Understaffing and Overworking in Computer Science Department

Dean of Faculty Kathy Oleson and professors from Reed’s Computer Science (CS) Department met with students on November 11 to discuss concerns about overwork and understaffing of department faculty that were raised in a recent open letter. When contacted for comments, Oleson asked that the Quest not publish a piece on the matter for fears of deterring new CS faculty candidates from applying.

The letter was written by Professor of Computer Science Mark Hopkins and sent to faculty on October 27, leaking on social media and Discord in early November. It criticizes a recent decision by the Committee for Advancement and Tenure (CAT) not to allow the CS department to hire tenure-track professor candidates at a higher starting salary than that set forth by official school policy. 

Someone has to
organize the junior
qual, someone has
to coordinate the
colloquium, someone
has to be chair. For
each bureaucratic
task, someone has to
do it, and there are so
very few someones in
a department of our
size, despite having
the student load of
a department many
times our size.
— Mark Hopkins

In the letter, Hopkins claimed that he has been working 55-hour weeks since 2019, and that to meet his workload in the Spring 2021 semester, he had to work between 80 and 90 hours each week. This overwork, he said, was a direct result of being part of a very small department with a disproportionately high student demand. “I wouldn’t have thought myself to be so fragile to crumble under excessive work,” wrote Hopkins. “But I did crumble.”

There are currently five tenure-track positions in the CS department, one of which was only added recently and is still scheduled to be filled. The search for a candidate to take that position is currently taking place, and according to Oleson, once it is finished the school will have “a more complete understanding of the staffing issues.”

According to multiple students who attended the Thursday meeting, Oleson said that the college is hoping to have all five tenured positions filled next year. But there may still be staffing issues on the horizon. Next year, Associate Professor of Computer Science Adam Groce will be on sabbatical. Hopkins is currently on sabbatical, and the matter of whether or not he will return to Reed is “an open question,” according to Groce. Furthermore, the contract of Visiting Associate Professor Eitan Frachtenberg runs out at the end of this academic year, and it is uncertain whether or not CAT will renew it. Even if the current tenure-track search succeeds — which it may not — should those three professors be absent next year, the CS department will only have four active faculty. Currently, a search for a visiting professor to replace Groce is being planned.

At the Thursday meeting, the fundamental worry of students in attendance was concern for what will happen if the college cannot fill open positions, which is a question with no good answer, according to Groce. 

Professor of Computer Science Jim Fix said in the meeting that, historically, the CS department has never tried to fill three positions at once. He added that past searches for CS faculty have “been lucky lots of times.” 

Computer Science is a recent addition to Reed’s major selection and, since then, demand has quickly skyrocketed. According to the Office of Institutional Research, the first six CS majors only graduated in 2019, alongside five CS/mathematics majors and one CS/physics major for a total of eleven graduates from the CS department. In 2020, there were twenty CS or interdisciplinary CS majors. Last April, there were twenty six. 

Currently there are 87 intended or declared CS majors, almost tied for fourth among all departments; there are also 22 declared or intended CS/Math majors. Each of those students must take between six and nine CS courses in order to graduate (including CS 121 and 221, which are mandatory), and once they are seniors must have a CS professor to advise their thesis. Groce estimated that everyone in the CS department last spring advised at least four theses, with some professors advising significantly more. By his estimate, CS professors were advising 7-8 theses each. 

An April 2021 open letter written by the Student Committee for Academic Policy and Planning claimed that, during that semester, the quality of learning in the CS department was hampered by the fact that “faculty members were sometimes unable to spend more than a couple of minutes with any individual student due to their workloads.” It continued, “this was not only true for office hours or regular advising, but also for thesis advising where their advisors were often unable to spend more than 20 minutes to discuss a student’s thesis with them.”

In his letter, Hopkins claimed to have had “chronically overloaded classrooms.” In spring of 2021, Hopkins said he ran all the lectures and all the labs of the intro CS class while advising six thesis students. 

Speaking about staff workload, Groce said, “Our numbers are far above what any department has faced in the last three years.” He added that, while there are other departments with high workloads, CS’s situation is an extreme case. 

In addition to teaching students, senior members of the CS department also have to take care of administrative duties. Hopkins wrote in his letter, “Someone has to organize the junior qual, someone has to coordinate the colloquium, someone has to be chair. For each bureaucratic task, someone has to do it, and there are so very few someones in a department of our size, despite having the student load of a department many times our size.”

At the meeting, suggestions to manage the growing number of CS students were to hire more staff to oversee theses and to find people from outside the school to help. Rather straightforwardly, the College seems to recognize that the only solution to a crisis of understaffing is to find more staff.

Unfortunately, finding faculty is easier said than done. According to Groce, hiring CS professors is a challenge for colleges nationally. There are numerous colleges looking to hire CS faculty, and not enough people with Computer Science PhDs to go around. The supply problem is only further exacerbated by the availability of lucrative jobs in the tech industry for CS PhDs. Generally, he said, university CS departments receive significantly fewer applicants than other academic departments. 

In his letter, Hopkins claimed that CS faculty searches have been stymied by a starting salary that “was not competitive.” In fall 2020, he said, the department lost a promising candidate explicitly due to the salary offered.

Concerned that not being able to offer a competitive salary would prevent them from hiring much-needed support, the CS department petitioned CAT to offer a starting salary higher than that designated by the college’s salary scale, which maintains pay equity between departments as a central tenet. However, the request was denied. 

According to students who attended the Thursday meeting, Oleson supported CAT’s decision and expressed that, if the college could not make a competitive financial offer, job candidates could be drawn to Reed by good employee benefits and a passion for education. She hoped candidates would choose Reed “because of colleagues and students.” 

In an email to the Quest, Oleson said that exceptions to the salary scale rules are “rare.” In order for an exception to be granted for a specific search, a department would have to demonstrate “(1) prior failed searches, (2) strong evidence that compensation was the primary motivating factor, and (3) strong evidence that the greatest possible efforts using standard policies and procedures had been made.” Even if the CS department demonstrated to CAT that salary was a limiting factor in hiring candidates, they would also have to demonstrate that they had pursued other solutions that had repeatedly failed. There has only been one failed CAT search thus far, not the multiple needed to start meeting these criteria.

Thus far, the economics department is the only department that has received permission to hire new faculty at a higher level on the salary scale than is stipulated for newly hired faculty, another department that has to compete with well-paying private sector jobs. Groce noted that, while the stresses the CS department is undergoing are comparable to those the economics department once faced, the present situation is even worse than that of the economics department.

The CS department is not the only STEM department currently facing staffing issues; in the statistics department of the mathematics department, both of the two senior, tenure-track professors are currently visiting other schools and have offers to teach elsewhere. Said Oleson at the meeting, “It’ll be a while before we know what that department will look like next year.”

While Hopkins’ letter addresses the issues discussed above, much of it expressed Hopkins’ frustration with CAT’s apparent lack of investment in discussing their denial of the CS department’s request for higher pay for new hires. After an unsatisfactory first meeting with CAT, at which only half of the committee was in attendance, Hopkins described utilizing every avenue available to him to try to plan another meeting with them. CAT was not happy with this course of action and refused to schedule another meeting. 

A public meeting did not occur until Hopkins’ letter was leaked, and CS students seem to agree with Hopkins’ and Groce’s sentiments. The meeting on Thursday took place in Bio 19 — a small auditorium in the biology building with 57 installed seats — and according to multiple students who attended, enough people showed up that they had to pull chairs from other rooms to get everyone seats. 

Finding new staff is the only solution to the current understaffing issues that the college has identified, and the department seems to be going to unusual lengths to find staff. On the CS department’s homepage, beneath the standard “Faculty & Staff” header which links to a list of the department’s faculty, is a less than standard subheader that reads “open faculty position.” And at the top of the list of CS faculty is a large link in bold red letters that reads, “WE ARE SEARCHING FOR A TENURE TRACK PROFESSOR IN COMPUTER SCIENCE.” Both links lead to a job listing that provides a basic overview of the position and its requirements. The page says that applications submitted before October 25, 2021 received “full consideration,” but encourages prospective candidates to continue to apply.

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