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Western Washington University is considering eliminating or drastically reducing its computer science department, a proposal that comes amid a growing need for software developers and engineers in the state.

“It was a big surprise to me. I didn’t dream that anybody would consider reducing the computer science department in the 21st century,” said WWU computer science chair Geoffrey Matthews. “There is such a huge, huge need for computer scientists. It had never occurred to me that they would consider doing that as one of their first responses to a budget cut.”

In fact, Matthews believed that the department — given the need for software developers in the state — would be a candidate for increased resources. The department has placed its students at Adobe, Boeing, Microsoft as well as smaller Bellingham software companies like Logos Bible Software and DSI over the years.

Matthews received the news that the department was in jeopardy last week.

“I was stunned,”  Matthews tells GeekWire. “All of our students have multiple job offers, and they are all going into high-tech jobs at $60,000 to $70,000 right out of school which, of course, is exactly what we need to get the state of Washington out of the recession that it is in.”

Budget cuts are forcing cuts across multiple departments at Western, from art and theater to geology and sociology, according to a statement on the proposed cutbacks released earlier this month.  It is unclear from that statement just how the computer science department will be impacted.

A growing need for Computer Science grads in the state (Source: HECB)

But Matthews, who joined the department in 1985 and was named chairman last year, said he’s been told that the university is considering the elimination of the computer science major altogether. At this point, about 100 students are majoring in computer science.

The department, which has about a dozen faculty members, graduates about 40 majors each year. Just this year, the department accepted 90 new majors and is on a significant growth trajectory.

Existing majors will be able to complete their degrees. But, over time, the major would be phased out if the proposal goes through, Matthews said.

“Just the fact that it is being considered, strikes me as bizarre,” said Matthews.

A key meeting is being held between University administrators and computer science faculty today at 2 p.m. to consider options. The proposal comes just as technology leaders are set to gather in downtown Seattle for the annual Technology Alliance luncheon, an organization which over the years has touted the importance of boosting higher education in the state.

“If you go to the front page of Western, they have a mission statement. And one of their top goals is to serve the state of Washington,” Matthews said. “Well, according to the (Higher Education Board report) the need for computer science majors outstrips all other needs for higher education in the state of Washington by far.” (See chart).

Many graduates of the program are outraged at the possibility. Scott Laird, a 1997 graduate, said that computer science grads were the second highest paid of all new graduates coming out of the university in a 2009 to 2010 survey.

“Personally, I’m shocked that they’re even considering closing the program,” said Laird.

UPDATE: Following today’s meeting with university administrators, I reached out to WWU Computer Science Chair Geoffrey Matthews for an update. He said the meeting confirmed what was communicated earlier today.

“Yes we are being considered for a cut (and before other departments or colleges, such as Fairhaven), but no decisions have yet been made,” Matthews says. “Our only real hope right now is that the legislature’s budget cuts are no bigger than 3 percent.”

We’ll keep tracking the story, and share more details as they arise. Also, it is worth noting that Seattle tech entrepreneur Jeremy Jaech — chair of the Technology Alliance — mentioned the situation at Western in remarks today at the annual technology luncheon.

“What we talk about and how important education is to our economy and for Washington state students, we are still cutting it, and that it is a real shame,” said Jaech.

Follow-up: Western Washington University Provost: ‘We’re not looking forward enough” with computer science

Previously on GeekWire: “UW’s Ed Lazowska on the engineering talent crunch”

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