INDIANAPOLIS — James Hill, an associate professor of computer and information science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has become one of the youngest African-Americans to become a tenured professor in computer science at a research university in the U.S.
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 five months old. Because of differences in complex university systems, it is challenging to say who is the youngest African-American to become a tenured professor in computer science, but all indications are that Hill is among the two or three youngest to achieve that mark.
The thought that he might attain this distinction came up as he was about to receive his doctorate at Vanderbilt University in 2009.
Hill had thought he might be the first African-American to receive a doctorate in computer science from Vanderbilt. It turned out he was at least the second to do so, 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 best of my ability. I thought, ‘I can get it; let’s make it happen.'”
It was that competitive spirit that helped him succeed as an athlete. Among other accomplishments, he was a three-time All-American in track and field 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.
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 in 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.”