PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999
Wanted: Computer Profs

By David Brindley

To paraphrase an old song title: How 'ya gonna keep 'em in the classroom after they've seen the green?

That's the dilemma computer science departments nationwide are facing as more and more professors are being lured away from academic chairs to more lucrative high-tech industry jobs. What's worse, universities are finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions.

Illustration by Ralph ButlerConsider this: Cornell University hired three new electrical and computer engineering faculty members this fall but lost six others from its roster; at the University of Washington, four new scholars came on board while five left. Even Princeton University's highly ranked computer science department has unfilled faculty positions after making four offers this year and hiring only three professors.

The difficulty? While new computer engineering Ph.D.'s can expect to earn $50,000 to $65,000 in a junior faculty position, starting salaries in the high-tech sector are closer to $100,000, not including highly remunerative stock options and other perks.

This all adds up to a "severe" computer science faculty shortage, according to the nonprofit Computing Research Association. In a recent report called "The Supply of Information Technology Workers in the United States," the CRA found that "the high industrial demand for IT workers is siphoning off too many graduate students and faculty from the universities, leaving an insufficient number to educate the next generation of IT workers."

That leaves those who opted for corporate life holding the greenbacks, and some of their former colleagues green with envy.

Geeks are

It may seem hard to believe, but being a geek is trendy. Witness the popular new TV show Freaks and Geeks. And on college campuses, where one barometer for geekiness is enrollment in computer-related courses, the geeks are gaining in numbers.

More and more undergrads seeking high-tech training are flocking to engineering departments across the country. At the University of Maryland at College Park, for example, the number of computer engineering majors soared 42 percent between 1996 and 1998 to a total of 1,752 students.

What's behind the surge in interest? Marketability. The nation's hot Internet sector and an increasingly strong demand for high-tech workers have pushed starting salaries to $50,000 a year or more. In order to cash in on the bounty, though, college graduates must have the technical background that the computer industry is looking for. And that background is found in engineering departments.

The trend is likely to continue. Teenagers aged 13 to 17 ranked software development as one of their top three career choices, according to a survey last year by the Institute for Youth Development.

Another factor is that some states are luring students to pursue technical degrees with scholarships, along with the caveat that once the students graduate, they stay put. Last year, Maryland began offering undergraduate engineering majors up to $3,000 in scholarships if they promised to take jobs in the state's technology sector after graduation. More than 700 college-bound Maryland students took advantage of the scholarships this year.

With incentives like that, being a geek doesn't seem so bad.

Advice for Students by Students

Students considering what classes to take have a new weapon in their arsenal: independent online course evaluations. At least two new commercial Web sites have sprung up that offer student critiques of courses and professors.

While online student evaluations are offered at universities across the country, from MIT to Berkeley, most are official sites run by the college itself or by sanctioned student organizations. The majority of those sites are restricted only to students and university personnel. Two new start-up companies, and, however, offer independent forums for students to voice their praise and criticism about professors and courses for the whole World Wide Web to see.

Not surprisingly, the results are a mixed bag, ranging from the predictable ("I hated this class") to the ludicrous ("the only reason I made an 'A' was because I sent him a naked picture of myself"). Still, a surprising number of positive reviews surface, along with helpful advice.

One computer science course at the University of Texas at Austin, received an overall grade of 'A-' on's site. "The professor rocks. Go to class, he teaches a lot of interesting stuff," says one student. Another opines: "Best lecturer I've ever had. Great teaching skills, clear examples, but the book is useless." And of a Tulane University computer programming class, one student advises that "It was alright. The labs aren't fun but that's to be expected. Do the work."

That may not be a hearty endorsement, but it is honest advice from one student to another.

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