Professor donates property for faculty research fund

Professor Russell Abbott is pictured with his wife, Debora Shuger.

Computer Science Professor Russell Abbott poses with his wife, Debora Shuger, in their Culver City home. Abbott donated his condominium to the University to create a fund for the study of computer science.

Embarking on creating an estate plan two years ago, Computer Science Professor Russell Abbott decided one thing. He didn’t want to wait to make an impact on the world around him. “Why wait until I am dead?” he said. “If I’m planning to give something to CSULA in my will, why not do it now?”

Abbott said that a couple of things happened during the past decade that made him decide to take action. The first is that he met his wife, Debora Shuger. “Although Debora has made my life immeasurably happier, she also made me envious. Debora teaches English at UCLA. Living with Debora, I could not ignore the difference in workload between CSULA and UCLA. The standard teaching load at UCLA is four-quarter classes a year. (UCLA is also on the quarter system; they voted not to convert to semesters a few years ago.) Comparing four quarter-courses a year with the nine quarter courses a year we teach made me decide to do whatever I could to make life better for CSULA faculty,” he said.

The second is that the Computer Science Program split off from the Department of Mathematics and became a department on its own. “We have been immensely fortunate in the chair we have had. Raj Pamula seems to take as one of his guiding principles to help faculty do what they do well. Instead of treating faculty as hired hands, Raj does whatever he can to enable faculty to do the things they are good at.

“The Mission Statement of our University says that we are committed ‘to free scholarly inquiry, to high-quality teaching, and to academic excellence.’ It is the faculty who do that work,” Abbott said. “To my mind, the proper job of the administration is to do whatever is in their power to help the faculty succeed in accomplishing that mission. Raj understands that. It is a joy to work with him.”

Abbott added: “Many faculty at CSULA are capable of doing significant and important research. Yet our teaching load makes that almost impossible unless one wants to become a grant entrepreneur and buy oneself out of teaching. For those of us who went into academia because we did not want to dedicate our lives to chasing after money, the grant treadmill is not a viable option.”

It was this reasoning, in part, that led Abbott, who has taught at the University for 23 years, to do what he previously would have described as the unimaginable. Abbott made a sizable gift to Cal State L.A., donating his vacant Wilshire Boulevard condominium to create an endowment to provide computer science faculty release time for research.

“I thought I could do something to help at least some faculty get some workload relief—and I hoped that by setting an example, others might pitch in and provide relief for additional faculty. I am very much an academic—and I’d like to give others who feel the same more time for their research.”

Abbott’s favored research area is in computational thinking. In computational thinking, fundamental computer science principles and skills are applied to solve problems, increase efficiency and gain a better understanding of other topics and fields, including philosophy, art, medicine and science. Computational thinking is an increasingly important area of computer science.

“It enriches computer science as it brings the concerns of other disciplines into our field; at the same time it has the power to revolutionize and expand other fields,” he said.

Part of Abbott’s goal in being a donor to the University, he said, was to bring awareness of this field to the public, and in turn, inspire others to support faculty and the Department of Computer Science.

“I hope that my endowment grows to support more faculty, and that others, not just faculty, are inspired to support faculty because of it,” Abbott said. “I would be happy to have started that.”

Prior to establishing an endowment at the University, Abbott had contributed time and money in other ways. He was member of the CSULA Foundation’s board of directors, which manages the University’s charitable gifts, and he and his wife were underwriters for the Golden Eagle sculpture on campus.

“I think it was a brilliant idea for him to do this in our lifetime,” Shuger said, noting that they had no real connection to the property since neither they nor their family had lived in it. Abbott closed escrow on the condominium a few months after moving in with Shuger.

“He had a garage sale (at his previous residence). I bought everything he had—and then just kept the best stuff around,” Shuger joked, patting Abbott on the knee.

The condominium was just the last item waiting to be sold.