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CMU renames Institute for Software Research to Software and Societal Systems Department

The university cites renaming the school as a better reflection of the work and research being tackled by the department in modern times.

New logo for CMU's Software and Societal Systems Department. (Courtesy image)

At Carnegie Mellon University the leaves aren’t the only thing slated to change this September.

Starting Thursday, the university’s School of Computer Science Institute for Software Research will be known as the Software and Societal Systems Department.

The rebrand, also known as S3D in its abbreviated form, is a nod to the changes in how software and technology have been incorporated into everyday life and the evolution in the department’s work since its inception in 1999, department head Jim Herbsleb said.

“Right now, we have researchers working on everything from protecting endangered species using artificial intelligence to designing new languages that assure security on the blockchain,” Herbsleb told Technical.ly. “We are doing much more than software research, and our name should reflect that.”

The department started more than two decades ago with a handful of faculty members and founders, and has since grown to 100 staff members, 200 graduate students, two master’s programs, and two doctoral programs, and over 80 courses. At its start, the department’s focus was on privacy and has since expanded to include research and educational programs that focus on software engineering, security engineering and societal computing.

In 2019, a committee made up of faculty members and student representatives formed to address stakeholder concerns related to the name change and figure out how to best approach marketing the department moving forward. While the pandemic stalled conversations in 2020, ultimately the Software and Societal Systems Department was chosen as the new name because faculty members like Heather Miller, an assistant professor in S3D, feel it gives prospective students a better understanding of what the department has to offer.

“CMU is not clearly seen as a place where a lot of building of real systems and those kinds of things are really prevalent,” Miller said. “I think we’re recognized for theoretical computer science, robotics, and all these other things, but I think because of this rather confusing name that we’ve had over the years, the work that’s going on is just not immediately evident.”

As software can reflect the biases of its creators, the plan is for S3D to be able take a “holistic” approach to addressing the challenges and avoiding unintended consequences related to technology by marrying the social sciences with technology in order to offer pragmatic solutions, a university release said.

“It’s useful to think about our department as a kind of response to the new roles that technology is playing,” Hersleb said. “Computing technology and software is in everything, you’re always interacting with something that has a computer behind it and for that reason it becomes much more important to make sure that the software and the technology are operating correctly.”

So far, S3D faculty members say the new name has gotten a positive reception from students and signifies a more accurate description of the work being done in the present as well as what is planned for the future.

“The name change doesn’t indicate a sudden change in direction of research,” Miller said. “This is the direction that has been there for a while and it seems like we’ll be there, at least, for the immediate future.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Carnegie Mellon University

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