Influential computer science chair and professor taught at UD for nearly a quarter-century

Bobby (Bob) F. Caviness, professor emeritus who shaped the University of Delaware Department of Computer and Information Sciences, died Jan. 11, 2018, at the age of 77.

Prof. Caviness earned his doctoral degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 1968 under the supervision of Alan Perlis. He was professor of computer science at Duke University, the University of Wisconsin, the Illinois Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before joining the University of Delaware faculty as computer and information sciences department chair in 1981.

As Prof. Caviness himself succinctly put it, his research was “in computer algebra, with a particular emphasis on problems related to simplification of expressions involving elementary functions (rational functions, algebraic functions, trigonometric and inverse trigonometric functions, logs, and exponentials) and certain special functions, on algorithms for integration in finite terms, and for solving differential equations in closed form.” In particular, his structure theorems played a central role in expression equivalence testing (used for instance in program verification) and in finding closed form solutions.

Prof. Caviness was active throughout his career in research administration. He served as an editor of the Journal of Symbolic Computation beginning with its inception in 1984, and as editor-in-chief from 1995-99. On three occasions, he was general chair or program chair of the computer algebra premier annual conference, ISSAC (and its predecessors). He served in a leadership role for the international computer algebra society, ACM SIGSAM, and was its chairman from 1977-79.

Prof. Caviness was a program director at the National Science Foundation from 1987-88. In connection with that, he and Ann Boyle produced a book summarizing the state of and potential of computer algebra:  Symbolic Computation: Directions for Future Research, published by SIAM, 1990. In 2004, Prof. Caviness established the Richard Dimick Jenks Memorial Prize for Excellence in Software Engineering applied to Computer Algebra in the name of his long-time friend and collaborator.

Prof. Caviness’ time as chair was pivotal for the development of the University of Delaware’s CIS Department. The Department of Computer Science and Statistics had split from a larger department in 1979, and the CIS faculty was very small during a time of high student demand for computer science. Prof. Caviness more than doubled the size of the faculty during his six years as chair with an emphasis on building strong research groups in the department.

In 1985, he also established a tradition of women faculty in the department by boldly hiring two women who worked in the same research area, to foster collaboration, who are still computer and information sciences professors at UD. Today part of his legacy is a department of computer science whose percentage of women on the faculty sets it apart from any other department in the country. Prof. Caviness and the late Peter Warter, who was chair of UD’s Department of Electrical Engineering, received an NSF grant that launched the joint EECIS computing laboratory. This lab became a major component of the original University of Delaware campuswide network.

Under Prof. Caviness’ leadership, a pattern of external research funding was launched. In addition, departmental collegiality that he established and nurtured during this time persists to this day. He was an outstanding mentor in his quiet unassuming way; he derived much joy in seeing others he had touched succeed. Under his leadership the department revised and developed the both the undergraduate and graduate programs curricula that remain largely in place to this day. One of the innovations he designed was requiring student individually designed “concentrations” as a capstone of the bachelor of science degree.

In his teaching, Prof. Caviness was known for thoroughness and caring, and a stern approach. Class attendance was always an enriching experience; the penalty for missing class was severe.  In the rapidly evolving field of computer science, he was quick to innovate and keep course offerings and class material in tune with developments.

“During his 23 years at UD, Prof. Caviness significantly impacted the lives and careers of all of UD’s computer science faculty,” David Saunders, professor emeritus of computer and information sciences, said. “He will be sorely missed, but never forgotten as the ultimate academician and colleague.”

Prof. Caviness retired in 2005. He and his wife, Jane, who for many years was director of Academic Computing Services at UD, moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shortly after retirement.

Prof. Caviness is survived by his wife, Jane Shearin Caviness, and daughter, Kristen Caviness Sihler.

A memorial service will be held at the First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at 1 p.m., Monday, Jan. 15.