Computer science pushes for tenure-track faculty

[Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a Haverford College student quoted. He is Daniel Feshbach, not Daniel Feschbach.]

The boom in student enrollment for computer science courses continues to present staffing and resource concerns across U.S. colleges and universities. At Vassar, the Computer Science Department has responded to this national challenge by closely working with college administration to bring additional tenure-track professors to the department.

Since 2012, the size of the department has approximately doubled. Course enrollment has increased from 378 to 676, course offerings from 18 to 33 and department majors from 14 to 34. Current Chair of Computer Science Luke Hunsberger reflected, “The rapid growth of our department has certainly created challenges.”

From Fall 2015 to Spring 2017, 67 percent of introductory courses, such as Computer Science 101, 102 and 145 operated at or above maximum enrollment. The department responded to high demand for course enrollment by welcoming Assistant Professor Jason Waterman in Fall 2015 and Assistant Professor Rui Meireles in Spring 2018. In total, there are seven tenured and tenure-track professors in the department. With Systems Administrator Jerome Bailie and Administrative Assistant Jennie Colabella, the department has also increased its support staff.

Co-Chair of the Computer Science Majors’ Committee Grace Bae ’18 suggested, “I think the biggest problem with our small faculty size is the fact that we have new visiting professors almost every year. With these instructors rotating in and out, it’s difficult to keep consistency within the core, foundational classes.” Bae, who has been a computer science teaching assistant since January 2016, observed that annual changes to teaching faculty lead to significant variation in course curriculum and structure.

Bae stated, “An ideal response would be a clear core curriculum for new professors to follow, specifically for the foundational classes. That way, students can move on to their next classes and careers, confident that these courses prepared them for what lies ahead, whether they were taught by professors that have been at Vassar for 10 weeks or 10 years.”

The department continues to press for tenure-track faculty in order to meet course demand and promote high-quality teaching. Anticipating future developments, Hunsberger commented, “Currently, we are working with the administration to determine whether we will be able to hire another tenure-track professor next spring. Although we have generally been very well served by our visiting professors, we look forward to the day when the large majority of our courses are taught by tenure-track faculty.”

At the national level, the Computing Research Association (CRA) found in its 2017 report on U.S. colleges and universities that the percentage increase in tenure-track faculty from 2006 to 2015 has been 10 percent of the percentage increase in computer science majors. Since 2013, the annual percentage increase in computer science majors has exceeded that of the dot-com bubble from 1997 to 2001. Furthermore, the CRA reported that the magnitude of the problem is understated because it does not account for students in other departments who enroll in computer science courses at the introductory level.

Hiring tenure-track faculty poses a challenge, however, when large corporations such as Google, Facebook and Uber actively recruit computer scientists from academia. Princeton University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington and other institutions have encountered difficulties with retaining computer science faculty when these companies offer double or triple the compensation for an academic position with similar qualifications (The New York Times, “Facebook Adds A.I. Labs,” 05.04.2018).

Highlighting the problem of a shortage of tenure-track faculty, computer science major Daniel Feshbach ’20 at Haverford College said, “Long-term, large-scale solutions will require a societal movement pressing all our institutions, most importantly all levels of government, to invest in education … Computer Science—as distinguished from Computer Programming—is a core field, a basic grounding in which is becoming invaluable to a well-rounded understanding of society.”

Bae agreed, “I think studying computer science within a liberal arts context allows for and encourages the development of a well-rounded skill set and approach to the world. It’s one thing to have a lot of coding algorithms under your belt, but it’s another thing to have the soft skills to communicate ideas or imagine different possibilities.”

In April, Feshbach and 115 other students at Haverford published an open letter to the Education Policy Committee. The letter argued that a lottery system for course enrollment shuts out prospective computer science students when the number of registrations since Fall 2015 has been double that of maximum course enrollment. Tackling the issue of hiring new computer science professors, Feshbach added, “While it is hard to compete with industry for any positions, we would be able to do so much more effectively if we focused more on opening tenure-track faculty positions over less stable, less prestigious, lower-paid visiting positions.”

Students at Harvey Mudd College expressed similar concerns last month, while those at Pomona College and Colorado College echoed these worries in November 2017. The petition at Pomona College to bring in multiple tenure-track computer science faculty exceeded 320 students.

Increases to student enrollment can strain resources besides faculty teaching. At Vassar, the Integrated Sciences Project moved the computer science department to Sanders Physics in Fall 2014. Bae said, “Another thing I have noticed the department struggles with is adequate classrooms for labs. There’s only one suitable computer lab, and it doubles as a lecture space, which leads to a shortage of good times to hold class. They even began holding 8–10 p.m. labs in the last year.” In Fall 2018, for example, the lab for computer science 101-05 and 203 will take place in the late evening.

Associate Professor and Returning Chair of Computer Science Marc Smith explained, “We have learned to be flexible when it comes to office, research, and teaching and lab spaces, and are grateful for the support of the Dean of Faculty and the Dean of Strategic Planning and Resources offices for their help and creativity in helping us solve these problems.”

For Hunsberger, an inter-departmental approach to teaching may alleviate some of the pressures in course enrollment and lab space facing the department. Hunsberger noted, “We will investigate the potential for collaboration, for example, with Physics, Cognitive Science, Mathematics, Economics and any number of other departments.” The department remains highly active in promoting STEM at Vassar: Smith serves as Director of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute that pairs Vassar students with faculty to pursue a nine-and-a-half week research project, and Professor Jennifer Walter has represented Vassar at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Smith added, “I try to bring my research into the classes I teach, and the students I teach into my research. One thing I learned since I’ve been at Vassar is the value and importance of collaboration. Initially, this included collaboration in my teaching, such as the Bioinformatics course I team-teach with Jodi Schwarz in Biology. But also, my research grants have provided support for students to work with me, and that is collaboration, too.”

Through Grace Hopper and other career networking events, the department has made an effort to support women and other minorities in computer science. Speaking to positive social change, Bae concluded, “Even in my short time representing computer science during Prospective Students Weekend, there was a lot of interest in at least pursuing a minor. A lot of people know that computer science is growing, but it’s been really exciting to see it with my own eyes, and to see the diversity of students within Vassar’s computer science department.”

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