Pause on Computer Science Major Inhibits Department Growth

Boston College has “temporarily paused” the registration of new computer science majors, “necessitated by the combination of the very busy registration season with low staffing numbers in the CS office” said Sergio Alvarez, chair of the computer science department, in an email to The Heights.

The stoppage of major registration comes during a continued and expected rise in the number of computer science majors. With only nine core faculty (plus four “shorter term” visiting professors), the department has been struggling to keep up with student demand given its 420 majors and 86 minors. Not only has major registration been paused, but even registered majors are not guaranteed entrance into classes and instead have been admitted into classes based on how “qualified” they are. The specific “qualifications” have not been publicly specified by the department.

“We’re doing our best to move qualified students from the wait lists into the appropriate courses when possible, but the process takes time. We cannot guarantee that all interested students will get into their desired courses,” said a computer science faculty email.

The effects of difficulty in registering, coupled now with a pause in major registration, is a detriment to current and prospective students, as well as the University as a whole. Course registration for computer science classes has already been restricted. As of Spring 2017, courses above Computer Science 1 were restricted to majors. Minors are required to go to the computer science department during their pick times to be added to a waitlist before they can join courses.

Computer science is BC’s fastest-growing major—experiencing a 518 percent increase in the last 10 years. The increase in registration is not unexpected, but rather a continuation of long-signaled trends as major registration. There were 238 registered majors in 2016 and 323 in 2017—it is hardly a stretch to imagine that 420 majors in 2019 would be expected. The faculty problem is not unforseen either. Back in 2017, Alvarez told The Heights that his department needed a minimum of 20 faculty members, but he placed the ideal faculty number at 30, which would have made the the faculty to student ratio to about 1 to 15 or 1 to 10, respectfully. This was back when the department had 323 majors, which is 24 percent smaller than the current department. This year, BC hired 68 new faculty members. The computer science department acquired three more faculty members through that hiring this year, one of whom is part-time. Those three were additions to a 10 person faculty, bringing the final number to 13 full and part-time faculty.

In a previous Heights article, Billy Soo, vice provost for Faculties, said that faculty hiring was based on a combination of department requests, retirements and departures in department faculty, and courses and credit hours offered and filled by students in a given semester.

The computer science department’s unusually small faculty seems especially tiny when compared with other departments at BC that have similar major numbers. According to the BC 2018-19 factbook, there are 12 full-time faculty members, and one part-time member in the computer science department. The problem is exacerbated by majors pursuing B.S. degrees, who must take four additional credits than their B.A.- seeking counterparts.

It’s worth noting that the department isn’t especially young either. It started as a major in 1981, and prior to that it was a minor in CSOM. The major’s numbers have been rapidly increasing since 2011. Alvarez’s email did not say when major registration would reopen, but rather noted that the department would “revisit the situation in the coming weeks.” A long-term solution was not immediately clear, as Alvarez added that the department has not “even discussed any definitive course of action at this time.”

The pausing of major registration, as well as the inability of even majors and minors to register for necessary courses has a negative effect not only on current students, but also on prospective students looking to major in computer science, a number which, if consistent with computer science trends from the past eight years, will only continue to rapidly grow once the hold on major registration is lifted. Computer science is increasingly popular at top U.S. universities, and if BC wants to keep up with its peer institutions while looking out for its students, it must address its computer science crisis soon.

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

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