As the University continues to refine academic priorities for the next capital campaign, one area that seems likely to require a boost in support is Yale’s Computer Science Department.
Once on par with its peers, Yale’s Computer Science Department has lagged behind in recent years. Since the early 1980s, the department has added only a handful of additional professorships as departments at peer institutions have tripled and quadrupled in size. Still, the Computer Science Department is fast outgrowing its current home at Arthur K. Watson Hall: Several affiliated faculty members are separated in a building on Hillhouse Avenue, and the department is often unable to give new hires their own lab space.
By the early summer, the University-wide Science Strategy Committee is expected to offer a series of recommendations to University President Peter Salovey to develop Yale’s science offerings, according to Vice President for West Campus Planning and Program Development Scott Strobel. That report will include recommendations for Yale’s computer science and engineering programs.
“Building computer science remains an important goal, and we are making progress, especially in recruiting new faculty [members],” Salovey said.
But the department — which is the fifth-largest major in Yale College — still lacks the funds and facilities to compete with its peers, according to computer science professor Michael Fischer.
When Fischer joined Yale’s faculty in 1981, he said, the University had easily one of the top-10 best computer science programs in the country and about 14 faculty members, roughly the same number as at the University of Washington, Fischer’s former institution. In the past 30 years, Yale’s computer science faculty has increased to around 20 people. In that same timeframe, however, the University of Washington’s computer science department has grown to about 60 faculty members. Indeed, Fischer added, the top computer science schools have grown by factors of three or four while Yale has grown by only about 50 percent.
Unlike Stanford University or Harvard University, he explained, Yale has not hired a computer scientist to its higher administrative ranks, which has caused the University to act with “deep ignorance of the field.” The computer science faculty needs more of a voice on administrative and budgetary matters, he said, adding that the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences often limits the number of computer science students depending on what the department can afford.
The University-wide Science Strategy Committee only has one member with an appointment in computer science. But Strobel noted that more than 100 faculty members, including several in the Computer Science Department, were invited to speak before the committee and that the University has asked committee members to think broadly, rather than representing a particular department or school.
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said that over the past six years, Yale has hired six ladder faculty members who hold primary appointments in the Computer Science Department, though one has since left for Harvard.
Additionally, during that same period, Yale has hired eight faculty members with secondary appointments in computer science. Of those 14 faculty members, four joined Yale as tenured professors. This spring, Gendler added, Yale will make appointment offers to more than a dozen ladder faculty candidates in computer science, but it is typical for universities to make three or four such offers to attract a single candidate.
And the Faculty Resource Committee, which oversees ladder faculty search requests in the faculty, has consistently included one professor who holds a position in the Department of Computer Science since its inception, according to Gendler. Recommendations for appointments in computer science come before the Faculty Resource Committee after being evaluated by the Physical Science and Engineering Tenure Appointments Committee, which regularly includes one computer science faculty member.
Fischer said that the large number of computer science faculty members offers represents a “tremendous positive” but that Yale still has “a long road to recover.” The department cannot offer every new hire laboratory space, given constraints in Arthur K. Watson Hall, which was renovated roughly 30 years ago, he said. And the department has outgrown its current home, he added, with many communal spaces converted to laboratory space and some faculty offices housed separately form the department on Hillhouse Avenue.
“Central campus doesn’t seem to have any space that the administration feels they can commit to computer science so they’ll always say, ‘Well, if you really need laboratory space go to West Campus,’” Fischer said. “How can Yale compete over there?”
Gendler noted that space on Central Campus is at a premium given the existence of large-scale, ongoing construction projects like the Schwarzman Center and the Yale Science Building. Her office is working to identify short-term, mid-range and long-term solutions for the Computer Science and Statistics and Data Science departments, which are both outgrowing their current spaces as well.
Zhong Shao, chair of the Computer Science Department, noted that Yale has moved to grow computer science over the past few years and is actively recruiting new faculty members, but that the department will need more space to accommodate the significant growth. In an email to the News, he emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary computer science research, aggressively hiring new faculty members and training students in new research disciplines.
“This is not just about investing 40 [full-time employees] since Yale will never catch up with our peer institutions through [full-time employees],” Shao said. “Yale should proactively lead and shape the future CS research.”
Yale’s Computer Science Department was founded in 1969.
Hailey Fuchs | firstname.lastname@example.org