by Barak Fravasi
In the late fall of of 1997, Kerzic returned to the optimization problems he had been working on with Wang and Whitter over the summer, and communicated with several friends and colleagues about what he described as an interesting new approach to the Ostriker Conjecture. This work seems to have come to a sudden halt in February of 1998, and was not pursued again until 2002, when in a matter of weeks he not only proved that Conjecture but worked out a completely distinct proof of what we now know as Kerzic’s Theorem. The question of what inspired these later proofs has overshadowed that of what caused him to give up the work in 1998, and indeed to check himself into Butler Hospital for several months immediately following the 1998 spring semester. It seems clear, however, that the following email, addressed to the then Chair of the Computer Science Department, Daniel Simmel, is suggestive of a symptom and perhaps even a cause of his condition:
I received Tom’s message last week about Facilities coming to evaluate the space allocations in the Department, and therefore came to the office bright and early this morning. As you know, I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays and am not in my office most Mondays at all, and certainly not in the morning, but I was happy to do this, assuming that it would be a simple matter of working in my office undisturbed, keeping the door slightly ajar, etc. As you know, I have tried to be a team player even when the interests of the Department are not entirely convergent with my own, and I consider this morning a reasonably good example of this team spirit; but this morning was really too much and before going to the Provost I wanted to share my concerns with you. Although I understand that you, as Chair, could not have foreseen the behavior of the team from Facilities, and perhaps could have done little about it even had you suspected it, I do believe that not enough was done to prevent this morning’s outrage.
I was on the phone with Hao Nemerson at MIT this morning when I heard loud conversation from the hall, and this turned out to be a trio from the Facilities staff. They knocked on my door but in fact walked in as they knocked, and it took them several seconds to realize they were interrupting my phone conversation. Rather than leaving the office quickly, which is what I would’ve expected from a colleague careless enough to have done what they had done, the apparent leader of the group mouthed something in my direction and the three of them sat down on my couch. At that moment, Hao was in the middle of a description of his recent DoE grant, which as you know I would like us to join on the next cycle. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I tried to indicate to the Facilities group with a hand gesture that I wanted them out of the office. They paid no attention to me, or so it seemed, and one of the team actually pulled one of the books from the bookshelf closest to the couch. I got off the phone as quickly as I could and asked the team, as politely as I could, what they thought they were doing. The leader of the group introduced the team and I said that I had been informed that Facilities would be visiting today, but that I hoped it would not interfere with my work. “You have so many books,” said a woman whose name was something like Cheryl Klimmick (these people wore no identification and I didn’t think it polite to ask for their University IDs), “more than most of your colleagues. Why is that?”
I want to make clear that I did my best to ignore this and all the subsequent nonsense. I turned back to my computer and the draft of a paper I was reviewing, but the Facilities people did not attend to this and began a discussion amongst themselves about books. “You have a number of novels,” said another member of the team, although he did not face me. “Isn’t it strange for a computer scientist to have so many novels?” Before I could say anything, he continued: “I’m a science fiction guy myself. But you don’t have much science fiction here I think; I always thought computer scientists liked science fiction, don’t they?”
Please understand that I did make an effort here. I told the trio that there were lots of different kinds of computer scientists and it was likely they would find the range of interests among the members of the Department surprisingly varied. Unfortunately, the team persisted in their attempts to have some sort of conversation with me about G-d knows what, and I admit that I did eventually tell them that I really had to get back to work. At that point they did leave, though when they asked whether I wanted the door closed or open, and I said closed, my sense is that they slammed it shut.
Whatever they did with the door was not the point of course. While I understand the goal of Tom’s letter was to rally everyone to make clear to the Facilities group that we make good use of these three floors, I believe we do ourselves and the discipline a great disservice if members of the staff of the University believe they can come in and interrupt our work for any purpose, and to any extent, anytime. I know I don’t need to remind you that the research I’ve done with Millard & Gelber over the past decade has brought tens of millions of dollars into the University, and so we, and many other members of the Department, more than earn our keep. I’m happy to answer to you, as I know you know, and indeed to any senior member of the Department and of course to the Provost. But as Chair we depend on you to protect us from administrative interference of any and all kinds, and in this case it seems to me you’ve failed us. I will be happy to know your thoughts on these matters but I regretfully tell you that, the next time I receive a message like Tom’s, I will have to think twice before coming in.