS in 2010.
“Lenny just immediately emerged as the central expert resource on the courses, the curriculum, the regulatory apparatus around degrees. … There was never another person,” said Rutenbar, who left in 2017 to become the senior vice chancellor for research at the University of Pittsburgh.
“There are aspects of a culture that are invested in a certain small subset of core players in a department who are responsible for transmitting that to a new generation,” Rutenbar said. “Lenny was always in that core.”
Pitt’s understanding and connections extend beyond the department.
The push to develop the CS + X programs was similar to a startup, Rutenbar said – among other things, “We needed some early-adopter partners to be crazy enough to believe we could do this.”
According to Rutenbar, after one particular 15-minute pitch, a key eventual partner “literally said, ‘Where have you been? We’ve been looking for this.’”
“And we were in.”
Pitt also understood the nuances of all of the courses and degree programs that would be affected, Rutenbar said, a key component in the process of convincing faculty of the value of the program.
Now CS + X includes 10 majors, combining computer science with everything from advertising and anthropology to music and philosophy, and has earned Illinois Computer Science national attention for its success and innovative approach. Enrollment is at close to 200 and growing.
But more fundamental than developing courses or degree programs, Pitt says he just loved to teach.
Rewards he received over the course of his career reflect that love: He won the William L. Everitt Award for Teaching Excellence from the College of Engineering, the college’s Engineering Teaching Excellence Award, the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the C.W. Gear Outstanding Junior Faculty Award from the department. Pitt also was named a University Distinguished Teacher-Scholar.
Pitt says he may be most remembered for teaching theory classes – the area where his research was based.
“I used colorful, often humorous, and sometimes multilayered and poorly animated, hand-drawn transparencies before anybody had heard of PowerPoint,” he joked.
Pitt also loves a good prop and a funny hat.
Photos from the 2004 opening of the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science show Pitt, plastic bowler on head, leading what former student and eventual colleague Cinda Heeren says was a series of short skits called “Theory Vaudeville.”
“When Lenny began putting it all together, I was really dubious that it would work, but of course it did,” said Heeren, who was one of Pitt’s students (PhD CS ’04) before becoming a longtime member of the Illinois CS teaching faculty.
“We were teaching the audience how to count in binary, but we based the instruction upon a magic trick,” she said. “This strategy, of hooking people into a learning experience by starting with something fun or funny or surprising, has really informed my own teaching practice, and I know that I learned to do it from Lenny.”
Heeren, now a senior instructor at the University of British Columbia, also gives Pitt some of the credit for her own PhD.
“If he hadn’t taken me in as a PhD student, I would probably never have completed my degree — my former advisor had left the university, and I was pretty glued to life in CU by then,” she said. “I’ll be grateful forever!”
Pitt also has a knack for showing incoming students, and their parents, what’s possible at Illinois CS, Rutenbar said. That included nights for new freshmen and events for admitted students.
“I always felt proud to represent the department to visiting students and parents,” Pitt said.
He represented the department in area schools for more than 20 years, too, conducting outreach through teacher professional development workshops, afterschool programs with students, and K-12 curricular development. He is an avid Scratch and Etoys programmer, using visual programming languages to create a curriculum for middle school students.
But Pitt also loves doing what he taught in local classrooms: Moments when he connected with students, he said, will be missed.
“Sharing the beauty, the ‘ah ha!’ moment -- (you) get to vicariously experience the wonder anew,” he said.
The best of his own experience as a student and researcher was characterized by those kinds of moments – the excitement of discovering a proof.
But he also knew the challenges inherent in the work.
“Thinking that you’ve solved a very difficult problem for days, working on formalizing it carefully, writing the proof, feeling great, and then down in the weeds finding a slight issue that mushrooms into a theorem-crushing counterexample,” he said.
Now that he’s about to retire, what’s next?
First, he says, he’ll miss Illinois CS and its people.
“Faculty, students, staff. It is such a comfortable place to be,” he said. “It feels like home here.”
“That’s the big question. I’ve read enough books on retirement to know first that I’m doing it all wrong by not having concrete plans in place,” Pitt said. “But I’m looking forward to flexibility, to rekindling old hobbies that fell by the wayside, to continuing and perhaps expanding my outreach and engagement with K-12 students and teachers, and to doing a bit of travel.”