Yale Daily News

As Yale strives to strengthen its scientific offerings, computer science — the most popular undergraduate major under the engineering and applied science umbrella — is a key priority. But with the department on track to continue expanding both in student and faculty size, some faculty expressed serious concerns about the existing physical infrastructure. 

Arthur K. Watson Hall is located opposite Grove Street Cemetery and is home to the bulk of departmental operations. Affectionately known as “the Zoo,” per the department website, the third floor of AKW features 38 computers that run both the Linux and Windows operating systems at all times and that are available to students both on-site and through remote login. Still, given the expanding size of the department, faculty hold generally negative views of the AKW facility, with some expressing a need for new computer science facilities in the near future.

“In the upcoming few years, as we’re likely to see more faculty and graduate students join, AKW is soon likely to run out of space — I believe this is the most pressing concern for facilities in AKW,” computer science professor Anurag Khandelwal wrote in an email to the News. “This is also true for space required to house computing infrastructure — we’re quickly running out of space for hosting servers. While solutions like shared offices for graduate students and spreading out CS faculty across multiple buildings might help, these are short-term solutions. We will likely need a newer building to house all of our growing CS faculty, postdoctoral and graduate students, to preserve the same collaborative environment we’ve enjoyed so far. Fortunately, there has already been promising signs of progress on this front from the administration, and I’m hopeful we will be able to achieve this goal soon.”

According to its website, Yale’s computer science department launched in the 1970s. In 1987, the University allotted a specific building for the discipline: AKW. Originally built in the 1890s, the building’s interior experienced a full overhaul to accommodate the “high-tech requirements” of what was, at the time, “one of the nation’s leading computer science research departments.”

Now, however, some faculty members say there is room for improvement in the computer science department’s physical infrastructure. 

“The [Arthur K. Watson] building at Yale is one of the most embarrassing buildings in the whole country,” computer science professor Dragomir Radev wrote in an email to the News. “I hope that some rich alumni can give enough money to Yale to move the CS department to new facilities and labs for CS faculty and students.”

Radev noted that the building is outdated and not well-suited to collaboration among faculty and students. For research, in particular, he wrote that there is “no adequate classroom space or any lab space,” as well as a lack of space for social gatherings. 

He also compared Yale’s computer science facilities with those of other elite universities, saying that “all top 20 or so” of the country’s computer science departments have moved to state-of-the-art buildings “over the past few years.” Radev specifically pointed to Harvard, which completed its Science and Engineering Complex in the fall of 2020, and the University of Washington’s 2019 construction of its computer science building. He also mentioned similar investments at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas.

Department chair Zhong Shao also discussed the need for new and expanded facilities to accommodate both the increasing department size and to maintain pace with the rapidly changing computer science landscape more broadly.

“The computer science department desperately needs a new building. The facilities in AKW are too old and no longer suitable for 21st century CS research and teaching,” Shao wrote to the News. “During the last four years, we have doubled the number of Ph.D. students and added more than 13 tenure track faculty members and 6 instructional faculty members. We now have more than 500 declared CS, CS+X, and CPAR majors. We have completely used up all the office and lab space in AKW.”

This coming fall, Shao added, there will be more than 110 computer science doctoral candidates, all of whom will need office space and seminar rooms to hold research discussions. As such, Shao noted that the department “definitely need[s] more physical space.” 

Per Khandelwal, AKW was “a great home” for the department until recent years. Historically, he said, the department included about 20 faculty members, but as undergraduate interest and enrollment have grown over the last few years, the number of faculty has risen to accommodate such growth, leading to increased demand for finite space.

“The space is already running short for faculty and student needs,” Khandelwal said. “Three to four graduate students sharing a single office and an atrium space overflowing with undergraduate students during course office hours is not an uncommon sight. Similar issues are likely to happen when undergraduate students want to work as research interns over the summer — we are unlikely to have enough lab space to seat them as well as graduate students.”

Khandelwal noted that 10 to 15 new faculty members, himself included, joined the department in the last three years, which has also prompted “a marked increase” in the graduate and postdoctoral groups. 

In February, the University announced a major wave of science and engineering investments, which includes the addition of 30 new faculty positions within the School of Engineering & Applied Science and a “comprehensive renovation plan to be implemented over the next decade” — which will include STEM buildings. 

Within SEAS, the investment announcement notes that the faculty expansion is geared in large part toward expanding the size of the computer science faculty. 

In his email to the News, Radev said this year the department is focusing on artificial intelligence and machine learning, with active recruitment efforts centered around computer vision, natural language processing, robotics and other areas of artificial intelligence. 

Shao concurred, adding that the department is seeking faculty who are experienced in artificial intelligence and machine learning, trustworthy computing, big data and heterogeneous systems — with a particular interest in experts who work in interdisciplinary areas and can thus “leverage Yale’s existing strengths in social science, law, medicine” and other sectors of interest on campus.

“I am looking forward to getting 4-5 new faculty within the next year or so, and several more over the following 1-2 years,” Radev wrote.

Jeffrey Brock ’92, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and University spokesperson Karen Peart did not immediately respond to an interview request about the computer science department.

For some faculty members, observations about AKW’s deficiencies are not new, and have a direct impact on the search for new hires. In November 2020, computer science professors Brian Scassellati and Lin Zhong told the News that the inadequate facilities are in and of themselves a barrier to bringing new faculty members on board — particularly the lack of lab space and unfavorable collaborative setup. 

“Almost all the candidates I talk to afterwards, they mention that the building is one of the disappointments,” Zhong said. “It’s so dark and gloomy.” 

Scassellati also expressed that it is challenging to recruit and hire world-class faculty without adequate infrastructure, as a candidate who needs lab space may not accept an offer from Yale without those facilities already in place. 

In a February interview about the investment announcement, Brock noted the needs of the computer science department in particular.  

“I’ve been hearing from the computer science faculty over the last few years a deep need for better space to support computer science but also better space really to support the student-facing mission, which is increasing — I would say it’s one of the biggest drivers of interest in engineering and student enrollments,” Brock said at the time. “So we have a lot of work to do to expand both the faculty but also the availability of high-quality student-facing space for what is a central part of the teaching mission.”

Khandelwal echoed Brock’s statement of priorities, noting that the top two areas in which the computer science department stands to benefit from the University’s ongoing investments are, first, hiring more faculty “to meet the growing teaching and research demands” of greater undergraduate interest, and, second, “building new infrastructure.”

He expressed optimism that the pursuit of these two goals will lead to Yale offering more computer science courses — not just in pure computer science, but also at the “intersection” of computer science and other departments, such as law, arts and management.  

For undergraduates, the computer science department presently offers a bachelor’s degree in both science and arts, a certificate in programming, and four combined majors in cooperation with other departments: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Computer Science and Economics, Computer Science and Mathematics, and Computer Science and Psychology. In graduate studies, the department hosts both a doctoral and a graduate program.

Shao expressed appreciation for the University’s support of computer science in recent years in particular, with excitement for the department’s future offerings.

“CS has already benefited greatly from the strong support from the University in the last few years,” Shao wrote. “With the addition of many new tenure track and instructional faculty members, starting from this coming academic year, our department will be able to offer many new courses on machine learning, quantum computing, blockchains, full-stack web programming, and python programming for social science and humanities majors. With the addition of more Ph.D. students, we can also improve the TF support for many of our large-enrollment 400-level courses.”

Khandelwal also described a need for an increase in the department’s administrative size. 

“As the number of faculty and students grow, the department also needs a growth in our administrative staff; our current staff works tirelessly to keep various pieces of the department running — ranging from undergraduate and graduate curriculum, to managing research seminars and talks and even helping faculty and students deal with often esoteric issues,” Khandelwal wrote. “Our department simply cannot grow without a parallel growth in the administrative staff!” 

Arthur K. Watson Hall is located at 51 Prospect St. 

Anika Arora Seth is the 146th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. Anika previously covered STEM at Yale as well as admissions, alumni and financial aid. She also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production & Design editor and was one of the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Anika is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and women's, gender and sexuality studies.