Dr. Luca Trevisan is a professor of computer science at Bocconi University, known for his expertise in theoretical computer science. Dr. Trevisan advocates for creating a more inclusive computer science and engineering environment.
In this written interview, Dr. Trevisan shares his insights on the barriers to inclusion he has experienced throughout his career and suggests ways the computing community can prevent such experiences for future professionals. Furthermore, he provides recommendations for increasing understanding of diverse cultures and backgrounds, highlights the importance of diverse perspectives in projects, and discusses strategies for soliciting and hearing these perspectives without making individuals feel tokenized or uncomfortable.
Join us as we interview Dr. Luca Trevisan in our Excellence in STEM for Pride month.
What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?
Computer science and engineering should benefit from the contributions of people of all genders, ethnicities, nationalities, religious beliefs, gender identities, political opinions, sexual orientations, and regardless of disability status, age, family status or any other aspect of one’s life and identity that does not affect one’s ability to contribute to our fields.
This is desirable as a matter of principle, and also, in practice, it is good for us to work in a field in which everybody feels like they belong and are valued, and it is good for our field because it benefits from the biggest possible talent pool and a variety of viewpoints.
What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?
As a gay man, coming out at an early stage of my career, in the late 1990s, was a very stressful time. On the one hand, being in the closet would have been unhealthy and also would have created a distance from my colleagues; on the other hand, I had no idea how being out would have been received, and it’s something that cannot be undone. Luckily it went really well, and I just regretted not doing it earlier: to some extent, this was a barrier that was all in my head.
What are 1-2 ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?
Academia is a wonderfully LGBTQ-friendly environment. From what I hear from my husband (who works for a prominent technology company whose CEO is openly gay), so is the computing industry at large. The question is, how aware of this are the LGBTQ people interested in a career in computing? Is our allyship well communicated?
Until a few years ago, I definitely thought so, and I thought that inclusion and belonging for LGBTQ people in computing (and even in society in general) was essentially a solved problem in North America and Western Europe. In the last few years, however, it feels like the public debate on LGBTQ issues in the US has gone backward by several decades, bringing back horrors like the casual conflation of queer people with pedophiles or the idea that gay or lesbian teachers should not be out at school, or that it’s problematic for trans kids to basically just exist. I now live in Italy, where, a few months ago, the newly elected government made a big deal of its rejection of an EU mandate to recognize birth certificates across EU states, and it doubled down on its policy of discriminating against families with same-sex parents.
In this climate, I don’t think we can take anything for granted, and institutions that are LGBTQ-friendly need to be more assertive in affirming their allyship. This applies to all levels, from institutional leadership to individual computing professionals. In places where the rights of LGBTQ people, especially trans people, are under attack by new laws, academia and industry should find ways to counterbalance the negative effects of these laws. I don’t have concrete suggestions, but, for example, in the 1990s, several years before same-sex marriage was legal anywhere, many companies and universities offered the same benefits to same-sex long-term couples that they offered to married couples.
A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?
A popular reaction of younger people when confronted with well-intentioned ignorance is to say, “it is not my job to educate you; you need to do the work yourself.” I totally understand where this is coming from: it is doubly unfair that someone should both suffer the negative consequences of a lack of understanding and have to take on the burden of explaining themselves to others.
Nonetheless, I disagree with this attitude: in my opinion, the best way to overcome a lack of understanding is to share stories, to explain things, and to keep doing it over and over. If you are an outsider, what you should do is listen to these stories, think about those explanations, and not feel defensive if those stories and explanations put your past behavior in a negative light because this is not about you: you are the listener and not the main character.
Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?
My research and teaching are about theoretical computer science, where it is important for people to come at problems with a diversity of approaches and viewpoints, but where it is difficult to see a connection between the way a person thinks and that person’s background.
Let me mention, however, something that I feel strongly about, which is the way we talk about Alan Turing, one of the founding fathers of computing and the person after which the highest honor in computing is named.
In 2012, it was the centennial of his birth, and several places in the UK, in the US, and elsewhere organized major events whose common theme was Turing’s visionary early work in some area, and then a survey of the follow-ups over the decades. Turing was ahead of his time in thinking, in the 1930s, about a general-purpose computing device and in thinking of code and data as interchangeable, Turing was ahead of his time in searching, in 1950, for an operational definition of intelligence and in setting goals for the field of AI, Turing was ahead of his time in the 1950s in thinking of morphogenesis as a computational process and in imagining a computational approach to biology, and Turing was ahead of his time in being open about his sexuality in a way that leads to his death. The last part, however, was omitted from all the celebrations, which, in my opinion, was a big loss. I would bet that none of those events were planned by any LGBTQ person.
More recently, ACM produced a short video to tell Turing’s life story: the video is shown at the ACM banquet held every June to honor the winners of the major ACM awards, including the Turing award and the newly inducted ACM Fellows. Last year, a gay colleague was there, and he was flabbergasted that the video made no mention that Turing was gay and of the circumstances of his death. A correspondence with the ACM leadership followed, on which I was partly in cc, and plans have been made to change the video. If LGBTQ voices had been included from the beginning, this video would have come out better the first time, and it would have better represented the DEI vision of the ACM leadership.
Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming and being a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are 1 or 2 ways in which such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them possibly feel tokenized or otherwise made uncomfortable?
This question, in part, goes back to what we were saying before about the additional burden of having to educate others: I know, for example, that women in computing are asked to do a disproportionate amount of work sitting in committees and panels, delivering keynote addresses, being editors and so on. Unfortunately, there is a fairly limited number of women in senior positions, but every committee and every panel wants to include women, every conference wants to have women keynote speakers, and so on.
Sometimes they also get requests that are a bit removed from their core research interests, and then it is clear that they are being asked just because they are women, which is rather awkward.
Of course, what I just said about women holds for other groups as well. I have been on both sides of this. Recently, some colleagues asked me if I could join the organizing committee for a workshop they are organizing: they had already planned everything, but the research center that would host the workshop had asked them to have at least one Europe-based person on the organizing committee. I was happy to help them out. I have also been a program committee chair for major conferences, struggling to put together a program committee that could satisfy diversity requirements across all the dimensions mandated by the steering committee.
There is no easy answer. For scientific events, and for decision-making that steers the direction of the computing community, I think that the benefits of diversity are such that it makes sense to ask some people to take on an unfair burden. Maybe, to make it worth it, we should give more weight to “service to the computing community” when we evaluate promotion cases and tenure cases.
In terms of tokenism, the main thing to avoid is to reduce a person that belongs to an underrepresented group just to their membership in that group, and we should never expect them to speak as a “representative” of it. For example, in a group in which there is only one African American computer scientist, we should not expect them to speak about the “African American view” on a certain issue any more than we might expect another colleague to provide a “white male heterosexual view” on another issue. We all have our own unique stories, our deeply felt values, and our hard-gained experiences, and this is what we can share. Of course, the more diverse is a group of people, the more there is a chance that someone’s stories and insights are new and enriching to someone else whose life and experiences have been very different.
Learn More About Dr. Luca Trevisan
Luca Trevisan is a professor of computer science at Bocconi University, where he holds the Fondazione Invernizzi Chair in Computer Science. Luca received his Dottorato (PhD) in 1997, from the Sapienza University of Rome, working with Pierluigi Crescenzi. After graduating, Luca was a post-doc at MIT and at DIMACS, and he was on the faculty of Columbia University, U.C. Berkeley, and Stanford, before returning to Berkeley in 2014 and, at long last, returning to Italy in 2019.
Luca’s research is in theoretical computer science, with a focus on computational complexity, on the analysis of algorithms, on the foundations of cryptography, and on topics at the intersection of theoretical computer science and pure mathematics.
Luca is a Fellow of the ACM and a member of the Accademia dei XL, Italy’s national academy of science. He received the 2000 Oberwolfach Prize, the 2000 Sloan Fellowship and an NSF CAREER Award. He was an invited speaker at the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians. In 2019, he received an ERC Advanced Grant.