James E. Miller launched Transylvania’s computer science program
James E. Miller retired from the Transylvania faculty following the 2007-08 academic year after a remarkable 42-year tenure as a mathematics and computer science professor. His accomplishments as a teacher, adviser, and leader in his profession are numerous, including teaching awards, prominent roles in the University’s self-study projects, and outreach programs to encourage high school students to become involved in science.
A highlight of his Transy career was his pioneering role in launching the University’s computer science program, an initiative he developed and championed for over four decades.
When he joined the faculty in 1966, Miller had the rare opportunity to introduce an emerging field of study to the curriculum. Computer science was just coming into its own as a discipline, and few colleges were offering instruction in the subject. Miller taught the first computer science course ever offered by the University, Introduction to Digital Computers, during his first year. He wrote a grant to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that resulted in funding for the University’s first computer in 1969, the same year a computer science major was added to the curriculum.
Today, thanks largely to Miller’s foresight, persistence, and talents in applied math and computer science, the subject is a full-fledged major with many successful graduates. In 1978, the NSF recognized Transylvania as an exemplary institution in academic computing.
Miller takes pride in the many computer science graduates the program has produced, and the career network they represent.
“I’ve always felt that when we put someone out as a computer science major, they should have something waiting for them, “ he said. “We got started early in computer science, and our successful alumni have helped us to place later graduates.”
Miller got Transy students involved in computer competitions, and also reached out to high school students beginning in 1980 through summer academic, science, computer, and technology camps held on the Transy campus.
Miller, who holds a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Kentucky, was recognized for his teaching abilities when he received a Bingham Award for Excellence in Teaching and was named Faculty Member of the Year by Phi Kappa Tau fraternity twice. He was also a former chair of the Division of Mathematics and Natural Science.
Colleagues and former students praised his dedication to teaching and advising.
“Jim’s legacy is in the gifts of learning he gave to so many students, gifts that created the opportunities for them that come from a good education,” said mathematics professor David Shannon. “When we’re recruiting students for our prestigious scholarships, we always tell them we’re looking for people who will make a difference. Jim is an excellent example of what it means to make a difference.”
Harriet Perry Jones ’74, a retired math teacher living in Russell, Ky., was especially appreciative of Miller’s staying in touch with her during her career.
“When I was assigned advanced placement calculus to teach after being out of college for 10 years, I called Dr. Miller, then drove back to Lexington for a quick refresher course,” she said. “That’s just the kind of person he is, always willing to help.”
Michael Finley ’90, owner of Qualia Labs in Alpharetta, Ga., credits Miller with playing a key role in launching his career.
“Dr. Miller gave me a recommendation to work at IBM, and that led to my first job,” he said. “I remember his continuous urge to always better yourself. It was never about how important he was, it was always about what we could do, what we could take out of his classroom to that first job.”
Outside the classroom, in addition to the summer camps he created, Miller directed self-study initiatives in 1982 and 1992 that led to Transylvania’s reaffirmation of accreditation with the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. He chaired the assessment section of the 2002 self-study. In addition, he served SACS on 20 visiting teams for self-study accreditation at other colleges. Beginning in 1983, Miller became faculty adviser to Transy’s chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honorary.
As he looks back over the more than four decades of his role in the still-evolving phenomenon of computer science, Miller sees an ever-expanding role for computers, which have been called the most versatile machine ever created.
“We’re using only about five percent of the capabilities of the computer now,” Miller said. “It’s hard to imagine how many more ways it can be used. When I started in the computer field, it was always about how we can make the machine itself bigger and faster. Now that the hardware is pretty much as fast as we need, it’s all about software that will make it easier for everyone to use.”
As for his own future, Miller is looking forward to having more time to do things with with his wife, Betty, and also explore other opportunities. He’ll continue his volunteer activities with Habitat for Humanity and Central Baptist Hospital, and is considering book projects.
“I don’t have a prescription for my life after Transy, but I do have many things to choose from,” Miller said. “There are lots of different paths I can take. I need to take that other step and see what is over the hill. There might be something great over there.”
—WILLIAM A. BOWDEN