Riordan

Western Washington University Provost Catherine Riordan says she hasn’t made a final decision about the fate of the university’s computer science department. But Riordan says everything is on the table as the university deals with budget cuts, telling GeekWire today that Western is “leaving the door open for any kind of outcome.”

In an interview, Riordan said the computer science department could be doing more to meet the needs of the state of Washington in terms of forging ties with technology leaders and revamping curriculum. “It is my take that they have not done enough,” said Riordan.

The comments come a day after GeekWire reported on the possibility that the computer science department would be shuttered at Western — a move that has caught people in the department off guard. “I didn’t dream that anybody would consider reducing the computer science department in the 21st century,” longtime professor Geoffrey Matthews told GeekWire.

The story sparked a flurry of comments (most of which supported Matthews), and drew reaction from the stage at the annual Technology Alliance luncheon in downtown Seattle Tuesday.

It’s a complex issue that speaks to the challenges facing higher-education. While it would seem counterintuitive to eliminate or reduce computer science, given the need for technical positions in the state, Riordan said her goal is to offer high-quality educational programs that meet the needs of students and the state.

GeekWire interviewed Riordan today to get a better sense for the situation, and the background.

What’s the status of the computer science department at Western? “It is undergoing a critical review, like the programs in every single one of our colleges at Western as a result of state budget cuts. We are having to look at every program that we offer seriously, and look at centrality, quality and where that fits in terms of our ability to meet the needs of the state of Washington. While you have heard about computer science, this kind of scrutiny is going on across campus and has been going on for the past couple of years.”

People have been surprised that computer science would face cutbacks given the need for these types of skills in the state. “We have really been looking at these programs over the past couple of years, and we are very proud of our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. People are coming out of them well-educated and hitting the ground running. They are well-integrated in the campus. And normally we would be having this discussion internally, but we are worried that we’re not looking forward enough with respect to computer science. What we have asked them, as well as other departments in other colleges, is: Are you really thinking about the future? Are you preparing graduates for that future? Are you engaging the business community and other people to a sufficient degree, that we know the programs in your area are up to the Western standards? And that’s what we have asked the computer science program to do. We have not decided to eliminate the major. We have not decided to eliminate the graduate program. We have not decided to eliminate the department. But we are saying to them: Take a serious look at what you are doing at the future and how you are meeting the needs of the state of Washington.”

In what areas could the department improve? “We learned yesterday, and I heard for the first time, that they have been involved in updating their curriculum in a major way to better meet the needs of students. That was a very good development. … I think there are other opportunities, and maybe I don’t want to speak to those because I am not an expert. But what I am hoping we can do is parlay some of the interest that we are getting from the technology community to helping us to better understand the future.”

What else do they need to improve? “We have a lot of active IT professionals right here in the Bellingham community, and we’d like the faculty to reach out to a greater extent. There are some things that they do. But they could do more, we feel, to really leverage what we have here in Bellingham … to help advance the community and the industry in this area. There’s a golden opportunity we think, and we really don’t feel like we have been taking advantage of that to a sufficient degree.”

You met with faculty yesterday. Is it still a possibility that the program could be cut at this point? “We are leaving the door open for any kind of outcome. Every conversation we are having across campus, we are not going to close the door on the option at this point. … We are really hoping that our colleagues will step up and meet the challenge of looking toward the future and meeting the needs of the state of Washington.”

Some members of the technology community have said this is a boneheaded idea given the skills necessary in today’s economy. What’s your reaction to that criticism? “We really would like for those people who think this might be boneheaded and that there is a great need for computer science graduates, and they have a sense of what those might look like in the future, we’d really like for them to partner with us and think about the future for computer science at Western…. I’ve talked to a couple people about what that technology might look like and we are not really there, but we are committed and we are confident that our computer science department will step up and really listen to those out there that are interested in computer science … and how to best meet the needs for computer science in the future.”

What’s next? “We will make some budget decisions within the next month in preparation for getting our budget approved in June. But it is very unlikely that we will have any definitive answer about computer science in that time because we really need them to do a more serious analysis.”

Some have suggested that this is a game of politics? “It is not a political move. We really don’t do that, and the reason we don’t do that is while we would be making that political move we’d also be undermining our ability to continue to attract the top flight students in the state to our programs.”

I’ve heard that geology, sociology and computer science are the three programs in jeopardy? “Everything. Everything is being evaluated. The work that is being done in our STEM disciplines has been really phenomenal…. Any tax payer in the state of Washington would be pleased with the level of rigor that they have gone forward with in evaluating their programs for how core they are to our mission here and …. also their efficiency to the extent to which we could recover if we were to eliminate one of them or reduce one of them. That college (of science and technology) has … done an excellent job and really has allowed us to continue to meet the needs of more and more students studying STEM at Western and allow us to do it in a quality way.”

On the tough situation faced by Western: “Our faculty and department chairs and our deans have been engaged in this type of effort for three years where we have been closely scrutinizing what we are doing. We really hope that the end is in sight, but it has been a very, very tough three years.”

Have you been surprised by the reaction in the tech community to this possibility? “The unfortunate thing is that they are reacting not to the real situation, they are reacting to the elimination of the major and maybe the graduate program…. That is an unfortunate part, but in some sense it is heartening to know of people’s interest…. We’ve heard from our alumni, and it doesn’t surprise me that we have dedicated alumni and friends. I just wish that we were dealing with the real task before us which is looking at the future of computer science and that we have a quality program that really, truly is meeting the (needs) of the state of Washington.”

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews and Facebook.

Comments

  • Reflector8

    John– nice job following up on this story. I saw Lasowska commented on the earlier story (if it was indeed him). Between his voice and the Provosts, the full picture emerges. Thanks.

  • Susannah Malarkey

    STEM is actually science technology ENGINEERING and math

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Susannah, that was my editing mistake, moving too quickly. Fixed.

  • Susannah Malarkey

    We at the TA are weighing in on this with WWU as is the WTIA. I would encourage others to contact them as well. It is COMPLETELY boneheaded to cut the major most in demand by industry.

  • James

    Perhaps I’m naive to the idiosyncrasies of higher education but her explanation still strikes me as illogical. This area/region has a proven need and market for qualified computer engineering professionals. If they department is failing to meet expectations, change leadership; don’t eliminate the program.

    • Me

      What do you expect from someone who can’t even come up with a straight answer when asked what’s wrong with the program?

      • Kevin

        Even more to the point, what do you expect from a provost who didn’t even know the CS department was in the midst of updating their curriculum?  She sounds out of touch at best.  How can she criticize them for not being forward looking enough when they’ve been working on updating the curriculum (even before this started) and she apparently couldn’t be bothered to contact the department head and ask “hey, what are you doing to plan for the future of the department?”

  • Rick

    “we are worried that we’re not looking forward enough with respect to computer science.”

    Alright, let’s put on our thinking caps and see how we can better “look forward with respect to computer science.” I know! Let’s eliminate the CS department!

    • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

      I, too, was wondering how one “moves forward” with an eliminated program.

  • http://profiles.google.com/nuez.jr Geofrey Sanders

    She waffled so much, syrup came out of my monitor.

    • Checkermarx

      @google-5b1fdf2baf486a7c0124749587b3a844:disqus

      I’d be a bit concerned over decisions of this magnitude being proposed by adminstrators so completely ignorant of Computer Science in general

  • Kable Wilmoth

    I understand that budget cuts are tough to make. I believe the current plan of ‘fairly’ making each college within WWU take the same cut is not serving our state’s needs. The recent studies obviously show that Computer Science degrees are in high demand. Just because the Computer Science department isn’t as tightly integrated into the other departments like chemistry, math etc, doesn’t make it the last default program to cut. I believe they need to start looking outside of the STEM colleges.

    Do you feel the following Colleges should take equal cuts?
    Business and Economics (College of) Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies Fine and Performing Arts (College of) Graduate School Humanities and Social Sciences (College of) Huxley College of the Environment Sciences and Technology (College of) Woodring College of EducationAt least the Computer Science department is accredited by an out side organization (one of the few departments in the University) and tries to make sure what is being taught stays relevant to the needs outside of the University.

    • http://twitter.com/darienbrown Darien Brown

      The piece of the puzzle you’re missing is the fact that the less technical the field of study, the more income the school nets off of each student. Tuition is basically level across the board, so schools are perversely incentivized to cut the programs with more expensive faculty and facility costs — even though these are the programs that lead to better opportunity for students. There’s a terminal misalignment of interests between students, universities and the state.

      It’s a deeply broken system.

      • JSug

         That is, simultaneously, the most logical, succinct, and disturbing summary of the current situation I have read. Thank you.

  • Jordan

    I
    find it somewhat disingenuous to say “the real task before us which is
    looking at the future of computer science and that we have a quality program
    that really, truly is meeting the (needs) of the state of Washington” The
    real task is to cut spending. The university doesn’t have enough funding to
    maintain its level of service and has to cut something even if everything is of
    the utmost quality. The CS department is one of the few externally accredited
    programs in the university, it’s students always pass the Major Field Test and
    often rank in the 90th percentile, and virtually all of its students get great
    jobs immediately upon graduation. Washington state has a great shortage of tech
    workers and, even after hiring all of WWU’s grads, is importing a great number
    of H1B workers to fill the gap. If the department’s quality and Washington’s
    needs were truly being considered, cutting the program wouldn’t.

  • http://twitter.com/stevepnewman Steve Newman

    If the CS department is failing to meet the needs of the state, be specific as to why and fix those problems. Every program at Western should be held to that standard. No department should need to be threatened with elimination simply to drive home the above point. Identify the core needs of the State, establish the departments that best meet that need and invest in and empower the department heads to achieve those objectives. Delivering high quality graduates in Computer Science is a clear need so I would prefer to discuss the specific issues of poor performance and get the department where it needs to be.

    • SCJ

      The vast majority of the WWU CS dept grads have been receiving multiple job offers. Turning out a high percentage of tax paying citizens seems like the best way a university can support the state during hard economic times.

    • Kevin

      It’s hard to take anything she says seriously.  One one hand she says that they’re very proud of the department and its accomplishments.  Then she says they’re not planning for the future.  Then she says she just learned a few days ago that the CS department was already in the midst of a curriculum change plan to address the very things she accuses them of not doing.  (And they apparently were doing this _before_ the university threatened to kill the department.)

      The only thing I take from the interview is that she’s very, very out of touch with what’s actually happening at the university.  How hard is it to send an E-mail or call up the department head (or hell, all of the department heads en-masse) and ask “tell me how you’re planning for the future of your department”?  It’s not, and that’s actually part of her job.  This sounds like nothing but a self-serving attempt to save face when she’s been publicly humiliated for doing her job poorly (and looking like an idiot in the process).

  • WWU CS Student

    So she’s saying that an accredited program that is continually evaluating it’s self in respect to the leading technologies and how universities teach so that it can offer a great program is not forward thinking enough?

    How about the fact that our majors score extremely well of the field exam (namely in the 90th percentile).The fact we compete in competitions like the AIIDE and CCDC.

    How about integrating with the community? The talks and recruitment from Google (less than a week ago), Linuxfest (2 weeks ago), Microsoft (4 weeks ago), Terradata, Logos, ect. that come to us. We have a local robotics club, we have many people who go to local usergroup meetings. As a department we offer free development as part of our professional course series.

    She hasn’t even looked at our major in depth.

    • http://profiles.google.com/solid.se7en sam hansen

      Nailed it.

    • SCJ

      Riordan was surprised to hear the curriculum had recently been revamped! She certainly gives the impression that she has formed her opinions of the CS dept without even finding out what goes on there! She’s an embarrassment to Western Washington University and I think she should be fired.

    • cs alumni

      Not to mention our student groups like the ACM and AWC that put on events to involve majors and non majors alike. Members of AWC have hosted middle school students for presentations at our labs and gone to talk at their schools. I’m going to agree that she hasn’t looked into the major at all.

  • Mason

    Heres why I think she completely fails: IT Professionals…. CS is not IT!!!!!!!!

    • can’t believe my ears

      That is true. You can go to WSU to learn about managing IT for large companies

  • http://profiles.google.com/solid.se7en sam hansen

    1) “But we are saying to them: Take a serious look at what you are doing at the future and how you are meeting the needs of the state of Washington” Uh… ok? Taking on the absolutely ridiculous assumption that the department hasn’t been trying to meet then needs of Washington State, how the hell are they supposed to even do that when you plan to eliminate the program? Also, isn’t your followup basically evidence that “Washington State” has been letting you know this is a ridiculous idea and you feel the need to justify the decision?

    “Are you really thinking about the future? Are you preparing graduates for that future? Are you engaging the business community and other people to a sufficient degree, that we know the programs in your area are up to the Western standards?” How about _YOU_ take a look at any number of recent graduates rather than just assuming the contrapositive and demanding departments meet your uneducated and uninformed “standards”.

    2) “We learned yesterday, and I heard for the first time, that they have been involved in updating their curriculum in a major way to better meet the needs of students. That was a very good development.” So basically… someone told you something which would have been trivially obvious had you actually looked in to the matter? How many f’n times do we have that stupid “intro language” debate? I seem to remember nearly constant debate regarding the curriculum track and relevant topics. In the last few years didn’t we just get a routine accreditation audit which ENSURES THE CURRICULUM IS RELEVANT AND PERTINENT! Wasn’t that like… I dunno… a HUGE undertaking? Well I guess it appears you didn’t bother to look into that either.

    “I think there are other opportunities, and maybe I don’t want to speak to those because I am not an expert.” Oh ok, so… first you make the claim that cs needs to better meet the needs of the states economy, then you hint that you have some enlightened idea as to how to do that, THEN you say that you don’t want to let everyone know your ideas because you “might not be an expert”?! You are basically asserting you have sufficient expertise to claim that the department is not sufficiently meeting the states needs, then you claim you lack sufficient expertise to actually know what to do about it? I think I am beginning to see a pattern here…

    3) “We have a lot of active IT professionals right here in the Bellingham community, and we’d like the faculty to reach out to a greater extent. There are some things that they do. But they could do more, we feel, to really leverage what we have here in Bellingham”. How about you ACTUALLY look at the local economy and see if you can “get a sense” of how many of those active IT professionals you speak of come directly from the cs department. Once again… it appears you didn’t bother to look into this either.

    4) “We are really hoping that our colleagues will step up and meet the challenge of looking toward the future and meeting the needs of the state of Washington.” Blah blah blah PR filler crap.

    5) “We will make some budget decisions within the next month in preparation for getting our budget approved in June. But it is very unlikely that we will have any definitive answer about computer science in that time because we really need them to do a more serious analysis.” Wait wait wiat… I though you told me earlier that you have been “looking at these departments over the past couple of years”. Now suddenly everything is up in the air until computer science can do a more serious analysis?! Ok… what exactly would you like them to analyze? Let’s do some analysis shall we… The computer science department has alums happily employed at IBM, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Amazon, Boeing, WWU, UW, the State, and the federal government (to name just a few). These jobs range anywhere from entry level support personnel, software developers, software testers, program leads, systems engineers, systems analysts, engineering leads, program managers, vice presidents and corporate officers! …But you know what, I can totally see where you are coming from when you say that the department probably isn’t doing anything to meet the states needs… How about YOU do some damn analysis!

    “and how to best meet the needs for computer science in the future.” Uh… so if you cut the department, how exactly are you meeting the needs for computer science in the future? Ya… did you even read this before you sent it out?

    6) “It is not a political move. We really don’t do that…” Oh right, it’s totally not a matter of politics. Thats why the entire campus at large knows what and who is planned for elimination, and is given AMPLE opportunity to voice their opinion. You wouldn’t do things like… string an employee along for 6 months with fear of being laid off, all the while telling him that the budget and layoff process process is as transparent and peer reviewed as possible. You would certainly do your best to properly inform this employee of any pending changes in his career, and would certainly NOT have some HR monkey show up at his office at 5pm on a Friday telling him that he was being cut. That would be absolutely absurd given your commitment to “not play politics”. Oh wait… all of those things did happen. TO ME!

    “…we’d also be undermining our ability to continue to attract the top flight students in the state to our programs.” I think your stupid self contradiction and lack of any real involvement in what you are cutting off is doing a pretty good job of that for you.

    7) “but it has been a very, very tough three years.” …Uh, weren’t you appointed provost in April of 2009?

    8) “…we have a quality program that really, truly is meeting the (needs) of the state of Washington.” WAAAIIITTT A MINUTE, didn’t you just basically base your entire argument on …NOT this?!?! I’m so confused, this is starting to feel like an M. Knight Shyamalalalalallalallalalala movie!

    Finally) I suspect your choice to eliminate computer science is based on the fact that they don’t pander to your stupid self image. They are too busy doing crazy things like… actually educating people. Also – Western allows employees to take courses free of charge provided there is room… I suggest you take a philosophy class and learn the basic principles of contradiction in an argument. OH! You could also take a computer science class, but….

    /rantsmas/

    • Cheryl Walters

      Great points Sam! If the State of Washington would look at cutting the administrative positions of those like that smarmy Riordan, rather than the teaching positions in STEM, our state’s college graduates would have the slimmest chance of being competitive with their peers from Singapore, Japan, India, China, Europe…gee just about everyone else in the world.

  • Ed Lazowska

    The standards she’s proposing may or may not be appropriate for a computer science program, but they are not ones that would be applied to academic programs generally. Yes, all programs should constantly be trying to improve. But the Provost’s comments strike me as an attempt to rationalize a bone-headed move.

    The WWU VP for University Relations send a page-long edu-babble letter to everyone who posted yesterday; it’s linked from the WWU post here:

    http://news.cs.washington.edu/

    • SegFait

      We received a “form email” response from WWU’s VP for University
      Relations. It’s a full page of administrative gibberish. Or, as our
      Webmaster said, “Must … Take … Shower …” Favorite Quote ever!

  • Concern

    I think there is more going on here than meets the eye. I think there is a move to restructure the department and re-brand it under some technology extension. Considering there is a search on for a new Dean

  • GoatCheese

    Sounds like they do not know the difference between MIS and CS.

  • http://blog.CascadeSoft.net @CascadeRam

    The provost says ”It is my take that they have not done enough”, and then follows that up with a lot of vague rhetoric and hand-waving without providing specifics.

    imo she needs to

    1) be more specific about the criteria and metrics she used to conclude that that the CS department has not done “enough”

    2) evaluate what the CS department has actually accomplished (regardless of whether it is “enough” or not)

    3) explain why the CS department’s accomplishments may not be sufficient to stop it from being axed (and compare the CS department’s accomplishments with that of other departments that aren’t being considered for being axed)

    4) explain why it might be better to axe the CS department instead of fixing any specific problems that the CS department may have.

  • johnhcook

    Wonder if this headline will resonate:

    Computer science grads entertain juicy offers as tech hiring heats up http://www.geekwire.com/2011/tech-hiring-boom-leads-lucrative-offers-computer-science-grads

  • Dave, LG, CPG

    Folks, I posted this on the earlier story, but its more appropriate here. I’m a fan of STEM. If you are a true Geek, the exclusive comments related to the WWU computer science post miss the mark. There are geeks other than computer jockeys. Who do you think finds the materials we use to build things, power machines, make electronics work, and clean up everyone’s mess once society spits it out? The demand for geologists could be argued is much more extreme than computer scientists. With such a small pool of earth scientists to begin with, it would be a huge loss to our country if such an important discipline got cut. Even though there is a limited pool of educated geologists, as well as computer scientists, the geology pool is literally that; a pool. The computer scientists operate in a lake. And the sad thing is, we need an ocean of scientists and engineers; whether that be a geologist or a computer scientist. Everyone, including the media, should focus on that deficit and not pit one science discipline against another. Do we really need another business major? And do I need to mention who analyzes and responds to our natural disasters?

  • Anon

     sounds like Riordan should be the first one to be cut.

  • Max Load

    Working in Higher Education, in another state facing budget “issues”; I have to ask:

    How many Administrators are facing the ax?  How deep are the cuts you plan on making to admin budgets?

    I ask because I hear the same sort of inane prattle, while seeing educators told to do more with less and accept capricious mandates that have *nothing* to with their core missions.  At the same time the *last* place the fiscal/firing ax falls is at the top, where the problem usually lies.

  • Bill

    This is Washington State,  you cut the popular, hear the cry of disbelief, then everyone is happy to have their taxes raised to fun the program (which goes into the general fun or has the clause “or support middle to low income families”).

    Washington State : Economic Prosperity thru higher taxes and lower wages.

  • WWU Geo Grad

     I am shocked that Geology program is even being considered.  The faculty are devoted to their craft and go above and beyond to educate their students, not just by providing knowledge, but by extracting the best qualities from each individual.  Perhaps it’s time for the administration to take some of those cut backs to their own salary, and take away such important majors to our society.  Western is more than a school to go for than a teaching degree.  They cut these majors, and enrollment will drop adding to more financial troubles in the future.    

  • Sedulous

    Would converting PART or ALL of the CS program to an online format help?
    Given the nature of the degree, that seems like an appropriate delivery model.

  • Tstormchik

    I think she’s embarrassed that CS majors get high paying jobs right out of college without a business degree. And she’s been very clearly put of touch with reality. Her other comments outside geekwire have included the notion that, since everyone knows how to use word processors and email, computer science is at a standstill. And then, who did she talk to about the CS department? The janitors? Business majors? How about asking the biggest employer of WWU CS grads, Microsoft? Oh, right, that would mean she would have to admit she hasn’t a clue and is entirely unqualified to be provost.

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