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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.”

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