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Trevor Fenner


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor Emeritus Trevor Fenner to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Birkbeck has been teaching and researching computer science since 1957, making it one of the oldest computing departments in the world. Trevor Fenner (who gained a degree in maths and a diploma in computing from Cambridge University) has been central to its survival, growth, and reputation since he joined our community in 1966. This makes him the longest-serving member of the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, in all its many iterations: 56 years.

Trevor’s research has been fundamental to his discipline. They include his contributions to research in graph algorithms, random graphs, graph reconstruction, biological evolutionary trees, and mathematical models of the world-wide-web and of social networks. He is especially fascinated by combinational and probabilistic algorithms, programming languages, heuristic game playing, and numerical linear algebra and relational database theory. He has never been afraid to immerse himself in innovative methodologies, and to investigate topics that are of immediate relevance to everyone – for example, experiments in chess, human dynamics, sociophysics in relation to modelling opinion polls, bibliometrics, quantitative social sciences, and modelling human responses to a deadline.

When talking to colleagues and former students, it became immediately clear that Trevor has a talent in communicating complex ideas. As one of his colleagues explained, Trevor is primarily a mathematician. He revels in teaching subjects such as Data Structures which were ‘about the ways in which data could be organised in a computer program - lists, stacks, queues, trees etc - and about the algorithms that could be applied to them’. Trevor is also enthusiastic about Abstract Machine Theory or, as it was explained to me, ‘the mathematical theory of computing, with particular attention paid to finite state machines and to Turing machines (theoretical concepts, not real machines, which provide a vehicle for reasoning about the nature and the limits of computing)’.

These are difficult concepts to grasp but colleagues regularly spoke to me about how much they enjoyed his lectures: his enthusiasm as well as depth of learning shone through. As one colleague mentioned, this zeal was essential ‘since many of the students were more keen on acquiring employable skills than on understanding the underlying theory’. Like most brilliant researchers, teachers, and communicators, Trevor is always well prepared. He encourages his students to be ambitious; he is prepared to spend hours upon hours discussing research ideas, which he selflessly gifted to anyone brave enough to take up the challenge. One PhD student in the department even admitted that Trevor ‘seemed to understand my work better than I did’. He has ‘an exceptionally quick mind and is able to make penetrating and insightful observations about a research topic on very short acquaintance’. Another former PhD student recalled that, despite the fact that this student was working in a field at some distance from Trevor’s interests, Trevor immediately ‘applied his mind to it with some enthusiasm. His style of supervision is to seize on some weak point in my latest effort and to suggest various improvements’. This former PhD student contended that ‘this combination of acute criticism and bright ideas’ was never ‘negative’ and has ‘never been dull’.

Of course, any successful university requires robust infrastructures. Trevor served for many years on the School’s Teaching Quality Enhancement Committee and on many other Degree Committees. Amongst others, he has been Chair of the Department, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Chair of the Teaching Committee, and Director of the Foundational Degree in IT during the early years of the establishment of this very strategically important expansion of the department’s teaching portfolio. Trevor was said to be ‘deeply conscious of the possible effects of proposed evolutions or changes on either students or staff’, making him ‘uniquely capable of identifying and articulating the issues involved so as to open them up to wider debate and ultimate collective resolution’. A number of people I spoke to marvelled over his incredible memory, recalling the details of student cases from decades earlier.

Obviously, having been in the college for such a long period of time, Trevor has been a central figure in the development of curricula and moulding the department’s culture and ethos. His attention to detail has enabled him to make substantive contributions to academic discourse, at Departmental, School, and College levels. His interventions at Academic Board and Union meetings are legendary.

His colleagues speak of hm with awe and respect. He is ‘incredibly clever’, one told me. Another simply said, ‘fearsome intellect’ and a ‘great explainer’. He is particularly helpful to his colleagues, often stepping in to help solve their problems. He is the School’s ‘go to’ figure’, I was told, for anyone who had a ‘tricky problem’ that needed to be ‘teased out’. As one colleague told me, ‘you could always rely on Trevor to listen carefully to the issues involved, and to engage the full depth and breadth of his knowledge, experience, and intellect to help to identify an approach towards tackling the problem’. He is an ‘enabler’, supportive to everyone in the Department. In all aspects of his life, he pays incredibly attention to detail and always conscientious.

So, what about ‘the person’? There was one refrain that was repeated time and again: Trevor is always late to meetings and classes. He is ‘congenitally late’, as one colleague put it, which is why he is humorously referred to as ‘The late Trevor Fenner’. One colleague remembered visiting him in one of his offices and finding that he ‘had to squeeze through a narrow channel between crates and boxes piled high, including an ancient laundry basket. These [crates] all contained papers which he couldn't bring himself to throw away and which had been packed and transported whenever the office accommodation was rearranged’. More seriously, Trevor is a central person in the Jewish community. He is ‘very religious’. His family is also very important to him, although I am reliably informed that his wife, Inger, believes that he works too hard.

Trevor Fenner’s contributions to the college for over half a century have revolutionised our community. We are forever grateful to him for accepting this College Fellowship and are thrilled that he will continue to be a supporter of our mission.