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Sunday September 19th

Waitlists and frustrations grow as UNC's computer science department tries to keep up

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Osamah Atieh stared at the blue square on his computer in disbelief. Before his 11:00 a.m. registration period had even started, the first required course for the computer science major had already closed.

Frustrated, he couldn’t even join the ConnectCarolina waitlist for the course, COMP 401: Foundation of Programming. Atieh, a first-year student at UNC, is currently taking COMP 110: Introduction to Programming. He’s interested in majoring in computer science, and was waiting to decide to declare until after 401.

Now, he’s unsure when or how he will decide.

“I feel like it's going to be a lot tougher now," he said, "because if the classes are closed, I can’t really do anything."

On the same day of his registration, Atieh joined a separate waitlist — a Google form made by the department. Atieh is not sure what position he holds on the list, or whether he will ever get off of it.

UNC computer science professor Kris Jordan told The Daily Tar Heel that COMP 401 had 139 students on the Google form waitlist as of Sunday. Two other courses in the introductory sequence — COMP 410 and 411 — had Google form waitlists of 112 and 144 people respectively.

"Those numbers are pretty atrocious," Jordan said.

They are also not an anomaly — they reflect the computer science department's rapid growth over the last ten years.

'Now, we have to pay the piper'

This fall, the department had 1,472 declared or intended majors, more than 10 times the 138 computer science majors at UNC in fall of 2009.

The student body has ballooned over the past decade, while faculty hiring has lagged far behind. The department, now at 33 faculty members, grew only 8.2 percent over the same time period.

“I feel like every day when I’m teaching a big class, I have to choose,” said Don Porter, a professor in the computer science department. “Do I spend time with my kids at night, do I answer a bunch of questions on Piazza and emails from students? Do I try to keep my research going?”

Porter said he and other faculty spend their nights and weekends helping students. With 200- to 400-person classes, it takes a toll.

Each computer science faculty member teaches an average of nearly 815 credit hours per semester, according to internal data on UNC's natural sciences departments. Comparatively, biology faculty members teach an average of 558 hours per semester.

In terms of output per faculty, Porter said the computer science department is head and shoulders above most others. But everyone has a limit.

“What I think is going to happen, if nothing changes, is that you’re going to see a rash of retirements and departures from people burning out,” he said.

Ketan Mayer-Patel, the department’s undergraduate studies director, called the current student-to-faculty ratio a tipping point. He said for a long time the department sought to accommodate student interest by expanding class size, hoping new faculty resources and re-scaling of course materials would help.

“We’ve played every trick we can. Now, we have to pay the piper,” Mayer-Patel said. “We have too many students in the pipeline for the size of the department we are, and we have no good solution.”

‘The percentages are insane’

Jaye Cable, senior associate dean for natural sciences and mathematics said in an email to the DTH last week that after an outpouring of student and parent outrage, the University has authorized the computer science department to hire four new faculty members over the next two years. 

One of the new faculty positions will replace a departing professor, said Kevin Jeffay, chair of the Computer Science Department.

He said the department also plans to open up more introductory-level seats this spring, potentially cutting an upper-level class in the process.

Cable said nine new faculty accepted offers to join the computer science department over the last few years. However, many of those new hires simply replaced outgoing professors.

“No university can satisfy every student and every class,” Cable told the DTH in early November. “Because enrollment fluctuates, we can’t always predict where need is, but you cannot move faculty from one department to another just because you have an increase in one area and a decrease in another.”

Jeffay said the department submitted a resource plan to the College of Arts and Sciences about two years ago asking that its total teaching faculty be increased by three to seven new hires within the next six years. This plan followed what Jeffay described as the department “vociferously advocating for this for well over five years."

The new faculty members may help the department keep up with current students, but additional support will be needed to meet the department’s expected future growth.

“The number of freshmen coming in that want to major in computer science just keeps going up and up and up — by incredible margins,” Jeffay said. “The percentages are insane.”

The department found some relief in Cable’s hiring announcement, but concerns remain about the future.

“Ultimately, the college stepped up here in a big way, and myself and the faculty are thankful for it,” Jordan said. “I'm just a bit frustrated that getting the planned resources required falling off of the hiring plan, inflicting the predictable pain on students, and then responding to the pain by getting back on the hiring plan.”

Jeffay said the level to which student participation will need to be cut remains unclear, even with the prospect of three additional faculty. Prior to Cable’s announcement, many options were being considered to alleviate the pressure on the department, including an admissions process or registration lottery.

“No solution is a good one if the solution involves telling someone they shouldn't study computer science for arbitrary reasons, like, 'We can't support you,'” Jordan said.

‘We are so underwater’

Participation has already been limited in some ways. A computing fluency course, COMP 101: "Fluency in Information Technology," was cut after the spring 2019 semester. This course covered some of the calculus skills students need to take COMP 110, helping students without much math or programming skills potentially enter the major.

“Those kinds of students will not find computer science at UNC this academic year, and for the foreseeable future,” Jordan said.

Junior Alexis Ortiz was a biology major when she took COMP 101 with Jordan the spring of her first year. She’d never considering studying computer science before then, but said she enjoyed the class so much that she switched her major after taking it.

“(Computer science) is not as difficult as people think it is, but I think people won't understand that unless they take courses like COMP 101 that are very, very basic,” she said.

Students like Ortiz and professors in the department are concerned that cuts to entry-level courses could also mean cuts in diversity to the major in a field where inclusion is already an issue.

“It’s not the first time this field has gone through this cycle,” Mayer-Patel said. “It went through it in the late ‘80s, in the late ‘90s, and we actually have quite a bit of information about what these typical responses to oversubscribed majors, the effect that has on things like diversity and inclusion, student culture, department culture — and it’s not good.”

Mayer-Patel said that the department is committed to combating the disproportionate effect that these restrictions often have on first-generation students, students from poor districts and underrepresented groups.

While students and faculty alike do not yet know what changes need to be made, the impact of the growth continues to make itself evident. 

As the department rushes to hire more faculty, for students like Atieh there’s nothing to do but watch ConnectCarolina as his future in computer science rests on whether that blue square will turn into a green circle — and even if it does, his seat in future classes is not guaranteed.

“We are so underwater we’re still going to have to limit participation,” Jeffay said. “The hope is, if we’re successful in hiring … is that next year we will cut less.”

special.projects@dailytarheel.com

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