The capacity crisis in academic computer science – guest blog post by Eric Roberts

March 14, 2016 at 8:02 am 9 comments

I’ve shared Eric’s insights into computing enrollments in the past (for example here and here). With his permission, I’m sharing his note after the recent SIGCSE 206 conference

Welcome back from Memphis and SIGCSE 2016! At this year’s conference, we heard many stories about skyrocketing student interest in computer science and the difficulty many colleges and universities are having in meeting that demand. For several years now, evidence has been building that academic computer science is heading toward a capacity crisis in which the pressures of expanding enrollment overwhelm the ability of institutions to hire the necessary faculty. Those signs are now clearer than ever.

The challenges involved in developing the necessary capacity are not easy. Fortunately, they are also not entirely new. Academic computer science has faced similar capacity crises in the past, most notably in the mid 1980s and the late 1990s. Each of those periods saw an increase in student interest in computer science at a pace so rapid that universities were unable to keep up.

For better or worse, I have had a ringside seat during each of these enrollment surges. In the mid 1980s, I was chairing the newly formed department of Computer Science at Wellesley College. During the dot-com expansion in the late 1990s, in addition to directing the undergraduate program at Stanford, I was a member of the ACM Education Board and a contributor to the National Academies study panel convened to address the situation.

In the current crisis, I have been asked to offer my historical perspective in many different venues. I was one of the authors — along with Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington and Jim Kurose at the National Science Foundation — of a talk on this issue at the 2014 Snowbird Conference and the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s 10th Anniversary Summit earlier that year. Along with Tracy Camp, who is the cochair of the Computing Research Association’s committee to study the impact of rapidly increasing enrollments and who presented a panel discussion at this year’s SIGCSE, I have been appointed to the National Academies’ Committee on the Growth of Computer Science Undergraduate Enrollments, which holds its first face-to-face meeting in two weeks.

After listening to the audience comments at the SIGCSE panel on the CRA effort, it is clear that many people struggling to keep up with the increased enrollments are still having trouble convincing their administrations that the problems we face are real and more than a transient maximum in a cyclical pattern. In many ways, the difficulty administrators have in appreciating the severity of the problem is understandable because our situation is so far outside what is unfamiliar to most academics. It is hard for most people in universities to imagine a field in which the number of open positions exceeds the number of applicants by a factor of five or more. Similarly, it is almost impossible to imagine that a faculty shortage could become so extreme that universities and colleges would be forced to cut enrollments in half, despite high demand from both students and prospective employers. Both of those situations, however, are part of the history of academic computer science. The crisis our field faces today is at least as serious as it has been at any time in the past.

It occurred to me that it might help many of you make the case for more resources if I shared a white paper on the history of the crisis that I wrote earlier in the year, originally to make the case at Stanford but now also to support the deliberations of the National Academies’ committee. I have put the white paper on my web site, both as a single PDF report and as a web document with internal links to facilitate browsing. The two versions of the document are:

I welcome any comments that you have along with ideas about solutions that I can share with the full National Academies’ committee.

Sincerely,

Eric Roberts

Charles Simonyi Professor of Computer Science, emeritus

Stanford University

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joey  |  March 14, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Both links you listed are broken, resulting in “Page Not Found” errors.

    Reply
    • 2. Justin Li  |  March 14, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      See my comment below for the fixed URLs.

      Reply
  • 3. Michael Hewner  |  March 14, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Eric – those links didn’t work for me!

    Reply
    • 4. Justin Li  |  March 14, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      See my comment below for the fixed URLs.

      Reply
  • 5. Raul Miller  |  March 14, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    My thoughts are:

    (1) Personally: should I rearrange my schedule (and move to a different location, so that I can live with that schedule) so that I am spending some time teaching?

    (2) Philosophically: computational literacy is a new kind of literacy – related to math and language, but subtly different in a variety of ways – I do not feel it is all that useful by itself, I do feel it can be extremely useful in conjunction with other skills and motivations. So the demand for it should be near universal but people should also not overly glorify the study.

    (3) Practically: if the economics do not work out, change the economics of the situation. If you do not have enough paying positions in your university, try to attract volunteers from industry – give them recognition and a fallback position in an uncertain economy, for example. Yes, it will be something of a hassle, but economics itself is kind of wonky right now. Not everyone will like this – you can find plenty of people who will hate anything (though different people for different things) and everyone has some problems, no matter what you choose – but if you can endure through the negatives you will also find a good number of people who are good fits and once you’ve got some momentum it will to some degree build on itself.

    Please let me know if you think I am way off base in any respect, here?

    Reply
  • 7. Justin Li  |  March 14, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    The fixed URLs are:

    * PDF document: http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity.pdf
    * HTML document: http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/CSCapacity/

    Reply
    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  March 14, 2016 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks — I’ve fixed the document now.

      Reply
  • […] Eric Roberts, A History of Capacity Challenges in Computer Science, which I was pointed to by a guest post on Mark Guzdial’s blog.  The report discusses the two previous rapid increases in CS enrollment and BS degree production […]

    Reply

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