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New computer science chair seeks solution for small faculty size

The fastest growing major at Duke recently installed a new department chair. 

Pankaj Agarwal, RJR Nabisco professor of computer science, was re-appointed as department chair on August 15, succeeding Ronald Parr, professor of computer science. Agarwal previously served in this role from 2004 to 2010. In response to the strain increased demand for computer science classes has imposed on a small faculty, Agarwal wrote in an email about plans to enhance the department through collaborations with other departments, as well as pursuing initiatives for enhancing minorities' involvement in computer science.

Agarwal begins his leadership during a crucial development period for the computer science department. 

Computer science faculty have stressed the consequences of students' increasing demand for computer science classes. The number of students enrolled in Computer Science 101L increased from 40 to 609 students in the space of a decade, despite a net increase of only two faculty members in the same period.

“Our classes are huge, we’ve had trouble finding rooms for our classes, so this is all new for us as we’re swelling,” said Susan Rodger, director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of computer science.

Bruce Donald, James B. Duke professor of computer science, explained that the lack of faculty leads to larger class sizes and limited class variety. The resultant student-to-faculty ratio is disadvantageous to students interested in research opportunities in the field.

That said, not all students felt the computer science department is lacking in faculty. 

“I think the department is aware that there are more students and have handled it really well,” said senior Priya Sarkar, a teaching assistant for CS 101L. “If I ever had questions, the professors, even though they’re really busy, had time to answer them.”

Parr wrote in an email that during his time as chair, he recognized that there was the growing surge of computer science enrollment. He tried to respond to this trend by changing how the department operated, making it more efficient. However, with little increase in resources, limited enrollment in classes was inevitable.

“Significant investment in computer science is essential for Duke to serve its students and maintain its position as a top university,” he wrote.

Agarwal wrote that the computer science department is authorized to hire two new faculty this year, as well as two joint faculty with the electrical and computer engineering department. However, given its slow growth in recent years, the future of faculty size remains unclear.

Donald attributed the stagnant growth to two factors: Duke’s hiring process for quantitative science positions and limited resources due to structural issues.

In the past, most prospective faculty hires had to go through the University’s validation process, which includes a Quantitative Initiative Committee, Donald said. However, this committee is separate from the computer science department, and thus lacks experience and knowledge in the field. The department must also compete with others for quantitative science positions.

“The structure of this committee, in particular, and the quantitative initiative, in general, was a missed opportunity to build computer science at Duke,” Donald said. 

Faculty applicants are currently not subjected to the committee's approval, Agarwal wrote. Donald said he understood that future hires would not be reviewed by the committee. 

Structural deficits within the University also contribute to the lack of computer science resources, Donald noted. Duke does not have a mechanism to relate the number of students in a department to that department’s funding. Therefore, though computer science is one of the most popular majors at Duke, it lags behind in funding.

Agarwal noted that he hoped to address this issue through collaborations with other departments.

"Working closely with the department of electrical and computer engineering and other units such as statistics, mathematics and [the Information Initiative at Duke] we will help Duke become a leader in computing," Agarwal wrote. 

Interdisciplinary research involving computer science is already underway. A recent research project Donald is working on involves faculty from the departments of chemistry, biochemistry and statistics.

Agarwal added that he will focus on initiatives to broaden participation of underrepresented minorities in computer science. In collaboration with the Pratt School of Engineering, he said he planned to build upon the Duke Technology Scholars program, which looks is inspire women to pursue computer science and engineering careers.

He also plans to reform the curriculum—particularly for introductory classes—to increase student diversity. A committee to address curriculum reform was recently created as part of this revamping process.

“We are looking at our curriculum with what we currently have and what we can do better, possibly a certificate,” Rodger said.

Despite longstanding challenges for the department, its faculty express optimism about its future trajectory.

“Pankaj is an incredible leader, and I think he will do a great job steering the ship through this," Donald said. "I think we are on a cusp of a great leap forward."


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