Restrictions on Computer Science classes stunt department’s diversity goals

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Photo Credit: Helen Brown | Daily Texan Staff

Registration is often the most stressful time for students. We all know the feeling of really wanting to take a certain class, only to watch it fill up before our chance to register. For computer science students especially, this struggle is a way of life.

Last week, The New York Times published an article examining the difficulties computer science students at universities such as UT face when registering for classes. At UT, this manifests in the form of required elective classes filling up before underclassmen can even register, leading to waitlists as long as 100 people.

The article explains that the issue also further discourages underrepresented minorities and women from joining computer science. Unless the University expands its efforts to curb the registration problem, this issue will continue to fester and prevent improvements to diversity.

Internally transferring into computer science at UT is notoriously hard for similar reasons. Since the department is already crowded, a transfer applicant’s chances are very slim without a high GPA. This means that the best path for most people to pursue a career in computer science at UT is to apply for the major when applying before their freshman year. Since women and minorities are less likely to have taken computer science classes in high school, this puts them at a disadvantage.

Advertising senior Audrey McNay experienced this problem at her all-girls high school, which did not offer AP computer science. Eventually, she was able to take the class as a senior by bussing to the affiliated all-boys school.

“When I was applying to college, I was debating really hard between chemical engineering and computer science,” McNay said. “I ultimately decided to do Chemical Engineering over CS because I had taken two years of chemistry, but when I was applying to college, I was only a few weeks into my CS class.”

The recent interest in computer science due to growing wages in the tech industry has exacerbated the problem. According to Bruce Porter, the associate chairman for academics for the Department of Computer Science, the number of students enrolled in computer science at UT has increased from 750 in 2009 to over 1,900 today. 

While demand for computer science has increased, the supply of professors to teach classes has not. The inability to meet the increased demand is further deterring diversity in the department.

“It’s sort of treading water,” Porter said. “The country doesn’t produce (enough) professors. Our best luck was hiring about four professors in one year a few years ago, so it’s hard to hire our way out of this problem.”

The leaders of the department face some tough decisions. According to Porter, they want to admit as many qualified students as possible without compromising the quality of their education by increasing class sizes like some other top computer science departments have. The only way to achieve both of these goals is to hire more faculty who can teach more classes. 

One possible solution is hiring more adjunct professors. Adjunct professors work on a more contractual basis than tenure-track professors and thus might be easier to hire, as they can work for the University without the expectation of long-term commitment. Porter agreed that focusing on hiring adjunct faculty could be an effective strategy. 

Unfortunately, the situation has not improved during my four years at UT. While I respect the efforts of the Department of Computer Science to reach out to minorities and cater to as many students as possible, the department needs to make serious changes to its recruiting strategy to enable minorities and women to break glass ceilings in the tech industry.

Govil is a computer science and government senior from Austin.