James Miller, professor of mathematics and computer science, works with students in the computer lab in the Cowgill Center.
Miller celebrates 40th anniversary at Transylvania
James Miller, professor of mathematics and computer science, has seen thousands of satisfied students come through Transylvania since he began teaching at the University in the fall of 1966. “Students want to come to Transy, and they enjoy it once they get here,” Miller said.
That’s a sentiment that applies equally as well to Miller as he observes the 40th anniversary of his association with Transylvania. “When I was first hired to teach physics at Transy, I thought I might stay for a year,” he said. “As it turned out, I liked Transylvania too much to leave.”
Miller ushered in the computer science program at Transy and has been integral to its development. In the fall of 1966, he began offering one course in computer programming. At that time colleges were not offering a computer science major, and there was no computer on Transy’s campus. By 1968, a computer had been purchased and soon all of the administrative offices were on the machine and students were able to use it.
In 1969, the computer science major was implemented and the program continued to grow, with Transy recognized in 1978 by the National Science Foundation as an exemplary institution in academic computing.
The program experienced another boost in the 1990s as a result of a partnership with IBM, which sent about 25 employees a year for seven years to complete computer science degrees at Transy. “That’s one of the nice things about a small school—we can act quickly,” Miller said. “IBM had a need, and Transy reacted to that need immediately.”
Another computer-related honor came in 2000 when Yahoo included Transylvania in its Top 100 Most Wired Colleges list.
Miller has kept track of graduates since the beginning of the program, and says his personal satisfaction over the years has come from students who have graduated and gone on to do well.
John Snell, who was among the first computer science graduates in 1970, said Miller has had a profound effect on his life.
“Dr. Miller feels his responsibility toward Transy students doesn’t end once we have obtained our degrees,” Snell said. “After I graduated, he and I kept in touch. In the summer of 1982 a call from him resulted in me being hired as Transy’s Computing Center director, a position I held for 18 years.”
“If we graduate students in our program and they don’t have something good waiting for them at the end, we’ve failed them,” Miller said. “We graduated students early in computer science. Now we have graduates working out in the field as contacts. We have a network to help us place new graduates in jobs.”
Snell, now a professional photographer, also credits advice and encouragement that he received from Miller for giving him the confidence to pursue a career in the arts.
As for what’s in store for the program, Miller feels the future is now. “We just need people with imagination to envision problems for this fantastic tool that we have. That’s what we try to teach our students.”
Miller’s involvement on campus doesn’t end with the classroom. He directed Transy’s self studies for reaffirmation of accreditation in 1982 and 1992, and was chair of the assessment section of the 2002 self-study.
In the early 1980s, he became faculty adviser of Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honorary, and he has devoted much of his time to extracurricular enrichment activities, like the academic computer problem solving competitions for high school students, which required extensive travel.
He has worked with Transy’s academic camps, which give students the opportunity to stay on campus for a week and prepare for further study. These include the science and technology camp that ran from 1988 until 1995, and the academic camp for Appalachian students, which allows about 30 students each year to spend a week on campus, free of charge.
“Transy’s most unique quality is its history,” Miller said. “It’s been around for a long time. As long as we look to the past to prepare for the future, we’ll continue to be unique.”
Miller said the biggest change he’s seen during his tenure at Transylvania has been further expansion of opportunity.
“In the early 70s, we had to really struggle for equipment,” he said. “In the early 80s there was an increase in the endowment and more money became available for development. We can look forward now and develop programs, faculty can do summer research. We can look ahead now in a way we couldn’t before.”
Miller believes that Transylvania has been able to keep close to the forefront of technology and academics because of the high caliber of the students and faculty working together to create a campus community. “Good students make a good program,” he said, “and the faculty and alumni care about students.”
Miller is humble as he reflects on his years of service to Transylvania, but is quick to share his pride in how the college has evolved over time.
“The good thing about a small place like Transy is that one person can make a difference. You can get lost in a big school and feel isolated, but in a small place, if you want to, you can make a difference.”