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Hire More Computer Science Professors

Is it too much to ask Tiku Majumder to do his job and staff Williams appropriately? There is only one computer science class (below the 300-level) with space available, and that is a 200-level course. How many Williams students — especially poor students from lower quality high schools — are being turned away from CSCI 134 and/or 136? I realize that creating new tenure track positions is a difficult task and requires thinking about the long term future of the faculty. Fine!

But there is no excuse for not hiring enough visitors to ensure that any Williams student who wants to study computer science can do so.

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#1 Comment By Disappointed On January 27, 2018 @ 11:46 pm

You are right, DDF, the CS department needs more professors, but you also need to cool all the way down. It’s absurd how the language you use sounds as though you transplanted a diatribe against Falk but replaced the name with Majumder’s. Tiku has been in office for less than a month.

The CS department recently started exploding (as in, over the last few years the enrollment in the major has grown dramatically). It’s erroneous and too soon to say whether Tiku’s neglecting his job, and if anything, Falk should have foreseen the dramatic rise in enrollment coinciding with the increased demand for labor in the tech sector. Further, Williams is about to witness a huge turnover of professors followed by the on boarding of roughly one-hundred new professors; it’s highly likely that more CS professors will be hired during this on boarding. If, during this new hiring, there aren’t enough CS professors to sate demand, then your rails against the interim president will be founded. Until then, it’s beyond ridiculous to use that kind of language against him.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 7:40 am

Disappointed: You seem knowledgeable. Can you confirm that students who decide, today, that they want to take CSCI 134 won’t be allowed to because all the sections are full?

1) I am happy to assign Falk a big share of the blame as well, along with the rest of the Administration.

2) Tiku has only been in office a month, but he was appointed back in August. He knew this day was coming. And, if he cared enough, he could have done something about it.

3) Williams, as a whole, knew this day was coming as well. CS has been over-enrolled for years now. I have heard (true?) stories of students turned away from 134/136 before. Registration, back in November, would have flashed plenty of warnings.

4) A better Williams would have, in November, said: “It is unacceptable that students are turned away from intro CS classes. So, let’s hire a couple of visiting lecturers. They are cheap! At least until we make decisions about how to staff the department for the long term.”

Disappointed: Can you give us some insight as to why Williams didn’t do that?

#3 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 7:44 am

If, during this new hiring, there aren’t enough CS professors to sate demand, then your rails against the interim president will be founded. Until then, it’s beyond ridiculous to use that kind of language against him.

All depends on how much you care about the welfare of student X, a student turned away from intro CS this spring. I care a lot about this student and think it is absurd that Williams doesn’t allow her to study computer science.

Students complain about lots of stupid stuff, stuff that the College can’t easily change and/or probably shouldn’t change. But when they complain that the college doesn’t meet its fundamental obligation to staff the intro courses that it, implicitly, promised to staff, they have a point.

#4 Comment By abl On January 28, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

DDF —

Disappointed is pushing back on your tone (“Is it too much to ask Tiku Majumder to do his job”), rather than truth of your underlying point (that Williams needs to beef up its CS department):

You are right, DDF, the CS department needs more professors, but you also need to cool all the way down. It’s absurd how the language you use sounds as though you transplanted a diatribe against Falk but replaced the name with Majumder’s.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

pushing back on your tone

My tone is 100% intended. To not adequately staff intro courses is as bad as not having enough food in the dining hall. If this isn’t Tiku’s fault, then whose fault is it?

#6 Comment By abl On January 28, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

If this isn’t Tiku’s fault, then whose fault is it?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not a shortage many years in the making? And, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the preferable course of action for a shortage of this nature a change in tenure-track hiring–which will not impact this calendar year?

There are routinely demand/supply problems with college course offerings. Your outrage here isn’t because compsci classes at Williams happened to fill up this year — it’s that you believe that Williams has institutionally placed too little priority on building more of a comp sci department. That’s not on President Majumder.

You routinely overstate your case. If you used a little more self-control and toned down your rhetoric, I think you’d find that these discussions were more fruitful. Instead of discussing whether or not your criticism of President Majumder is too harsh (it almost certainly is), we could be discussing how Williams prioritizes departments like compsci — which is a discussion far more likely to effect any sort of change at Williams.

#7 Comment By BH On January 28, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

This isn’t Tiku’s fault because he has been president for less than a month. There was absolutely nothing he could have done between then and now because he was in no way the president of Williams. A new staffing request cycle is about to begin; it is extremely likely that CS will request and be granted positions.

But more importantly, this post and your further comments show, once again, your stunning ignorance of how things work at Williams (and similar schools).

Do you have any reliable information about whether or not the CS department has been denied on recent staffing requests?

Do you know anything about the recent history of attempts to hire in the Williams CS department?

Do you know anything about the market for CS professors? Your claim that “…there is no excuse for not hiring enough visitors to ensure that any Williams student who wants to study computer science can do so” strongly suggests that you are utterly ignorant about this particular market. How many applications do you think a place like Williams gets when it advertises for visiting positions in CS?

There are important issues here, but as is almost always this case with this blog, you fail to get even the minimal level of information you would need to address them in a meaningful and useful way. Have you contacted the chair of CS or anyone else in the department to learn more before spouting off? If you had, you would never have written the post this way in the first place.

#8 Comment By Doug On January 28, 2018 @ 3:22 pm

Also worth noting that CS professors are harder to hire for the college because they are paid significantly more than other professors. All professors at Williams make roughly the same amount, except for economics and computer science professors. Their employment prospects in private industry (or government) are simply too great to pay them the same amount as a WGS professor. This likely contributes to the demand for the department outpacing the hiring of new professors. Consider that just over the state line, Bennington College has just two computer science professors. I believe that this is likely due to the lack of qualified professors in the CS discipline who can be hired with a reasonable salary.

#9 Comment By Disappointed On January 28, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

abl, Doug, and BH all articulate well both the inefficacies of your outbursts, DDF, and the real underlying challenges that the Williams CS department and administration must overcome in order to beef up the department. A much more fruitful discussion would be to determine the pain points associated with beefing up the department and devise a plan for assessing these challenges. The way you structure your diatribes, DDF, are not at all constructive and your credibility as an informed critic of Williams continues to dwindle. Simply railing against the interim president and looking for people to blame not only magnifies your ignorance of college mechanics but diminishes room for productive conversation.

Right now, Williams has a great opportunity to create one of the best undergraduate CS departments in the country, similar to that of Harvey Mudd+Claremont Colleges or Dartmouth (both undergraduate-focused institutions with significantly superior computer science programs). But, Williams has some distinct advantages over these colleges, namely the presence of a robust tutorial program, a more renowned math department, and far more money per student. Further, Williams has a massive Science Center almost fully constructed as well as plans to overhaul Bronfman completely. Williams is completing a $650m capital raising campaign (over $600m has been raised so far) which will finance the hiring of the “next great science faculty” among other things. And finally, for what it’s worth, the CS department has actually been hiring new professors year over year (unfortunately, undergraduate enrollment is outpacing the rate at which any administrators have foreseen CS enrollment). These factors, when combined, can be utilized to make Williams a premier institution in undergraduate computer science.

I would love to hear more Ephblog thoughts as to how Williams can go about developing the next great CS curriculum. How can elements of Harvey Mudd and Dartmouth be incorporated into Williams’ program? How can Williams utilize its resources to deliver a unique and comprehensive experience in CS?

#10 Comment By Hi On January 28, 2018 @ 5:31 pm

. I believe that this is likely due to the lack of qualified professors in the CS discipline who can be hired with a reasonable salary.

If you are unable to hire people, then by definition the salary you are offering is not reasonable. It is almost as if Williams would be better off diverting resources from highly paid administrators to hire additional professors in the one field that has great long term prospects, and faces increased long term student demand.

#11 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

There are two separate issues:

1) How many tenured and tenure-track computer sciences professors should Williams have? That is a hard question! And one that Tiku has almost no control over. My bias is that there should be more, and I am happy to have a conversation about how to get there. But I also recognize that other Ephs — see Dukes Love reporting on staffing — have other, equally reasonable, views.

2) Should Williams ensure that any student who wants to take Computer Science 134 this spring can take it? This is, for me, an easy question. The answer is Yes. And, in fact, a refusal to ensure this — especially with all the warning that we have had that this would happen — is a major sin. The ultimate responsibility for this is Tiku’s.

I recognize that other Ephs don’t think that this is a big deal. I could not disagree more.

How could Williams/Tiku have solved this problem? Easy! Hire a visiting assistant professor (or even a lecturer) for a semester or year or two. There is plenty of discretionary money for this, and plenty of money that could be cut from the budget to make this possible. This is a reasonable temporary solution until the College figures out the tenure/tenure-track allocations.

There are hundreds of Ph.D.’s who are more than qualified to teach intro CS at Williams and who would love to take the job. (Many have Ph.D.’s in other fields, like physics. Many don’t do research nearly well enough to get a tenure-track appointment at Williams. But those things don’t prevent them from teaching 134 well, which is all that matters today.

#12 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

Disappointed: You think that Williams has a “more renowned math department” than Dartmouth. Details, please!

#13 Comment By BH On January 28, 2018 @ 7:47 pm

DDF: Again, Tiku has been on the job for less than a month. Hiring for the spring semester would have had to have happened last summer or, at the very latest, in the fall. Tiku was then Professor of Physics. He was not president, nor was he on any committee connected with hiring. You’re frankly just being silly by continuing blaming him. Drop it.

How do you propose hiring multiple visitors in CS? It is extremely difficult to hire visitors in the field because demand is massive and anyone with a PhD in CS can get what most would consider a much better job (certainly better paying).

How do you propose getting these other qualified folk to come here? Even if you are right that they are many underemployed people out there who could with at least some degree of competence teach lower level CS classes, they apparently aren’t interested as demonstrated by the fact they they don’t apply for these visitor jobs when they are advertised. Do you have any evidence that there are lots of PhD’s out there in STEM fields who could teach 134 at the level Williams expects AND are either unemployed or employed in jobs that are substantially less appealing than a visiting position at a small liberal arts college in northwest MA? I frankly doubt it. Again you make a claim but provide no evidence. The evidence that exists–these people don’t apply to the advertised job openings for such positions–suggests that you’re wrong.

As I noted above, you are right that there is a real problem here, but you are wrong that there is also an easy solution that is being ignored because Williams administrators simply aren’t interested in it.

#14 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 8:48 pm

How do you propose hiring multiple visitors in CS?

1) It is not clear that we need “multiple” visitors. Just how understaffed is CS?! I bet that a single visitor that taught 2 sections of CS 134/136 would be enough.

2) Do you have any idea how many unemployed Ph.D.’s in physics (with enough programming knowledge to teach 134) there are? Hundreds if not thousands. Dozens would love to take a one or two year visiting assistant professor job at Williams.

they apparently aren’t interested as demonstrated by the fact they they don’t apply for these visitor jobs when they are advertised.

Huh? I am ready to be educated on this topic, but I believe that every advertised faculty position at Williams, including visiting positions in STEM fields, receives scores of applications. Is that not true?

Do you have any evidence that there are lots of PhD’s out there in STEM fields who could teach 134 at the level Williams expects AND are either unemployed or employed in jobs that are substantially less appealing than a visiting position at a small liberal arts college in northwest MA?

I am fairly clued into the academic job market. If you don’t believe me, fine. Just as a CS professor! (Again, many of these applications come from folks that CS does not want to hire, either because their degree is in Physics/Math or because they have not done enough research. Fine. The fact remains that dozens of Ph.D.’s who would do as good a job teaching 134 as our current faculty would (and do!) apply to CS openings at Williams.)

but you are wrong that there is also an easy solution that is being ignored because Williams administrators simply aren’t interested in it.

The problem did not start this week. over the last few years, I have had multiple conversations with Williams students who claim that they were not allowed to take intro CS (or intro STAT) because all the classes were filled.

Now, of course, one must take student stories like this with a grain of salt. But I think there is a real problem here.

[Side note: Best advice for a student trying to get in is to claim that your plan is to major and that, because you are going abroad, you have to start now. Of course, this does not work for juniors/seniors.]

#15 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

By the way, it looks like the CS department is not hiring, either tenure-track or visiting for next year. Comments welcome.

Is there some reason to expect (like people coming back from leave), that this won’t continue to be a problem next year?

#16 Comment By hmm On January 28, 2018 @ 8:57 pm

Williams easily has claims to one of the strongest math department of any undergraduate college in the country. The department is popular, with some 10% of students majoring in it. It runs its own government funded math only REU called SMALL. It won the national American Mathematical Society Award for “Exemplary Program or Achievement in a Mathematics Department” (the only other LACs to win are Harvey Mudd and Bryn Mawr). Since 1991, six Williams professors have won the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award, which is widely considered the top national prize in undergraduate teaching of mathematics. No other individual school has won as many, though the Claremont Colleges (their math department is combined across all 5 schools) come close with 5. Dartmouth (and most Ivies) have never had a winner.

It was always my impression that if you wanted the best math department available at a liberal arts college, let alone any college, you went to either Williams or the Claremont Colleges (especially Harvey Mudd- this school has had 5 winners of the Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning College or University Mathematics Faculty Member and is the only undergraduate school to make top 5 in the Putnam). Harvey Mudd more for the PhD side (they’re the #1 producer of math/stats PhDs on a size basis), Williams for the balanced LAC experience and professional math careers in finance and business. I would definitely not claim that Williams math department is “much more renowned” than Harvey Mudd, but over Dartmouth? Yes.

On CS in particular, not sure how the tutorial system is of any consequence- students want rich project-heavy and research based topics in CS to land internships in the best tech companies, and Harvey Mudd’s industry clinic model is one to be looked into, not traditional humanities/writing oriented tutorials. It is true that Williams has much more money than Mudd (almost three times more per student), but Harvey Mudd only has 6 departments while Williams is divided among 24 and two graduate programs. CS is one of Harvey Mudd’s most popular majors, with 40% of students majoring in it, so you can bet that a ton of funding is going towards it in particular; it also gains additional CS resources with nearby moneybags Pomona (as rich as Williams and has a CS program of comparable strength). Honestly, Williams is hurt by being in a rural location far away from the dominant “Silicons”- Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach of SoCal, Silicon Hills of Austin, and Silicon Alley of NYC, alongside others. One thing that could definitely help is organizing industry trips to nearby Cambridge, MA or even to the West Coast, ala Bowdoin.

#17 Comment By Disappointed On January 28, 2018 @ 9:06 pm

@DDF-

At the undergraduate level, Williams College’s mathematics department is perhaps the best department in the country (assuming you prioritize teaching and research opportunities, not exposure to Fields Medalists, as the primary features of an undergraduate mathematics department). There are a few albeit surface level indicators of Williams’ mathematics department’s strength over the undergraduate mathematics experience at other institutions.

SMALL, Williams’ summer research program in mathematics, is one of the top 3 summer REUs and attracts students from across the country (top Ivies, large state schools, and other LACs). Williams also has six (I believe it’s six, but it may have dropped to five) professors who have won the Haimo National Award for Distinguished Teaching of Mathematics (awarded by the MAA). Harvard / Princeton have one such professor, and I haven’t been able to find any indication of Dartmouth’s department having any such professors. Also, the sheer percentage of students that major in mathematics at Williams despite the department having one of the lowest grading averages (3.29 for math, I believe) is a solid indicator of the department’s strength.

Granted, if you prioritize things other than average teaching quality of professors and research opportunities, then Williams may not come out as a stronger undergraduate mathematics department.

#18 Comment By BH On January 28, 2018 @ 9:15 pm

DDF:

“I am ready to be educated on this topic, but I believe that every advertised faculty position at Williams, including visiting positions in STEM fields, receives scores of applications. Is that not true?”

That is not true. Or at least it is definitely not true for CS, Statistics, and Economics at places like Williams. It is extremely difficult for these fields to hire qualified visitors.

If CS is not hiring for TT positions starting this fall, they must have believed they could handle this with their current staffing. They may have been wrong, but I also have heard they have had many failed searches for all the reasons I’ve noted above (much better jobs in private sector, as CS classes get huge they make the job even less appealing compared to private sector jobs, Williamstown is a horrible place to be with a working spouse, etc. etc.).

But again, why would you post all of this without actually looking into with people who know? My guess is that a former intern or two reported to you that they or a friend couldn’t get into the CS class they wanted and you decided to write about without looking deeper than your alleged stated of being “clued-in” about the job market. Given that much of what you’ve written about about applications to and hiring at Williams is factually incorrect, I’m rather skeptical about the depth of your knowledge here.

Again, this is why this blog is such a tragedy. It could be a place for interesting and informed discussions of the issues facing Williams, but so many of your posts start off as horribly misguided attacks on individuals that are typically based on extremely limited information and your own inaccurate speculations. No one serious about these issues wants to be associated with that kind of discourse.

#19 Comment By Disappointed On January 28, 2018 @ 9:17 pm

@hmm

My bad, I didn’t read your post before making my comment. But I generally agree with what you wrote. Also, my claim was that Williams has a “more renowned department” than Dartmouth / Harvey Mudd, not a “much more renowned department” – that being said, I was unaware of how strong Harvey Mudd’s math department was as well, and I retract the magnitude of my claim.

Few points however: Williams also does organize treks to Cambridge / NYC for entrepreneurship and tech, and the College brings in alumni who work at and recruit at big tech firms (Google, Microsoft, etc.) / start-ups, but they don’t organize tech trips to Austin or the Bay Area. I think they’re ramping this up as interest in tech grows. Also, I think the way that Williams uses tutorials (as well as winter study) to enhance its CS program is going to be very important exactly for the reasons you outlined. These two features of Williams allow professors to be much more involved with students, and thus allow them to collaborate on rich and engaging projects outside of research.

#20 Comment By hmm On January 28, 2018 @ 9:22 pm

SMALL is very prestigious indeed. The top distinction an U.S. undergraduate can get for math is the Morgan Prize- only one student receives it per year. While I don’t believe Williams has ever had a student receiving the Morgan Prize, at least two recipients did SMALL and got the Morgan within the past 5 years! These include:

Fan Wei of MIT (2013, currently PhD at Stanford): “I want to express my gratitude…to the hosts of Williams College SMALL REU, especially Allison Pacelli, for providing me with two memorable summers.”

Levente Alpoge of Harvard (2015, currently PhD at Princeton): “I would also like to thank Steven Miller and Joe Gallian both for advising me and for running such superb REUs at Williams College and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.”

A full profile of SMALL is here: http://www.d.umn.edu/~jgallian/PURMweb/Williams.pdf

Very impressive stuff. Goes to show that Williams faculty can be pivotal to the journey of the brightest math minds in the nation.

#21 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 9:23 pm

Or at least it is definitely not true for CS, Statistics, and Economics at places like Williams. It is extremely difficult for these fields to hire qualified visitors.

This is BS, or it depends on exactly what you mean by “qualified.” I am defining qualified as “Has a Ph.D. and would do as good a job teaching CS 134 as the average member of the department.” There are scores of applications — and I know the Stat and Econ department fairly well — which meet that criteria.

But, again, the respective departments do not like that definition of “qualified.” CS only wants to hire people with a Ph.D. in CS — and Stats in Stat and Econ in Econ — even in cases when they knew for certain that the Physics Ph.D. would do an excellent job of teaching CS 134 (because she had taught programming classes in graduate school and had excellent recs)>

They also tend to define “qualified” as meaning “has done, or shows the potential for doing, excellent research.”

I agree that, almost by definition, it is hard for Williams to hire the people they “want” to in these fields.

But that is not the debate we are having. We are arguing over whether it is hard to hire visitors who would teach intro classes as well as current faculty. For one or two year positions, it is easy.

#22 Comment By Disappointed On January 28, 2018 @ 9:29 pm

Also interesting aside: Silicon Village

In 2002, some ultra-wealthy Williams entrepreneurs (Bo Peabody, Matt Harris) tried to transform Williamstown into “Silicon Village” and seed tech ventures out in the Berkshires. While I wouldn’t say it was a failure, their Venture Capital firm (Village Ventures) closed its doors to seeding new ventures and the two entrepreneurs moved on. I think they came into Williamstown twenty-five years too early, and that the Berkshires has some natural benefits that suit it for tech incubation. Steve Case, another notable Williams alum, founded Revolution LLC, a VC firm with a side mission of making venture capital distribution more equitable in rural regions. While I don’t think he’s planning on focusing on the Berkshires, I do think the movement towards making more “Silicon” locations outside of cities has been initiated (with a handful of Williams alums at the helm). Who knows, maybe the vision of Silicon Village may be actualized in the Berkshires over the next few (or more) years.

#23 Comment By BH On January 28, 2018 @ 9:38 pm

Ah, so now you’ve completely changed your original argument. What you describe now has nothing to do with Tiku not “not do[ing] his job.” Now you’re instead claiming that the departments in question refuse to hire obviously qualified people for positions in which the desperately need to hire people because they (who are actual experienced faculty members at Williams, as opposed to someone who happened to spend 4 years here at ages 18-22 many decades ago). If nothing else, this proves beyond a doubt that your claim that you “know the Stats and Econ department[s] very well” is what is, in fact, the BS here.

As for “They also tend to define ‘qualified’ as meaning ‘has done, or shows the potential for doing, excellent research,'” this is also simply not true for visitors (though it is indeed true, and should be, for TT faculty).

Again, your claim that it is easy to hire one or two year positions in CS is simply factually incorrect. Talk to people in CS at Williams and elsewhere about how many applications they get to these positions.

And if you are going to continue this debate, decide what you are actually arguing.

#24 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 28, 2018 @ 9:53 pm

Corrections welcome, but I do not think that the College has authorized the department to hire a visitor. If the College had done so, I bet that the department would have hired someone — they have hired plenty of visitors in the past — and then we would have spots open in 134.

#25 Comment By Mathemagics On February 1, 2018 @ 9:34 pm

The College has an explicit, stated policy that “enrollment does not drive tenure lines.”

The College is not going to approve additional tenure lines in computer science just because all of the classes are full – if this were the case, it would have happened already. There is so much demand for CS courses that the department has not been able to offer a tutorial in several years, because those instructor hours are better spent on a higher number of students.

While you are complaining that students are turned away from introductory CS courses, you should also complain that students are turned away from introductory statistics courses. In 2016-2017, there were three Statistics 101 sections (two in fall, one in spring) and all were at their cap of 50. As I recall, 68 students signed up in the spring and 18 were dropped. (Most of these had taken multivariable calculus and so were eligible for 201, and were encouraged to take that instead. Stat 101 has become a favorite for fulfilling the Div III requirement.) The Math/Stat department is hiring two tenure-track positions for next year, one to replace someone who is leaving and one to add an additional line to the department.

Computer science classes filling is not unique to Williams; my understanding is that the same is happening at many of the top liberal arts colleges. Many are trying to hire at least one visitor. Demand is very high for the people who can teach liberal arts CS courses at the level required of a top college and who are willing to do so.

I don’t know the numbers in computer science, but I believe that when the Math/Stat department was hiring for 2016-2017, there were about 600 applications for the two visiting positions in math, and 30 applications for the two tenure-track positions in stat.