Nearly nine months after Yale’s Computer Science Department became a part of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science and received $20 million in anonymous donations, faculty and students in the department — who said their daily lives have been impacted little by the changes — expressed the desire for a larger, ongoing departmental expansion.
The $20 million donation, given by two anonymous donors to SEAS, encouraged the University to incorporate the Computer Science Department into SEAS so the money could be used for computer science initiatives, including a planned increase in department’s size by 30 percent. According to department chair Joan Feigenbaum, the money was used to create three new computer science faculty positions at the cost of $5 million each. The remaining $5 million will be used to contribute to start-up packages for the six new faculty members, including the three newly created positions, which Yale committed to filling in the upcoming years. Despite the growth in faculty, Feigenbaum and other members of the Yale computer science program, including professors, graduate students and undergraduate students, interviewed recognized larger, underlying issues within the department and called for a more aggressive expansion moving forward.
“Is Yale on its way to having the kind of big and great Computer Science Department that it needs in order to maintain its status as one of the world’s pre-eminent universities?” Feigenbaum said. “Currently, the most optimistic answer that anyone could honestly give to that question is ‘maybe.’”
While the planned growth from 20 to 26 computer science faculty members is a “great first step,” it is not enough to allow Yale to compete with peer institutions like Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, Feigenbaum said.
Last week, Princeton announced the creation of 10 new computer science faculty positions, growing its department to 45 faculty members. Harvard has taken similar steps: Last year, the university pledged to increase the size of its computer science faculty from 24 to 36 — a 50 percent increase made possible by a donation from alum and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. In 2014, Princeton was rated the eighth-best computer science department in the country by the U.S. News and World Report. Meanwhile, Harvard ranked 18th in the country, and Yale comes in at 20th along with five other peer institutions.
“Clearly we are not only a smaller department, but we are also growing at a smaller pace than our peer institutions,” said computer science professor Mahesh Balakrishnan, one of two professors hired last spring. “So I think we need to step up our game. I am excited to be a part of this, but I really hope we keep this momentum going.”
Balakrishnan, who came to Yale after six years of research in tech companies such as Microsoft, where he last worked, said he has enjoyed transitioning to Yale, an academic setting with top-tier faculty.
The second addition to the computer science faculty, professor Mariana Raykova, is currently abroad in Europe and will start at Yale in January. Raykova, who specializes in cryptography, said in a statement to the News that she is excited to bring her area of work to interested students.
As for the other four faculty positions still to be filled, the department received several applications this year and expects to interview “great” candidates next semester, Feigenbaum said. In 2014, Yale made an offer to one candidate who, according to Feigenbaum is still in the process of choosing among offers from several great universities.
After his first five months at Yale, Balakrishnan recognized that certain factors within the department might be keeping it from attracting more faculty and being one of the top computer science programs in the nation.
Faculty look at three main elements when considering offers from multiple institutions, Balakrishnan said: the quality of current faculty, availability of resources and breadth of the department. Currently, Yale offers only the first of those three, he said. Balakrishnan said prospective hires might view the lack of faculty in each individual department as a deficit in potential collaborators. For example, in fall 2014, computer science professor Richard Yang, who teaches two highly regarded networking courses at Yale, CPSC 433/533 and CPSC 434/534, was on leave. Since he was the only faculty member who specialized in networking, no networking courses were taught that semester.
“The building we are in right now, for example, we are bursting at the seams,” Balakrishnan said. “That is the kind of thing that may give prospective hires some pause.”
Yale’s Computer Science Department is currently housed in Arthur K. Watson Hall, which was last renovated in 1986. Feigenbaum said the building has little available office space for new hires, “absolutely no available lab space” and “completely inadequate classrooms.”
Most of the Watson classrooms, according to computer science major William Bailey ’16, hold an average of 50 students. But many of his electives have had upwards of 150 students enrolled, leading the classrooms to be housed in other buildings such as the Yale School of Architecture.
Computer science professor Daniel Abadi expressed similar views, adding that a large share of the top 20 computer science programs in the nation have seen the construction of new facilities in the last decade.
“Every university in the country with a top 20 [computer science] program has state-of-the-art computer science spaces for collaboration with open floor plans, labs and machine rooms,” Balakrishnan said. “The only thing stopping that from happening here is the lack of space.”
In March, University President Peter Salovey said, during the announcement of the incorporation of the Computer Science Department into SEAS, that Yale would “immediately” begin work on an underground teaching concourse that physically links the department to the SEAS buildings. In late September, SEAS Deputy Dean Vincent Wilczynski told the News that “the project [was] being planned by facilities with no real details at [that] point,” but added that additional information would be available next semester.
In addition to more space, many in computer science called for an expansion of the department’s graduate program as well. Although undergraduate enrollment in computer science has surged in recent years — it is now the sixth-most popular major at Yale, according to Feigenbaum — graduate enrollment has not seen a similar trend. This imbalance has led to a “drastic” shortage of teaching fellows within the department, Feigenbaum said.
Computer science majors said they often face difficult classroom experiences due to the department’s small number of teaching fellows. One undergraduate, who wished to remain anonymous since he will still be involved with the program for another year, said that for some of the department’s larger core classes, there would often be 50 students waiting to consult with four teaching fellows at office hours — a ratio even larger for all elective classes, he said.
“Even if you were there for a few hours, you would realistically only get help for a few minutes, and if you had a follow-up question it was likely nobody would ever get back to you,” the student said.
Other students expressed similar frustrations with the limited support system. Bailey said in one of his courses, over 150 students compete for the attention of two teaching fellows.
Former computer science teaching fellow Harry Liu GRD ’14 pointed out that due to the small number of Ph.D. students in the department, many teaching fellows are master’s students, unlike at other top computer science departments where there is a wealth of teaching fellows.
Yale computer science professors often use automated programs to grade students’ code, former computer science teaching fellow Dan Leyzberg GRD ’14 said. Leyzberg now teaches at Princeton, where he said there is a larger focus on giving students personalized feedback to help students understand why their code is failing.
“What you need is not to just be told what part of your code is failing,” Leyzberg said. “You need to know why, why is this failing. You need a human giving you feedback.”
To make up for the lack of graduate teaching fellows, the department has also introduced opportunities for undergraduates to help out as peer tutors and undergraduate graders, Abadi said. However, he added that this approach does not provide tutors or graders with a full view of the student, since they only participate in a particular part of the teaching experience.
Computer science professor James Aspnes said the shortage of teaching fellows stems from the fact that Yale does not give full funding or tuition relief to Ph.D. students, except for those on University fellowships.
“There is little incentive for Ph.D. students to [teach] past their required two semesters and no mechanism to grow the population of potential [teaching fellows] in response to increased course enrollments,” Aspnes said.
Students in the computer science track all expressed a desire for more application-based classes.
The computer science program at Yale is characterized by its focus on understanding the basics and fundamentals of computer science rather than on applicable skills, computer science major Arthur Erlendsson ’17 said.
“Learning about things you regularly encounter or might actually use tends to be more engaging than trying to wrap your head around obscure mathematical concepts that you know you will never use again,” the student who asked to remain anonymous said.
He added that many of his classes were not engaging enough because they were too focused on theories rather than on practical skills. Despite many elective courses having a final project that requires students to develop some form of application, there are no classes designed to teach students that process, he said.
“Students here want to be cutting-edge and know what’s happening at places like Facebook and Google,” Balakrishnan said. “So what I have been doing this semester is just telling them how things are and how things work at these places. There is a lot of pent-up demand in the student population to be at the cutting edge in technology.”
Bailey said despite this classical and highly theoretical approach — which in his opinion makes Yale’s department unique — his courses prepared him well for getting internships and a full-time job for next year.
Still, other students expressed frustration at the department’s approach.
Moving forward, Feigenbaum said efforts are currently underway to secure funding for additional growth and empowerment of the department. But she did not have specific information on the magnitude of the envisioned growth, or an expected timeline.
She added that she is hopeful that “generous, super-rich” Yale alumni will contribute to the growth of the program, as was the case at Harvard.
“Presumably, [the alumni] understand the world well enough to know that Yale’s status as an elite university won’t last if it has a pinched Computer Science Department,” Feigenbaum said. “I hope that one or more of those alumni will step up soon.”
Correction, Dec. 9: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated when Harvard received the donation from alumni Steve Ballmer. The computer science major is also the sixth most popular major at Yale, not the seventh.