Nothing to declare

The computer science department’s faculty shortage points to larger problems plaguing the University

Declaring a major is both easy and agonizing. Formally, all it takes is trudging to Monroe Hall, completing a declaration-of-major form and soliciting a professor’s signature. Psychologically, it is more taxing. Deciding which major to pursue is a process of testing new identities, trying on new futures. For some students the burden of choice is too much. They delay declaring. Only in the fall of third year after a series of emails from deans and administrators do they rush off, papers in hand.

Some students in the College who had been deciding whether to pursue a computer science major may have waited too long to declare. In an email sent early this week, Computer Science Prof. Kevin Skadron, the chair of the department, said the program was no longer accepting most new B.A. majors in computer science, computer science minors or declarations of computer science as a second major.

Shrinking faculty coupled with swelling numbers of students interested in computer science left the program stretched beyond its limits, Skadron said. The B.A. track can accommodate only 25 majors per class year. Until the department gets more faculty and teaching assistants, it will not be able to accept new majors.

Retirements account for most of the gaps in faculty. Some faculty, however, have left the University for other reasons. Computer Science Prof. William Wulf, a giant in his field who in 1968 received the University’s first-ever computer science Ph.D., resigned during the University’s summer leadership crisis, voicing objections to the Board of Visitors’ style of governance. Faculty poaching also remains a problem across a range of academic departments. Institutions that can compensate professors more adequately find it too easy to lure academic stars away from Charlottesville.

It was only a matter of time before the University’s inability to cope with an impending wave of faculty retirements began to have direct negative effects on students. Faculty compensation lies at the problem’s core. If the University cannot pay faculty competitive salaries, it will find it difficult to retain intellectual luminaries or replace retiring professors with scholars of high quality. And eminent professors make an eminent university.

The staffing crisis in computer science is a clear sign that the University needs to take swift action to prevent its more-fragile programs from crumbling. It is particularly embarrassing that this predicament is occurring in a STEM department. The University, like many schools, has recently been trying to strengthen its STEM research and instruction. But for departments like computer science to attain excellence, the University must attract and retain superior scholars.

The University should seek out interim instructors to allow the computer science department to continue to admit students. But hiring adjuncts or temporary faculty is a short-term solution. We hope this week’s upheaval in computer science spurs more aggressive measures from the University and the Board to address faculty shortages and compensation. These problems must be solved quickly; otherwise, students sprinting to Monroe Hall will have nothing to declare.


Published February 14, 2013 in Opinion





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