University Scholar Robert Sloan

The University Scholars Program, now in its 34th year, honors faculty members for superior research and teaching, along with great promise for future achievements. The award provides $15,000 a year for three years.

Robert Sloan
Robert Sloan, professor and head of computer science. Photo: Jim Young/UIC Engineering

Years at UIC: 29

What are your research interests? 
My main research interest today is public policy and legal issues in computer security and privacy. I’m also working on computer science education.

How did you become interested in these topics?
I worked off and on in cryptography and traditional computer security for many years, starting with my first published paper that came out of my master’s thesis in cryptography. At the same time, I’ve always been interested in politics and law. Over time, I and a number of other researchers came to realize the importance of our legal system to computer security. Consider, for example, the answer to the question, why were there a lot of exploitable security holes in early 2000s Windows? A correct computer science answer would be, an awful lot of the underlying code accepted inputs without checking them for being well formed and reasonable, thus allowing a host of attacks such as “smashing the stack.” But then one should ask why Microsoft allowed their engineers to write and ship that code. The answer comes from basic economics: in the early 2000s, that was the strategy that maximized profit for Microsoft. The next question is why was that a strategy that maximized Microsoft’s profits. The answer to that last question is that the legal regime meant that Microsoft didn’t bear the liability for losses users sustained in breaches of Windows.

As for CS education, I was somewhat interested since my own student days, and I became deeply interested in the late 1990s when I was asked to serve on a committee of the ACM and IEEE Computer Society (the professional societies for computer science) that was drafting a model undergraduate curriculum for computer science. A side effect of that service was exposure to all the venues where people presented research results on how best to teach computer science. 

What do you teach?
First semester intro computer science and an upper-level course on legal and policy issues in computer security and privacy.

How do you balance teaching and research?
For me, there’s no conflict. My intro classes are a part of my research into CS pedagogy, and my upper-level course is about my research area.

What’s your advice to students who want to focus their future careers on research?
Start pursuing research as a first- or second-year undergraduate. Today there are lots of opportunities to do so, and there are at least two big benefits. First, you’ll learn early if you really like research. Second, today top Ph.D. programs are looking to see if you had success with undergraduate research to decide whether to admit you.

Maintain broad interests. You never know what will turn out to be useful to you as a researcher over the years. 

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