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#Bona scholarship honors memory of longtime computer science professor Dr. Bob Harlan

Dec 20, 2017 |

The late Dr. Robert HarlanBefore class or after, on a Saturday morning or a weekday night — it didn’t matter to Bob Harlan. If a student needed help, the longtime computer science professor at St. Bonaventure University stopped what he was doing and offered guidance.

Now, a scholarship bearing his name will permanently aid students.

“I’m excited to be able to do this,” said Bernadette Harlan, his wife of 27 years. “For Bob, it was all about the students. If someone wanted to learn, Bob was willing to teach.”

Mike Nowak, a member of the Class of 1992, credits his 20-year career with Oracle to Bob’s influence.

Nowak remembers arriving at St. Bonaventure as a computer science major with too much experience in handheld video games and not a lot of motivation to work hard.

All that changed when he stepped into Bob Harlan’s classroom.

“He possessed the one differentiating quality that all great educators have — passion,” said Nowak. “I remember watching him furiously detail algorithms on the board, and I found the logical connections in his mind making their way to mine. As he got more and more excited about solving a problem, so did I. It was infectious and I realized how lucky I was to have found a subject I loved and a professor who could teach it so exceptionally.”

Though Bob’s death in the summer of 2015 was unexpected, his intention to fund a scholarship had been made known long before.

As a young man who loved math, he received a full academic scholarship to Wabash College in Indiana, earning an undergraduate degree in economics.

From there he headed to New York City for graduate studies, acquiring a doctorate in philosophy at The New School for Social Research and funding his higher education by working as a cabdriver.

He never forgot how important scholarship money was for him years ago, or how hard it was to work and attend school at the same time. Throughout a 34-year teaching career at Bona’s, he helped his students in big ways and small, even loaning money for textbooks when needed.

And he learned right along with them. Though he joined the faculty in 1979 as an associate professor in the philosophy department, his interest in robotics led him to pursue a master’s degree in computer science during his first sabbatical. When he returned, he established the Department of Computer Science and soon after became its chairman, a post he held for 15 years.  

Bob began experimenting with small Lego robotics, eventually receiving a prestigious National Science Foundation grant with colleague Dr. Anne Foerst to research more sophisticated robots, and later a grant from the George I. Alden Trust in Worcester, Mass., to fund the PeopleBot, a human-size robot that could react to its surroundings.

His studies in philosophy, phenomenology and artificial intelligence all came together with his work in robotics.

“He was equating how we learn in language,” said Bernadette. “One of his examples was the word ‘bridge.’ As a human being, we can conjure up many things when we hear the word. Yet a computer would be limited by the number of definitions by whoever programmed it.”

As head of St. Bonaventure’s Undergraduate Robotics Laboratory, Bob utilized the PeopleBot robot for undergraduate research activities and to combine two lines of his research: his work in artificial intelligence involving the design of planning systems that can understand commands in English and carry them out in a simulated world; and his work in robotics involving the development of software that would enable a robot to function in the real world.

Much of the coding for programs controlling the robot’s behavior, planning and reasoning were developed by computer science undergraduates. 

“Bob was a very strong advocate for undergraduate research experiences,” said Steve Andrianoff, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Computer Science and Bob’s colleague for more than three decades.

“He was very much focused on students and their academic success,” he said, adding that Bob worked individually with students or in groups of two or three, with numerous papers and presentations growing out of the research.

“Bob was a good colleague, a good leader and a true champion for the Computer Science Department,” he said. “In fact, his legacy is the department and the program we have here.”

Beginning in the 2018-2019 academic year, the Dr. Robert M. and Bernadette Harlan Endowed Scholarship will be awarded annually to a computer science or cybersecurity major from the Olean, Allegany or Franklinville, N.Y. areas. The recipients will be selected by the Computer Science Department and the Cybersecurity Program. Awards will be made on academic merit and financial need.

For more information about the scholarship, or to make a donation, interested persons should contact Kathleen Ryan, assistant director of development for stewardship, at (716) 375-2308 or


About the University: The nation’s first Franciscan university, we believe in the goodness of every person and in the ability of every person to do extraordinary things.  St. Bonaventure University cultivates graduates who are confident and creative communicators, collaborative leaders and team members, and innovative problem solvers who are respectful of themselves, others, and the diverse world around them. Named the #5 best college value in the North by U.S. News and World Report, we are establishing pathways to internships, graduate schools and careers in the context of our renowned liberal arts tradition.

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