Endowed chair created by Rakesh Agrawal and family honors a valued mentor

Shalini and Rakesh Agrawal

There are many reasons alumni support the University of Wisconsin-Madison:  pride in their alma mater, gratitude for a top-flight education, even fond memories of indulgent Babcock ice cream.

For alumnus Rakesh Agrawal (PhD ’83, pictured above with his wife, Shalini), the desire to give was spurred by all of these factors, plus family and cultural tradition.  His generous impulse has now created an endowed chair in computer sciences.

Says Agrawal, who grew up in India and lives in California, “In ancient India, there was a tradition of guru dakshina.  It was a tradition of acknowledging and thanking those from whom one learned.  It’s a wonderful tradition, one I wanted to emulate.”

Agrawal’s gift will establish the David J. DeWitt Chair in Computer Sciences, designed to support a senior-level scholar with a leading role in the growing “datafication” of human endeavors.

Funding for the chair is provided through the Professor Ram Kumar Memorial Foundation, of which Agrawal is president.  The foundation is named after Agrawal’s late father, a highly regarded teacher and scholar in the fields of both pure and applied mathematics.  Among other commendations, Professor Ram Kumar was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, India.

Agrawal’s mother, Urmila; his brother, Rajeev; and the brothers’ own families were all involved in creating the foundation honoring Professor Kumar.

While his father was one important mentor in Agrawal’s life, the naming of the endowed chair—after professor emeritus DeWitt (pictured at right), a seminal figure in the UW’s database research group and Agrawal’s dissertation advisor —honors another.David DeWitt

Says Agrawal modestly, “Whatever little I know of research, I learned it all from David.  Our family feels very privileged and honored that David has consented to lend his name to the chair.”  The choice of DeWitt’s name for the new chair is also intended to honor the teaching profession and CS department as a whole.

Agrawal sees parallels between his father and DeWitt:  “Like David, my father was a scholar, loved by his students, and was a person of unquestionable intellectual honesty and integrity.  It is very apt that the chair funded through the Professor Ram Kumar Memorial Foundation is named the DeWitt Chair.”

Professor Mark D. Hill, chair of the department, says, “It’s a wonderful tribute to the teaching and research legacy here that Rakesh Agrawal has chosen to honor David DeWitt with his family’s generous gift.  UW-Madison holds the distinction of forming the earliest research group in databases—what turned out to be a major subfield of computer science—and Rakesh’s gift helps ensure that we maintain our preeminent position.  Rakesh is a wonderful friend of the department, and we are grateful for his support.”

Agrawal is currently the founder of Data Insights Laboratories, a startup devoted to innovative software and services that employ deep insights mined from data.

He also serves as a member of the UW Computer Sciences Board of Visitors, a group of distinguished alumni who advise the department.

Dubbed the “father of data mining,” Agrawal has won major awards recognizing his pioneering contributions in database systems.  For example, in 2000, he won both the first ACM SIGKDD Innovations Award and the ACM SIGMOD Edgar F. Codd Innovations Award.

One of his accomplishments has been the development of “Hippocratic databases” that are designed to share information in a way that honors privacy.  The concept sprang from a conversation with his brother, an orthopedic surgeon.

“He said to me, in medicine you have this notion of a Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm,’” recounts Agrawal.  “My brother wondered what the equivalent in database systems would be.  What would it mean for a database system to take a Hippocratic Oath, based upon underlying principles that would share data but respect individual privacy?”

More recently, he has been active in education, working on ways that the ubiquity of mobile devices can benefit students, particularly in emerging countries like India, where he did a study for the president. Not only do electronic books offer unique capabilities over printed books (such as virtual labs in schools that cannot afford physical labs), they also pave the way for identifying obstacles to learning, such as poorly written sections of textbooks.

By mining insights from student interactions, better texts can be developed.  What’s more, they can be delivered electronically at a much lower cost than printed books.  “Give tablets for free to students, and the governments will end up saving money, besides unleashing tremendous creativity,” says Agrawal.

That interest in learning takes us full circle to his most recent gift to UW-Madison.  His donation, amplified by a matching program created by fellow alumni John and Tashia Morgridge, honors the education he received at UW-Madison while also reflecting heartfelt lessons from his family and Indian heritage about the importance of learning.

Ram Kumar and Urmila in 1962Explaining that India is a land of gods and goddesses, Agrawal tells of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge.  “Our father taught us to always revere Saraswati over Lakshmi.  And our mother also would say that dhana, or money, is maya—it can come and go—but vidya, or knowledge, stays forever,” says the computer scientist. (Pictured at left: Professor Ram Kumar and his wife, Mrs. Urmila Agrawal, in 1962.)

Quite fitting, then, that Agrawal’s gift will benefit future generations of students, carrying on that tradition of knowledge.