Last week, Harvard University announced a donation from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, estimated at $60 million, that will increase its computer science faculty by 50 percent. Meanwhile, the number of faculty in Yale’s Computer Science department stands stagnant at 20 — the same as in 1989.
In response to the donation, Yale computer science professors interviewed expressed hope for similar growth in Yale’s faculty. But they also expressed concern about the Yale University Office of Development’s regulations surrounding donations, and how they affect professors’ abilities to bring in donations. More broadly, they questioned to what extent the Yale administration considers the input of computer science faculty.
DETACHED FROM THE DEVELOPMENT OFFICE
In 1981, computer science professor Michael Fischer had to make the choice between Harvard and Yale. He chose Yale — where he has been teaching for the past 33 years — partly because Harvard did not have a full-fledged computer science department. But after last week’s donation, Fischer said it looks like he made the wrong decision. Harvard has taken the initiative in computer science education while Yale has not, he explained.
And faculty within the Computer Science department have little power over the situation, Computer Science Director of Undergraduate Studies James Aspnes said. No matter how motivated faculty members within the department may be, decisions about approaching big donors to provide the department with funds are made at a higher level and are tightly controlled by the Yale Development Office, he said.
Aspnes said that, in order to not overwhelm donors with requests from every program at Yale and to steer donor funds to the University’s top priorities, he thinks the Office of Development has to maintain tight control over faculty members.
Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin said that although faculty are not encouraged to go to donors, if they have specific connections, they are urged to bring those to the Office of Development. Computer Science department chair Joan Feigenbaum noted that she plans to meet with alumni concerned about computer science funding in the next few weeks.
Fischer said he has approached people within the Development Office several times, but has been repeatedly rebuffed.
But adding positions to departments is not at the top of the office’s current priorities, Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill said. Yale is more focused on raising money for existing positions than it is creating new ones, she explained.
“Our job within development is to fund whatever the institution has set as priorities,” O’Neill said.
Adding that Yale’s academic mission is generally set by the president, provost and certain deans, O’Neill said Development acts as more of a “check and balance” in determining whether an academic priority “would excite donors or not.”
Paul Karoff, assistant dean for communications for the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said in an email that the donation from Ballmer was consistent with Harvard’s goal to grow the computer sciences. He added that the donation would allow Harvard to achieve “critical mass,” putting the university in a position to recruit the best and most innovative teachers and researchers.
“I don’t believe Yale would have any trouble in getting these donations, but I don’t think they are asking for it,” Fischer said, adding that the University has had little trouble receiving funds for infrastructural projects such as West Campus and the two new residential colleges.
Still, Provost Benjamin Polak said that Yale is looking to increase funding for STEM but that finding donors is not always easy.
“We are absolutely trying to make that happen, and talk to everybody about our needs since there are more and more students these days that want exposure to STEM or study in STEM,” Polak said.
LITTLE ADMINISTRATIVE REPRESENTATION
Currently, no computer science professors hold appointments in the Provost’s Office. Only one is on the President’s Divisional Advisory Committee on Physical Sciences and Engineering, which includes computer science.
Fischer said he cannot remember a time when a computer science professor held an administrative position. In contrast, Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael Smith, whose role is critical in faculty hiring decisions, is a professor of engineering and applied sciences in the computer science department.
Fischer said he believes it was key for Harvard to have a computer science representative within the administration who was in a position to be vocal about the department’s needs.
University President Peter Salovey said there is no formula used to determine how many faculty members from each department are represented in the divisional committees. However, Salovey said that the existing structure — which categorizes computer science along with physical sciences and engineering — could be improved.
Salovey said that at least for the moment, computer science is a better fit in its current division than in other divisions.
But Girvin said all administrators who are also professors and researchers in specific departments have to be conscientious of conflicts of interest when they make funding and faculty decisions.
“If I have a conflict of interest in some situation, I have to hand the decision over to my colleagues, the associate provost or the provost,” Girvin said. “We have to be very careful about those things.”
Although Girvin noted the importance and centrality of computer science in the 21st century, Feigenbaum is unsure whether the administration at large understands the necessity of a thriving computer science department.
If the administration wants to secure donations from the tech magnates of the future, they should be concerned with getting those potential magnates to matriculate, Feigenbaum said. That requires increasing the size of the computer science department, she added.
Feigenbaum said she sees the Harvard donation as a challenge.
“Now it’s our turn,” she said.