Engineering alum among youngest African American tenured professors in computer science

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 United States.

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.

James Hill (Ph.D.'09)

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 athletic accomplishments, he 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. He was named the 2000 Class A/AA Boys Athlete of the Year his senior year in high school, and placed in five events (100m, 200m, 400m, long jump, and triple jump) at the state track and field meet in 2000.

Hill, who joined the IUPUI 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 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.”

Vanderbilt felt like family

A Nashville native, Hill left home after graduating from Hume Fogg Magnet High School to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2004.

“I was accepted to other graduate programs, but knew from past experiences that I would succeed if I were in a location familiar to me, and had the support system in place that I needed, such as my family.

“When I visited other schools, I did not feel like this was the case. For example, one school said if I graduated with my Ph.D., which they were confident I would do, I would be the first African American to get a Ph.D. in computer science from their university. Unfortunately, the visit did not make me feel comfortable. I felt like I was being watched though a microscope because I was an African American, and one of the faculty said they would do so. I just did not want that kind of pressure. I knew already it was going to be hard enough to get a Ph.D.,” Hill said.

Hill specifically remembers meeting two engineering professors when he visited Vanderbilt. He left feeling he belonged at Vanderbilt, and he’d work with faculty who would help him and push him toward his goals. Hill earned a master’s of science degree at Vanderbilt in 2006, and his doctorate three years later.


“When I met Dr. [Doug] Schmidt, I realized his area of research was something I had ideas about while at Morehouse. I just didn’t know it already existed. My meeting with Dr. [Larry] Dowdy was great! We bounced ideas off each other and talked about different research ideas. Little did I know at the time that I would have such a great graduate experience, and be set up to accomplish what I have accomplished thus far,” Hill said.

“James has a long track record of enthusiastic and impactful research, both as our student and now as our colleague,” said Schmidt, Vanderbilt professor of computer science and computer engineering, and Hill’s secondary doctoral adviser.


“As a grad student he was a highly effective leader on a number of our flagship research projects related to model-based development, measurement, integration, and analytics for large-scale cyber-physical systems.  He’s published widely and has been funded by various government agencies, including the Air Force Research Lab, the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Australia Defense Science and Technology Organization, as well as various companies, including Amazon, SAIC, and Northrup Grumman,” Schmidt said.

Hill hadn’t actually planned life as a professor. His athletic talent led him to think about a career in track and field, and he had hoped to participate in the Olympics. While at Morehouse, Hill was named a 2004 NCAA Division II All-American in track and field for the 4x400m relay. It wasn’t until he was in the Packard Scholars program at Morehouse that he even considered going to graduate school.


“Once in graduate school, I was planning to go into industry. It wasn’t until about my fourth year that I had a talk with my primary adviser, Andy Gokhale, about plans after graduate school,” Hill said. “Dr. Gokhale encouraged me to be a professor at a research institution, and Dr. Schmidt help me understand that I could have the same experience in academia as in industry because of my area of expertise, but with a lot more flexibility.”

“It was a pleasure working with James when he was a student in our group,” said Gokhale, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering. “I have always found him to be full of enthusiasm and novel ideas, and wanting to make an impact. It is great to see that my former student has achieved the rare distinction of being one of the youngest African American tenured professors in computer science. I am very proud of his achievements.”

Hill gives additional credit to Gokhale and Schmidt. “They both were always introducing me to people who they thought would have good advice for me. I owe them a special thanks for their support and guidance.”

“I would not be where I am today if it was not for my experiences at Vanderbilt. Not only in the computer science department, but also within my ‘doc group,’ the Institute for Software Integrated Systems, and the Organization for Black Graduate and Professional Students,” Hill said.

“All these groups provided unconditional support and treated us like we were family, which was what I was looking for in a graduate school.”

Richard Schneider, Office of Communications, IUPUI, contributed to this article.

Brenda Ellis, (615) 343-6314
Twitter @VUEngineering