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Remembering Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science Jeffrey L. Elman

Professor Jeffrey Locke Elman is remembered as a maverick scholar and accomplished administrator, a model university citizen and builder of bridges between disciplines – and a genuinely kind human being. Deeply committed to research and education at all levels, Jeff served UC San Diego with extraordinary dedication for four decades until the very day of his passing. He made a difference in one endeavor after another, and he leaves a profound legacy that includes scores of faculty, students and staff he helped, encouraged, or inspired.

Jeff joined the UC San Diego faculty in 1977, starting in the Department of Linguistics. He served as dean of the Division of Social Sciences from 2006 to 2014.

A founding member and former chair of the university’s Department of Cognitive Science, the first of its kind in the world, he was also founding director of the Center for Research in Language and founding co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind. After he stepped down as dean, he became the campus’s first director of Online and Technology Enhanced Education in support of the expansion of educational access at UC San Diego.

Holder of a Chancellor’s Associates Endowed Chair, Elman was most recently founding co-director of the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute at UC San Diego.

Jeff was a pioneer in artificial neural networks and internationally recognized for his work in language learning and processing. His early TRACE model of speech perception, with Jay McClelland, remains one of the major theories in the field. In 1990, in a paper entitled “Finding Structure in Time,” which has more than 9,000 citations to date, he introduced the Simple Recurrent Network, the so-called “Elman net.” Elman nets are today used in many fields – from cognitive science and psychology to economics and physics – to model behaviors that unfold over time. They gave rise to speech recognition technologies and inspired deep learning and branches of machine learning. Also widely influential is his 1996 co-authored book, “Rethinking Innateness,” which argues against a nativist view of development.

Jeff was recognized for his groundbreaking contributions to cognitive science by the prestigious David E. Rumelhart Prize in 2007 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

As dean, Jeff provided a strong vision for the Social Sciences at UC San Diego as a division that supports research, teaching and service in the public interest. His accomplishments in that capacity include spearheading the development of the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research to address the nation’s most pressing issues.

Born in Burbank, Calif., on January 22, 1948, Jeff and his brother, Cory, had a colorful childhood with parents they called “Tex and Irv,” who were head writers on the daytime soaps “Search for Tomorrow” and “General Hospital.” After crisscrossing the country 20 times, the family settled in Pacific Palisades, and Jeff graduated from Palisades High School in 1965. He spent the summer before college living with a local family in Uganda, and then went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in social relations from Harvard in 1969. As an undergraduate, he also moonlighted in phone hacking, which brought him to the attention of the FBI. After college he worked as a computer programmer and bilingual high school teacher, with a sideline in political activism. He married Margaret Ravel in 1972, with whom he had a daughter, Emily, in 1975 and a son, Jeremy, in 1981. He earned his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977 and later that year joined the faculty of UC San Diego. Jeff and Ray Eller registered as domestic partners in 2001 until they were married in 2016. At his passing, Jeff was 70. He is survived by his spouse, his children and four grandchildren.

He is deeply missed by his family, his colleagues and friends, and the UC San Diego community

Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications 

The Jeffrey L. Elman Prize for Scientific Achievement and Community Building
Established by the Cognitive Science Society in partnership with UC San Diego, the prize will be awarded to mid-career cognitive scientists whose work exemplifies the twin strands of scientific excellence and commitment to community-building that were so evident in Jeff Elman’s career. Learn more to apply or contribute

NeSy Workshop Dedicated to Jeff Elman’s Memory
The annual workshop of the Neural-Symbolic Learning and Reasoning Association has dedicated its 2019 meeting to the memory of Jeff Elman. NeSy 2019

Celebration of Jeff Elman’s Life and Legacy
If you were unable to attend the event held at UC San Diego on Oct. 4, 2018, here is video.

Pradeep K. Khosla, Chancellor
Elizabeth H. Simmons, Executive Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs
Carol Padden, Dean, Social Sciences
Jim Hollan, Distinguished Professor, Department of Cognitive Science
Rajesh Gupta, Director, Halıcıoğlu Data Science
Robert Glushko, Ph.D. ’79, Adjunct Professor, Cognitive Science Progra, UC Berkeley
Ken McRae, Associate Dean of Research, Social Science, Western University, Canada
Jamie Alexandre, Ph.D. ’14, Executive Director, Learning Equality
Marta Kutas, Chair, Department of Cognitive Science
Emily Elman and Jeremy Elman, children of Jeffrey L. Elman

Also Remembering Jeff Elman

San Diego Union-Tribune/Los Angeles Times obituary by Gary Robbins, with recollections from Social Sciences Dean Carol Padden and Marta Kutas, chair of the Department of Cognitive Science

Alumnus Jamie Alexandre writes in Medium about the difference his advisor made to him

A personal post from Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute co-director Rajesh Gupta

Reflections from a number of different friends and colleagues

If you'd like to add a link to this collection of memories, please email Inga Kiderra,