Expressing dismay with the state of their department, 19 Computer Science graduate students released an open letter today urging the administration to dramatically increase the size of the department’s faculty.
In the works since September, the letter, which is published as a column in today’s News, notes that the department employs the same number of faculty as it did in 1989 — 20. The administration’s lack of attention to the department, the letter states, precludes it from competing with Computer Science Departments at peer institutions.
Unless the administration takes decisive action soon, the reputation of Yale’s Computer Science Department will be “unequivocally” damaged, said co-signatories Debayan Gupta GRD ’17 and Aaron Segal GRD ’17, the letter’s co-authors.
“Faculty is the number one issue,” Segal said. “That is the silver bullet that would fix everything wrong with the computer science department right now. We would have more Ph.D. student slots, and we could support more courses with more faculty.”
Without sufficient faculty, the department is struggling to provide a breadth of courses, Gupta said. Because all professors are required to teach undergraduate courses, many professors are spread too thin to teach the higher level courses they would like to. This especially creates a problem for master’s students, who are only at Yale for one year. They pay large tuition fees and expect to take specific courses, but upon arriving on campus, learn that some of those courses are only offered once every three years, Gupta said.
Moreover, the Computer Science Department normally has only one or two professors for each area of expertise. According to Gupta, it can be “devastating” for graduate students if their relationships with their advisers do not work out because, in contrast to other universities with larger departments, it effectively means the end of their Ph.D. candidacy.
Segal and Gupta said one of the main impetuses for writing the letter came after Computer Science Professor Bryan Ford announced that he will leave Yale at the end of June to join faculty members at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The announcement of his departure was a “huge shock” for the department because he had only received tenure a few months prior, Segal said. Ph.D. candidates advised by Ford will now have to finish their dissertations by the end of the calendar year, he added.
Without any new computer science faculty members, Yale will only have 19 professors in the Computer Science Department. In contrast, Brown — which has a smaller student body than Yale — has 33 professors. Carnegie Mellon, which has the best computer science department in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report, has more 100 faculty members.
Ford said the lack of faculty growth was not the primary factor that motivated him to leave, but that a donation comparable to a recent donation to the Harvard Computer Science department — which will now be able to increase its faculty size by 50 percent — would have given him more incentive to stay.
Although the announcement about CS50 being offered at Yale in the fall has made it appear as if the administration is willing to invest in the computer science department, the course is suddenly becoming a cost for the department that the administration is not compensating for, Segal said.
“The difficulties we are facing are about not enough options at advanced levels and not enough professors to teach everything,” Segal said. “So, taking a very popular and well liked robotics professor and make him teach CS50 instead means he can’t also teach robotics now,” he added, referring to Brian Scassellati, who will teach CS50 at Yale.
Computer Science Professor Michael Fischer, who arrived at Yale in 1981, said all attempts made so far by the Computer Science Department to convey their problems to the administration have “fallen on deaf ears.”
Computer Science Department chair Joan Feigenbaum, who had not yet seen the open letter until it was shown to her by the News, said she was not surprised to learn that the computer science graduate students hold many of the same views as the department’s faculty. Feigenbaum said in an email that she and many of her colleagues believe, like the graduate students, that their department “must grow substantially in order for Yale to have the excellence and breadth in computer science that a leading university needs in the 21st century.
Echoing the sentiments of Gupta and Segal, she added that Yale’s Computer Science Department should be at least the same size as those at peer institutions.
“Fortunately, I think that they are wrong in saying that the Yale administration does not care,” Feigenbaum said in a Monday email to the News. “I have had several constructive discussions with high-level administrators recently, and I think that they understand the need for a significantly broader and deeper commitment to Computer Science. I am hopeful that we will see change soon.”
Roughly two-thirds of the graduate students in the department signed the letter, and Gupta said that every graduate student he spoke with agreed with the attitudes in the letter.
Computer science graduate students disagreed about whether the letter should be privately addressed to the administration or written as an open letter in the News, Gupta said.
“Some grad students believe they should not be going through the YDN because they feel like it is airing dirty laundry,” Gupta said. Segal added that the students who lobbied for a private letter did not want to give a false negative impression of the department, and deter potential applicants — both potential professors and graduate students — from coming.
Computer Science is now the seventh-most popular undergraduate major at Yale.
Correction: Feb. 17
A previous version of this article misspelled Debayan Gupta’s name on the first reference.