Alumnus returns to Cornell as Tisch University Professor
By Joe Wilensky
Lorenzo Alvisi, M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’96, and Cornell’s newest Tisch University Professor, has found that all doors eventually lead back to Cornell.
While they were both graduate students at Cornell in the ’90s, he and his wife, Irene Eibenstein-Alvisi, M.A. ’96, Ph.D. ’03, picked up a copy of a popular poster depicting historic Cornell doors that they brought with them when Alvisi was hired as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Texas, Austin.
Alvisi built a career as a professor of computer science there, eventually taking on the title of university distinguished teaching professor and co-director of its Laboratory for Advanced System Research. But – like the poster that he displayed at home – doorways back to Cornell kept presenting themselves.
He returned to the Hill as a visiting assistant professor in summer 1997, and again for a full year as a visiting associate professor in 2002-03. He continued collaborating with colleagues at Cornell and kept tabs on his department, computer science, which had grown and become part of a unit, Computing and Information Science.
Alvisi returned again last fall, as a visiting scholar with CIS for the 2016-17 academic year, and as of July 1, he became a Tisch University Professor.
The Tisch University Professorships are one of Cornell’s highest faculty honors. Alvisi joins just two other professors with the title: computer scientist Jon Kleinberg and chemist Geoff Coates. The professorships were created in 2008 by Andrew H. Tisch ’71 and Ann Rubenstein Tisch to help attract and retain prominent scholars and midcareer faculty. Awarded at the discretion of the president and provost, the professorships are deployed to address critical recruitment and retention needs, and to help strengthen and fortify departments and emerging interdisciplinary fields.
“We are deeply grateful to Andrew and Ann Tisch for their gift of the Tisch University Professorships, which have allowed us to recognize some of Cornell’s most distinguished faculty,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff. “Andrew and Ann are steadfast champions of the faculty and understand the importance of endowments that will support and advance outstanding teaching and research. The opportunity to bring Lorenzo Alvisi back to Cornell was an incredibly exciting one from a departmental and university perspective.”
Alvisi said he is thrilled to return to Cornell.
“Cornell stayed in my heart from graduate school,” Alvisi said. “I always felt a deep sense of gratitude to Cornell. This institution really helped me grow as a scientist; it really molded me.”
Alvisi works in the field of systems, specifically in distributed computing, the paradigm at the core of cloud computing. He investigates both foundational and applied aspects of reliable distributed computing. “I am really happy when I manage to leverage the former to shape the latter,” he said.
At Cornell, he said his CIS colleagues are eager to further define the roles they play in the institutional mission and to shoulder the responsibility of how their field engages with society.
“It’s wonderful for me to be in an environment that understands that beyond [doing] the best science that we can, and training and preparing and growing the best students that we can, we also have a responsibility to people who are not just computer scientists,” he said. “[We] have this much broader interface to the outside world.”
He points to a seminar series CIS hosted last semester as an example of that interface: The series, open to the public, looked at how artificial intelligence will likely impact human labor and employment, computerized decision-making, ethics and more.
Alvisi is just as enthusiastic about teaching; he received numerous teaching awards in Austin and said his Cornell students have been wonderfully engaged.
“I’m fortunate that I’m teaching things that I love. And I try to convey to the students the same passion that I have,” he said. “I enjoy being with students. I enjoy their perspectives, the questions that they bring forward, the thirst that they have.”
Eibenstein-Alvisi is also on the Cornell faculty, as a senior lecturer in Romance studies. Their Cornell family has grown, as well: Their eldest daughter, Maria, was born while they were graduate students here, and their younger daughter, Chiara, is a member of the Class of 2020.
Alvisi says he is humbled to have received a Tisch University Professorship.
“It’s sort of a dream come true,” he said. “You love an institution, it has been very important for a very important part of your life, and then you move away, you do your thing – and to then find that there is an opportunity to join that institution again at a later time. … It took me 20 years to come back, which is pretty much what it took Odysseus to go back to Ithaka.
“And he didn’t even have to get tenure,” he said with a smile.