Cunningham Concludes Tenure as CIS Department Chair

Longtime professor passing baton, returning to teaching and research

Conrad Cunningham

Conrad Cunningham

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 2001 was a time of trouble within the University of Mississippi’s Department of Computer and Information Science. At least that’s the way H. Conrad Cunningham remembers it.

“I became chair in what I describe as a triple crisis,” Cunningham said. “First, we had to move the department operations from Weir to Kinard for 18 months in order for Weir to be renovated. Second, we had to do our ABET/CAC self-study for the 2002 visit. And third, we lost two of our seven tenure-track faculty that summer.”

Rising to the occasion, the computer and information science professor-turned-chair pulled together the five remaining tenure-track faculty and one instructor to successfully extract themselves from this crisis over the next three years. He credits Kai-Fong Lee, then-dean of engineering, with providing advice that helped marshal the resources needed to rebuild the CIS department.

“I am never satisfied with the status quo,” Cunningham said. “As a faculty member and department chair, I have sought to help my department mature and increase its abilities to educate students, be productive researchers and stimulate the region to reach its potential.”

Cunningham has succeeded in doing just that. He served as department chair from Commencement in May 2001 until June 30, 2015, or more than 14 years.

“The best I can determine, I served in the role more than twice as long as any previous CIS department chair from the founding of the department in the mid-1970s,” he said. “My immediate predecessor, Dr. Robert P. Cook, served for nearly seven years, which is the second longest as far as he can determine.”

But Cunningham’s 26-year tenure is marked by achievement, not just longevity.

“During my period as chair, we increased our Ph.D. program and our funded research program,” he said. “We weathered the nationwide collapse in undergraduate enrollment after the Internet boom years before 2001 and increased the enrollment to the highest levels in probably 30 years.”

Cunningham hired all the current associate and assistant professors, added an eighth tenure-track line, a second instructor and received approval to hire a third instructor for fall 2017.

“I stepped aside from the chair role early this summer to refocus my efforts on my teaching, research and writing before I retire from the faculty in a few years,” Cunningham said. “I am currently working with several Ph.D. and M.S. students.”

As far as he knows, Cunningham is the first faculty member hired as a beginning assistant professor in CIS to reach the rank of professor. Dawn Wilkins, his successor, is the first female hired as an assistant professor to reach full professor rank.

Cunningham joined the Ole Miss faculty in August 1989 after completing his master’s and doctoral degrees at Washington University in St. Louis. Raised on a farm near Success, Arkansas, he graduated from Corning High School and from Arkansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Having previously worked as a professional staff member for Washington University and for General Dynamics Corp., Cunningham and his wife, Diana, decided Ole Miss and Oxford were a delightful place to live and work.

“When I came here as an assistant professor, I was fortunate to be able to choose among opportunities at three similar institutions,” he said. “I was attracted to the culture and size of the Ole Miss computer science department – a faculty dedicated to teaching, a department small enough for the faculty to know the students well and opportunities to grow a research program with Ph.D. and M.S. students.”

A registered dietitian, Diana Cunningham has worked 26 years for the North Mississippi Regional Center. For the past five years, she has served as director of nutrition services.

Cunningham has earned the respect of engineering administrators, colleagues, alumni and students.

“Dr. Cunningham is largely responsible for my decision to accept employment at the University of Mississippi,” Wilkins said. “His dedication to the department, its faculty and its students is remarkable, and I am proud to call him not only my colleague but a trusted friend.”

“As my adviser, Dr. Cunningham not only guided me through my dissertation research with wisdom and patience and gave me considerable encouragement, but also impressed me with his dedication to the work and wonderful personality,” said Yi Liu, a 2005 doctoral graduate who is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at South Dakota State University. “He is my role model.”

The Cunninghams enjoy travel but have not had much time to for it in recent years. He also enjoys reading and activities at First Baptist Church in Oxford. A few months ago, the couple began walking regularly to improve and maintain their health.

While retirement is still a few years away, Cunningham said he is already making plans for his post-UM future.

“We likely will remain in Oxford,” he said. “We plan to devote more time to church activities, travel, visiting family and reading. I also plan to remain professionally active, devoting some time to consulting, research, writing, mentoring students and perhaps teaching.”