Recent morale boost allows department to reach new heights

Erin Madsen

With enrollment doubled and an injection of grant money, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering has received a morale boost in recent weeks.
The department has received accolades, research grants and even an announcement by University President Mark Yudof to increase staff.
During the last seven years, federal research funding for the department has quadrupled — peaking at $4 million a year — allowing undergraduate and graduate students to have more active roles in research.
Research opportunities have always been a draw for students and the computer science department is no exception. Admissions have doubled from 300 students to 600 during the same seven-year span. Faculty, however, have lost two positions and currently the department has 25 professors.
Vice President of Research Christine Maziar recognizes the shortage and says Yudof does too.
Even though the department needs additional funding to recruit more faculty, Maziar said computer science and information technology are not just hot academic markets, but hot industrial and commercial markets as well.
“It is a challenge to convince grad students to get their Ph.D.s here because it’s not necessary to have a Ph.D. to get a competitive job in the field,” she said.
Finding faculty outside the University has also been difficult without proper funding.
There is pressure within the department to continue recruiting high-quality faculty interested in becoming part of a university centered around research.
Department head Pen-Chung Yew said spirits are high because Yudof proposed adding 17 new faculty members to the department in the next three years.
Anticipating the Minnesota Legislature’s approval, the department continues strengthening its faculty, research and increasing student body.
If the proposal is rejected, Yew said he feels it will be a big mistake.
“If we don’t do anything about it now, it’ll become worse,” he said.
Yew said he is confident the Legislature will agree additional department funding is necessary and will benefit the entire University.
Meanwhile, the computer science department is trying to prove itself worthy of additional funding.
On Sept. 14, the National Science Foundation awarded assistant professor Zhi-Li Zhang more than $1.2 million for Internet research.
In collaboration with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania, Zhang’s research will create a system to keep the Internet quick and simple, while accepting new applications and multimedia extensions.
“There can be no complexity because of the global scale of the Internet,” Zhang said.
In addition to Zhang’s research, two other faculty members have obtained federal research grants for University projects, totaling nearly $4 million.
Seven out of eight junior faculty members received the NSF’s Faculty Career Award, which Yew said is “pretty unusual.”
Now the department waits for the Legislature to decide whether to accept the University’s budget proposal to double its faculty.
With faculty able to accommodate the rising student interest, the department hopes to draw even more research funding for the University, encourage research and create wealth within the college and the state.

Erin Madsen welcomes comments at [email protected]