Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

In Memoriam: Dr. Michael Faiman

This afternoon jellybeanzulu IMed me with the sad news that Professor Mike Faiman of the University of Illinois passed away last Thursday (15 Apr 2004). Dr. Faiman was head of the UIUC-DCS grad program for many years, including the whole time I was a Ph.D. student in Computer Science (1993-1998) and during my year as a research scientist at NCSA.

Though he presided over some upheavals great and small, Doc Faiman faced challenge and adversity with a dry wit. The first time I ever heard the bunny rabbit thesis joke was when he told it at our graduate orientation. He loved to play squash, and was often going on about it.

I thought I'd share a couple of anecdotes about Doc Faiman to relate how he affected my life. Those of you who were fortunate to know him (and perhaps his contemporaries: my Jedi Master, Professor Emeritus Sylvian Ray, and Professor Emeritus Geneva Belford) will probably recognize these as vintage Faiman. For the rest, I hope you get a little idea of his personality from this.

In 1993 I was accepted to Brown University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My acceptance letter to UIUC had arrived the day I left by car to visit Brown1, and I was really given a splendid treatment by the students and faculty there. I was pretty much set on Brown even though some of my relatives, classmates, and professors encouraged me to visit UIUC. So, I called up Barb Cicone and asked whether they could fund my air travel. UIUC-DCS could pay for one night's stay at the Illini Union, she said, but I'd have to buy my ($700+) plane ticket myself. Well, I did, and on the day of my visit in April, 1993, I met with Mike Faiman. I was always impressed with the decor of his office, but the first day I was particularly struck by the sight of the Grainger Engineering Libarary nearing completion behind him.

He asked where I was finishing my undergrad, and I replied that I was visiting from Johns Hopkins. He indicated that his daughter had just started there (at Peabody, IIRC). What other universities was I entertaining offers from? I explained that I'd been accepted to Brown and to my alma mater.

"I've got to be honest with you, Bill," he said. "The seafood will not be as good here as it is in Providence or Baltimore. However, we have a graduate program that I think will challenge and engage you."

Well, he was right.
Thanks, Dr. Faiman.

In 1994, about a year and a quarter later, I was studying for my comps and needed a new assistantship. I had worked with Professors Uday Reddy and Sam Kamin for about 9 months and realized that I was better cut out for research in intelligent systems and pattern recognition than type theory and functional programming languages.

I went to Doc Faiman and asked for a TAship. He consulted his assignment notes for the fall pool. I was not in the eligibility pool, he replied, though for a third-semester Ph.D. student with a Master's degree, perhaps something could be worked out. The only slots he had available were a 0.25-time position for CS325 (Programming Language Concepts) and a similar one for CS348 (Introduction to Artificial Intelligence). Each class had 110-130 students and a primary TA that I would work with (T. K. Lakshman for 325 and Ilker Hamzaoglu for 348). Would I still want that job, he inquired laconically.

I jumped at the chance. He nodded and stood up, going outside to get me signed up with Barbara. At this point Dr. Belford (whom I had met only once in August, 1993, when she advised me as my academic advisor) came into the DCL main office. "This is Bill Hsu," Doc Faiman introduced. "He's willing to split himself between 325 and 348." Dr. Belford's eyebrows went up slightly and she looked at me with bemused incredulity as if I was indeed undergoing mitosis.

Doc Faiman ushered me around, and that was the last time I talked to him until 1996.

There were two other occasions when I met with him, which I may go over some day, but these were my best stories. :o)
If you were at UIUC, I'd like to hear yours!

1 An expenses-paid trip it was, and let that serve as an object lesson to us state universities.


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