David Paul Dobkin


David Paul Dobkin, the Phillip Y. Goldman ’86 Professor in Computer Science and co-founder of the field of computational geometry, transfers to emeritus status after more than forty years at the University. At Princeton, he served as chair of the Department of Computer Science for nine years as well as dean of the faculty from 2003 to 2014. 

David was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 29, 1948. One might infer from that singular date that, having not yet reached his nineteenth birthday, he is likely the “youngest” professor ever to retire from the University. Further evidence of youth is on display in his vast collections of snow globes, Dannon Yogurt lids, and photos of “People in Phone Booths.” If youthful vitality is, indeed, a trademark of David’s character, so are his wisdom, judgment, and leadership qualities, all of which were widely admired during his service as chair and dean. 

David received his bachelor of science in mathematics and electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970. Moving up Massachusetts Avenue, he earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard University three years later under the supervision of Roger Brockett. After stints on the faculty at Yale University and the University of Arizona, David came to Princeton in 1981, where he became a major force behind the creation of the Department of Computer Science in 1985. David has long been affiliated with the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics (PACM) and the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). 

Together with his first Ph.D. student, Michael Shamos, David played a leading role in creating the field of computational geometry in the late 1970s. It is flourishing today, with dozens of scientific journals and conferences to its name all around the world. The marriage between geometry and algorithms at the heart of the field animates all of David’s research and reflects his abiding passion for computer graphics, an area that he pioneered on this campus and nurtured into excellence with stellar faculty hiring. 

Several of David’s research breakthroughs make an obligatory appearance in college textbooks. Of special note is the “Dobkin-Kirkpatrick hierarchy,” an algorithmic idea that revolutionized the computational treatment of convex objects in three dimensions. David’s leadership in the field led him to chair the governing board of the Geometry Center, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded organization that brought together an eclectic group of top-flight mathematicians and computer scientists. David’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and his election as fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He has been a highly sought-after consultant with the most prestigious corporate research institutions, such as AT&T Research, Xerox PARC, Bellcore, and DEC SRC. 

David is an outstanding teacher and a caring, dedicated mentor. His Ph.D. students share a special bond of affection for an advisor they admire in equal measures for the brilliance of his scientific guidance and the kindness of his counsel. His undergraduate students have been equally inspired by his generous supervision. David advised the independent work of David Siegel ’83 and Phillip Goldman ’86, both of whom are honored with endowed professorships in the department. His commitment to undergraduate development is legendary: among its highlights, legions of independent projects and a suite of new courses cutting across disciplines. The computer science curriculum still includes versions of his courses on IT policy, software engineering, and computing and the arts, as well as popular offerings for non-majors. By securing the first joint appointments with music, genomics, and the visual arts, David initiated the repositioning of the field at the core of University-wide interdisciplinary efforts. Case in point, the Center for Information Technology Policy was the brainchild of a faculty seminar that he created. 

David’s enduring interest in the aesthetics of “collection” has produced a remarkable body of work that, in 2013, caught the attention of the Lewis Center for the Arts. What followed was a one-of-a-kind exhibition at the Lucas Gallery that displayed some of David’s most arresting collections, featuring vast assortments of snow globes, popsicle sticks, keyboards, CDs, postcards, and pennies, many pennies...700 pounds worth of them to be precise, all arranged in tall towers sorted by year and mint. 

In 2003, David was named the dean of the faculty, a position he held with great distinction until 2014. He brought to the role his administrative experience as chair of computer science as well as a deep and abiding curiosity about the scholarly work of the faculty, and they returned his interest with admiration and affection. He was renowned for his dean’s lunches, at which he invited what appeared to be a random group of faculty to discuss their work. David was particularly proud of the times that those gatherings generated new collaborations among faculty who had not encountered one another before. He memorialized those and many other occasions with photographs on his blog, which became a rich catalog of Princeton’s collegiality and community. He also created Princeton’s first and only online “Facebook” for faculty. 

During his tenure as dean, David oversaw a major expansion of the faculty and made significant strides in expanding its diversity. New initiatives like the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute benefited from his effective recruiting style and his deft guidance of new appointments through the approval process. Existing departments and programs like chemistry and African American studies were transformed by his oversight and wise counsel. He was viewed by the many chairs he worked with as an advocate for their efforts to expand the quality and breadth of the faculty, and to ensure that Princeton was a welcoming place for faculty and their families. His big heart and brilliant administrative instincts were always on display, and when he had to disappoint, as all deans must do from time to time, he did so with empathy and a good explanation. 

David never lost sight of his first place in the University, and he taught throughout his deanship. While visiting Santorini as a trustee of the Seeger Foundation that supports the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, he recognized the potential for computer pattern recognition in assisting conservators who were reassembling the frescoes at the Akrotiri archeological site. When he returned to Princeton, he assembled teams of faculty and students to collaborate with the archeologists on this important project of historical recovery.  

David Dobkin will go down in history as one of the greatest of Princeton’s deans of the faculty. His standing ovation at the last faculty meeting of his term was well deserved, and they showered him with pennies — no one who knew David could have come to that meeting without pennies to add to his famous collection. 

Written by members of the Department of Computer Science faculty.