Computer field draws Ph.D.s out of academia

by Peter Frost

Computer science and computer engineering departments at universities around the nation are suffering a major shortage of professors at a time when undergraduate enrollments are skyrocketing.
The University has five vacant positions in the computer science and engineering department, 16 percent fewer professors than needed. As a result, class sizes have grown and students have had to struggle more for face-to-face contact with their professors.
Luring qualified experts to technology jobs has become an increasing problem for every industry. For colleges, the task is especially trying, since they have to compete with the sky-high salaries offered by businesses in the private sector.
“We just aren’t able to compete with the big engineering firms in terms of the huge benefits and six-figure packages,” said Ravi Janardan, computer science and engineering professor.
“But at the same time, we are a highly respected program, and we haven’t lost any faculty in recent years to the private (computer engineering) sector,” Janardan said.
The University says they haven’t recently lost any professors, but Janardan said other professors have left the program in the last year to begin retirement and to pursue jobs at other universities.
Currently, the department has five positions open, two of which require applicants who have either been in the industry for an extended time period or who have college teaching experience. It isn’t likely all five will be filled.
Last year, the University faced a similar situation with five openings. After receiving about 200 applications, down from the usual 600 received, only two of the positions were filled.
“We must be very selective in our selection process. We can’t just sacrifice quality to get numbers,” said Yousef Saad, computer science and engineering department head.
“We expect this year to be just as tough, if not tougher, than last year,” Saad said, referring to the positions that need to be filled for the upcoming 2000-1 school year.
“The effort put into recruiting this year is definitely the biggest concern in our department,” Saad said.
He attributed this shortage of professors to the high demand for experts outside of higher education as well as the booming enrollment in computer science and engineering.
“This enrollment increase is leading to doubling sizes of almost every single college (computer engineering) department in the nation, creating the need for more professors,” Saad said.
Since 1995, undergraduate enrollment in technology courses has doubled nationwide.
And from 1995 to 1998, the number of students enrolled in the University’s computer science department increased from 407 to 611, a 50 percent jump.
In the relatively new computer engineering department, enrollment increased from 28 to 132 — a whopping 371 percent from 1997 to 1998.
With these rising student levels in the programs, professors are being asked to teach more classes, and the average class size is much larger than preferred.
“It’s a big negative for the department that classes are too big. This is one of our concerns in our department this year.
“Right now, there is basically not enough production of computer science Ph.D.s to counter the rising demand for these individuals in universities and private companies,” Saad said.
In a recent study, the Computing Research Association called the faculty shortage in computer science “severe.” It also said that competition for Ph.D.s from private companies is posing a significant threat to the health of university departments.
These adverse effects are already being felt at other universities, and many upper-echelon engineering schools are struggling to fill faculty positions.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hired five professors in the computer science sector but, at the same time, lost five others.
Ohio State University also has faculty openings they cannot fill. As a result, computer science and engineering professors taught 35 percent more credits than the previous year.
Other top-notch universities like Carnegie Mellon and Princeton also have vacancies they are laboring to fill.
As computer-related departments nationwide struggle to find quality professors, other high-tech departments such as mechanical engineering have been more successful.
The department welcomed three new faculty members this fall.
“We have always been very successful in getting our top choices,” said Peter McMurry, professor in mechanical engineering. “Our department is doing very well right now, and we’re keeping our top employees.”
While the economy as a whole is experiencing a lack of skilled workers, the computer industry seems to be the hardest hit.

— The Chronicle of Higher Education contributed to this article

Peter Frost covers business and welcomes comments to [email protected] and can be reached at 612-627-4070 x3215.