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SIGGRAPH keynote review: Don Marinelli, Carnegie Mellon

SIGGRAPH keynote review: Don Marinelli, Carnegie Mellon

SIGGRAPH always brings in fascinating speakers for their keynote presentations. 2010 is no exception, as SIGGRAPH has invited Carnegie Mellon scholar Don Marinelli in to talk about his story of challenging the status quo in academia and his vision on what yet needs to be improved.

Don is the executive producer of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). Before he ever got to this position, however, he was a theater enthusiast and a professor. During a time when technology and art stayed distinctly apart, Don successfully bridged the gap. The result was a place that combined traditional “left brain” and “right brain” thinking into an environment that cherished the best of both worlds.

Don explained that he is not very content with multiple aspects of the current university system. Describing himself as a “tornado” that is here to bring about change (by force, if necessary), he is calling out to see reform and evolution in how scholarly organizations are run. His call ranges from reducing and streamlining inefficient bureaucratic systems to faculty tenure reformation, as well as breaking down barriers that restrict international students from taking part in study abroad programs.

I strongly agree with Don on at least two of his points. I feel that while bureaucracy is important for a large organization such as a university to run properly, I came to see at my own college that much of it is unnecessarily complicated to the point of stifling the usefulness of the university. I also agree that tenure, as it is now, is too easily taken advantage of, and can corrupt professors into becoming disinterested in their students because of the fact that they aren’t held nearly as accountable as younger or newer professors.

Ultimately I found Don to be an entertaining speaker (after all, he showed up in an incredibly bizarre outfit, something like the Joker meets John Wayne). He had a clear message that he’s seen a lot of progress in higher learning by helping to combine creative with technical-minded people in his own neck of the woods, and has helped influence others to develop similar programs. His thoughts on how universities should evolve are thought-provoking, and may indeed have some real merit to them.

I also can see why SIGGRAPH chose Don to be one of the keynote speakers. SIGGRAPH isn’t just about showing off technology and movie magic. It is also about continuing education, and a resource for students. While it’s nowhere as flashy as a talk on behind-the-scenes for special effects, education is the foundation that everything else is built upon, and as such deserves special attention. Don was able to represent this aspect perfectly—a man who is willing to stick his neck out and help propel things forward, even if means challenging what others take for granted.


  1. Garg
    Garg Tenure is often thought of as part of the problem with academia, but getting rid of it takes away academic freedom that I think is at the foundation of the entire enterprise.

    Garg's plan for when he's king of the ivory tower:

    What we need is a restructuring of the reward system. R1 universities need to start giving a damn about teaching. If a tenured professor's research lags and teaching evaluations drop, start dropping their salary (tenure should not be the end of internal review).

    Professors need to be teaching what they are researching, and find a way of communicating that to undergrads as well as grads. While I'm talking about grad students, they need to be part of the decision making process for curriculum, since 1) they tend to be more up to date on current issues, 2) more willing to integrate approaches from other disciplines, 3) are actually the ones doing the instruction for some classes.

    Anyway, we implement some of that, then we can stand a better chance of breaking down disciplinary boundaries and getting some really creative stuff done.
  2. ardichoke
    ardichoke Having recently graduated college.... I definitely agree that there needs to be some restructuring at Universities. I almost always hated taking courses from tenured professors because most of them really didn't give a crap about teaching. The most informative and enjoyable courses I took in college were almost always taught by either grad students or non-tenured professors. I found it to be a damn dirty shame.

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