Now is the time for a dedicated ‘College of Computer Sciences’ at UT

Rohan Ramchand

Every semester, the Department of Computer Science offers a three-hour seminar on mobile computing. It is considered to be one of the best and most interesting classes to take while at UT by aspiring computer science students.

As a result, it has become one of the most difficult classes in which to secure a seat. It’s not the only popular class in the department, either. By the end of the first week of registration for this semester, 25 out of 31 classes, many of which had multiple sections to accommodate higher levels of student interest, were either completely filled or waitlisted, including multiple classes required for graduation. If you were unlucky enough to have second-week registration, getting into an upper-division computer science class was close to impossible.

According to the UT Statistical Handbook, the department currently houses close to 1,900 computer science majors, a number that has jumped by 128 percent in the last eight years.

This surge in enrollment reflects a significant change in the nature of the global economy; the Labor Department estimates that nearly 140,000 new software engineering jobs will be added by 2018. More tellingly, the student-to-faculty ratio has jumped from 14.1 in 2006 to 26.7 this year. The College of Natural Sciences, under which the department is housed, has maintained a roughly constant ratio over the same period (24.6 in 2006 to 23.8 this year). Meanwhile, the department has gone from awarding degrees to close to 27 percent of its enrolled population (252 out of 935 students) in 2005 to awarding degrees to just 14.5 percent (255 out of 1762 students) last year.

The University of Texas is a world-class institution. Its department of computer science has been consistently ranked in the top 10 programs for graduate study and is sought after for the quality of its faculty and the caliber of its students. The University must both accommodate the increasing number of students who are interested in computer science and simultaneously maintain a standard of excellence. However, given the current resources made available to the Department of Computer Science, it has become virtually impossible for the department to accomplish its mission.

One of two things must happen. One option is for the department to reduce enrollment, and given the current student-to-faculty ratio, the department must cut 500 students to continue to deliver the quality for which it is known. However, reducing enrollment in computer science discourages applicants from trying to study computer science in the first place and would affect growth of a discipline that is becoming increasingly important in the marketplace.

There is another solution. UT took an unusual route in marrying computer science with mathematics in the very early years of its existence. This environment was perfect for researchers like Edsger Dijkstra and Alan Emerson, both of whom ended up winning the Turing Award, the Nobel Prize of computer science. Now, however, the department is branching out into new fields, such as computer vision and natural language processing, as it continues to make theoretical advances in algorithms and formal verification.

This is the perfect storm in which the University must rise to create a new college: the College of Computer Sciences. We have the intellectual rigor, we have the student interest, but above all, we have a mission to serve the people of the state of Texas.

There are some immediate advantages of such a solution. As it stands right now, there are five programs at UT whose missions are related to computer science: the Department of Computer Science, which is within the College of Natural Sciences; the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, which is within the College of Engineering; the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center, both of which are under the Office of the Vice President for Research; and the School of Information, which is a separate school altogether. It makes little sense to keep these programs separate when there is much to be gained from joining forces to achieve the goals they share. Moreover, whereas currently the department receives funding through the college, an independent college would support itself.

Such a transition is not without precedent. The Jackson School of Geosciences, which for more than a century was a department in the College of Natural Sciences, split off in 2005 to become a separate college. As a result of its strategic plan, Jackson has, since 2007, been able to hire more than 25 new faculty members. Just as the prospects of a specialized school like Jackson attracted philanthropy — the School was created by a $322 million gift — a clear plan for a college of computer science could have the same effect. Even in the field, the department would not stand alone: In 1968, realizing that computer science would help define the following century of science, Carnegie Mellon University elected to create its School of Computer Sciences from existing programs in its natural sciences division. Today, the SCS is consistently ranked among the top five computer science programs in the world and has attracted funding from the likes of Bill Gates and businessman Henry Hillman.

It is time for the University to ask itself a fundamental question: whether it wants to respond to trends and wait for other schools to elevate computer science before following suit, or whether it wants to take the lead in investing in what is quickly becoming a highly sought-after area of study around the world. We cannot allow ourselves to fall behind in an area in which we have demonstrated ourselves to be so clearly and undeniably capable of greatness. To do anything less is to sacrifice the incredible progress the University has made in the field of computer science. It is time for us, as we have so many times in the past, to take the lead and define the next era of scientific progress. We must act as we believe: that what starts here changes the world.

Ramchand is a computer science and mathematics sophomore. He is a Turing scholar in the Department of Computer Science.