William & Mary’s Board of Visitors approved a resolution on Thursday to join a state-wide incentive to increase the number of Virginians earning computer science and related degrees.
The BOV resolution is in support of legislation introduced by Virginia Senator Frank Ruff creating the Tech Talent Investment Program. The legislation received broad bipartisan support. Senator Dick Saslaw, a Democrat, joined Ruff, a Republican, as a co-patron in the bill.
Sam Jones said the program was spurred by Amazon’s announcement to locate a new corporate headquarters in Northern Virginia. He added that the Tech Talent opportunities comes along at an opportune time for William & Mary.
“Computer science and data science are areas to which we were already turning our attention,” said Jones, William & Mary’s senior vice president for finance and administration. “We already knew we had student demand. We had students creating their own data science majors.”
The Tech Talent initiative challenges Virginia colleges and universities to produce an additional 25,000 computer science-related degree holders by 2039. William & Mary’s share, as outlined in the BOV resolution, states a goal to increase the number of undergraduate computer science degrees from 70 to at least 160 per year.
The resolution also says the university will establish a new professional master’s degree in computer science, eventually generating at least 35 degrees per year. Another goal is to grow William & Mary’s new data science major to award at least 40 degrees per year.
Jones explained that the Commonwealth has set up an initial investment of $16.6 million in operating funds and $11 million for capital expenses, along with an additional $500,000 to support professional internships at Virginia companies.
William & Mary’s share of the pool of state funds will be determined after a review of proposals submitted by all of the state universities. Jones added that Virginia Tech and George Mason were the universities most closely associated with Virginia landing the Amazon HQ2 facility in Arlington, but said those two schools can’t meet the anticipated demand for tech professionals alone.
Jones, a 1975 graduate of William & Mary, added that he expects his alma mater to be an important contributor to the Commonwealth’s private-sector workforce.
“We’re smaller than the other universities, so we're not going to contribute huge numbers to that statewide goal,” Jones said. “But what we are going to contribute are William & Mary graduates — people who are grounded in the liberal arts, who are excellent communicators and who are what we call business translators.”
Jones added that the Tech Talent initiative is competitive and outcome-based. He said William & Mary, along with other Virginia schools, will submit a proposal that would, after review, be solidified into the MOU. (See timeline.)
“The state is focused on degrees,” Jones explained. “But they're only focused on degrees that come from Virginia students, so they're only going to provide support for in-state degrees.”
The Tech Talent goals are ambitious, but not unreachable, according to Michael Lewis, the chair of the university’s Department of Computer Science. An undergraduate major in computer science has become more popular among William & Mary students over the past several years, with the number of bachelor’s degrees rising from 28 in 2013 to 64 in 2017, according to the William & Mary Fact Book maintained by the university’s Office of Institutional Research. Lewis said interest in a computer science major continues to grow.
“I would describe current demand for CS courses as ‘robust.’ For instance, for the spring 2019 semester we had about 400 registration override requests from about 200 students,” he said. Override requests are appeals from students seeking to be registered for classes that have reached capacity enrollment. “We are working to address the enrollment pressures.”
One way to reduce enrollment pressure is to add faculty. Lewis said the computer science department had four ongoing searches this year — one lecturer and four tenure-eligible positions. They’ve filled three of the tenure-eligible positions this year despite a hot job market in the academic aspects of computer science.
“For instance, in 2017, only 83 percent of the tenure-eligible positions listed in North America were filled — and only 87 percent of teaching positions. Departments are hiring en masse,” Lewis added. “A couple of years ago, UC Boulder hired 19 new faculty in one year.”
Lewis noted that ramping up the department from producing 70 bachelor degrees to at least 160 in 20 years will present some recruitment challenges. He said the department will work with the Office of Undergraduate Admission on attracting a pool of CS-interested students. A parallel set of initiatives will focus on developing additional pathways to the major.
“It is both a matter of attracting more computer science-interested students to William & Mary, and getting William & Mary students to consider a computer science major,” Lewis said. “Students arrive on campus with exposure to subjects such as math, English and history — but not as many arrive with exposure to computer science.”
William & Mary has developed a data science program that was started in 2017 and has progressed quickly. Matthias Leu, director of the interdisciplinary program, said the paperwork to establish a dedicated data science major was submitted to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in March. Students already enrolled in the interdisciplinary program may transition to the new degree in data science as early as spring 2020.
Leu added that the self-designed data science major has been popular. Some 40 students are taking the self-designed option.
“This year, we’ll graduate our first group of majors in the self-designed program,” he said. “There are 15 of them.”
Tech Talent is looking for graduate degrees as well, and Lewis said computer science has been working on adding a professional M.S.C. master’s degree for some time. Lewis noted that his department already collaborates in a professional M.S. degree in computational operations research (COR).
“But that program really lives in the math department,” he said. “Our current M.S. in computer science is research-oriented.”
Lewis said Dean of Arts & Sciences Kate Conley brought up the idea of a professional degree a few years ago. They realized that the proposed M.S.C. professional program would have a core of courses distinct from their M.S. and Ph.D. degree offerings. Lewis said that the addition of faculty to support an expanded undergraduate program would have the additional benefit of making possible the new M.S.C. program.
William & Mary Provost Michael Halleran said the suite of expanded programs at the university will benefit institution, students and Virginia equally.
“We are pleased that the Tech Talent program will help to provide the resources to provide expanded degree options for students who want to enter the workforce prepared to fill the Commonwealth's increasing demand for computer scientists and data analysts,” Halleran said.