Max Nova, a technology entrepreneur, graduated from Yale University, as did his father and grandfather. Yet Nova couldn't convince his sister or twin brothers to accept offers of admission to his alma mater because of the school's weak computer science department.
Nova's sister chose Harvard University and later found a job at Microsoft. His brothers are majoring in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We're totally getting left in the dust by our peer institutions,” Nova says. “We're getting swamped.”
Yale, one of the world's top universities in most respects, has fallen behind in computer science. It doesn't crack the highest tier of schools measured by the number of graduates in software companies or by salaries for majors in the discipline; it's struggling to educate throngs of students with a faculty about the same size as three decades ago; top students in the field are opting to enroll elsewhere; the head of its computer science department is publicly complaining; and undergraduates are circulating a petition in protest.
“The best universities in the world are now judged by the quality of their computer science departments,” reads the petition, distributed this week and signed by more than 450 students. “We are distraught by the condition of Yale's.”
Yale has long been known for its strength in the humanities. Literature scholars deconstructed texts in cloistered seminar rooms at the center of its Gothic campus, while the more quantitative-minded had to trek up “Science Hill” for their classes. Famed English literature professor Harold Bloom once told the Paris Review that he favored the ballpoint pen over the typewriter and “as far as I'm concerned, computers have as much to do with literature as space travel, perhaps much less.”
Yale's computer science department has focused more on theory than practical applications, unlike Stanford University, known as the birthplace of Google, or Harvard, associated with Facebook and Microsoft.
Though many of Yale's science Ph.D. programs such as biology, math, physics, and chemistry are top-ranked, Yale is struggling to adapt to a U.S. economy and educational system reordered by the ascendance of technology. With fewer students majoring in the humanities and a generation of graduates worried about getting good jobs, universities are scrambling to shift resources from traditional subjects into fields once scoffed at as vocational.
“These are skills needed by anyone in the modern age,” says Jeannette Wing, who oversees research labs worldwide for Microsoft. All students should learn programming, even those studying such fields as archeology and English, she says.
Yale President Peter Salovey, Provost Ben Polak and Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, say they understand the concerns and plan to address them. Gendler, who became dean in July, said in an e-mail that strengthening computer science is one of her major goals and that the school has made “significant progress” in the past few months because of faculty efforts and generous alumni.
The administrators spent much of the last month planning a major announcement for March 26 that will boast substantial growth in faculty and “will make clear that our commitment to computer science is serious and substantial,” Gendler said.
“We all agree that Yale needs a world-class computer science department in order to fulfill its core mission.”
Yale has beefed up its curriculum with courses such as HackYale that focus on how computer science can be applied to Web startups. No one disputes the quality of Yale's faculty.
“It's a fine smaller program,” says Ed Lazowska, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, one of the top-ranked programs in the country.
Even Harvard, the world's richest school, is playing catch-up in computer science. Last year, alumnus Steve Ballmer, co-founder of Microsoft, contributed an estimated $60 million to increase Harvard's computer science faculty to 36, from 24. Princeton University is planning to add to its 30 professors to keep up with demand.
Given its elite academic status, Yale's position is especially surprising. U.S. News & World Report ranks the university at No. 3, behind Princeton and Harvard, and it is one of the nation's most selective schools, admitting only 6.3 percent of its applicants last year. The Ivy League school has a $23.9 billion endowment, second only to Harvard's.
Yet, starting next school year, the college will use archrival Harvard's famed introductory computer science course, CS50, because it doesn't have an equivalent course of its own. Though some Yale students view the move as humiliating, the computer science department considers it an innovative partnership.
Since 2007, Yale's computer science department has consistently tied for 20th in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of computer science Ph.D. programs. For the past 10 years, Yale has never risen above 40th among recipients of U.S. National Science Foundation money for computer science research.
Yale lags Cornell University, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania in U.S. computer science research funding. Yale pulled in $35 million in 2014, compared with the No. 1 school on the list, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with $170 million.
As a senior at Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Connecticut, Rachel Mellon snubbed Yale, just 14 miles away, for Stanford, near Palo Alto, Calif.
“Once I visited Stanford, it was a no-brainer,” said Mellon, a junior. “You don't go to Yale to study computer science. You go to Stanford to study computer science.”
Top college computer science graduates may get as much as $120,000 from tech leaders such as search giant Google and social networking leader Facebook, according to Kai Fortney, marketing director for Hired, a Web-based employment service for the industry. Some new hires may receive signing bonuses of as much as $25,000, he says.
Computer science majors from the University of California-Berkeley have the highest average starting pay at $82,000 a year, according to Payscale.com's ranking last year. Yale wasn't in the top 20.
Yale is absent from LinkedIn's list of top 25 U.S. universities for software developers, based on the percentage of employees from each school at premier companies. Carnegie Mellon University, California Institute of Technology, and Cornell University rank at the top.
On Yale's campus in New Haven, Conn., these realities are especially stark. The computer science department inhabits a 120-year-old building named after Arthur K. Watson, a 1942 Yale graduate and IBM executive.
Most recently renovated in 1986, its tiled interior looks more like a post office than a high-tech incubator. Graduate students share tiny offices in which some desks are pushed together face to face. On a recent afternoon, undergraduates packed every seat in a homework help session.
Joan Feigenbaum, a computer science professor who became head of the department last year, has become a ringleader for those agitating for change. A Stanford Ph.D., she came to Yale from AT&T Labs and has been telling the administration for years that the computer-science faculty needs to expand.
“I started complaining,” Feigenbaum says. “We have to hire more people. This is ridiculous.”
Like any top computer scientist, Feigenbaum can rattle off data points to make her case. The number of students majoring in computer science, alone or combined with another subject: 181, almost four times as many as in 2010. Faculty positions: 20, only three more than 15 years ago.
“We didn't hire all last year, we didn't try to hire all last year,” she says, “and Princeton made 13 offers.”
In fact, Princeton's computer science department made 14 offers last year and hired five professors, according to Chairman Andrew Appel. To make matters worse, Yale is losing Bryan Ford, a researcher on system security and privacy who won tenure just last year. Feigenbaum calls Ford “brilliant” and “unbelievably productive.”
Now he's headed to the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Ford says he's moving because of the financial package, access to research money, and a job offer there for his wife, a mathematician.
“Yale has chosen not to invest in computer science that much,” says Willy Zwaenepoel, a professor heading up the Swiss school's faculty searches. “And they're paying the price for it.”
Upset about Ford's departure, computer-science graduate students sent an open letter to the administration on Feb. 17, saying that failure to expand will “unequivocally” damage the department. The number of graduate students in the field has declined to 40 from 46 in 2001, in part because the size of the faculty limits their research options.
“I’m a little biased, but I think computer science isn’t just a fad that’s going to go away tomorrow,” said Debayan Gupta, a Ph.D. student who helped write the letter.
Christine Hong, a senior, changed her major from political science to computer science in her sophomore year. Immediately, she had to begin planning for how to take the required courses, because so many are offered only one semester of the year.
“I couldn’t take a databases course before I graduate because there’s only one teacher for it, and he wasn’t available,” says Hong, who signed the undergraduates’ petition and is headed for a job at Yahoo! at the end of July. “It’s really frustrating.”
Hong was one of two Yale students among about 100 interns at social networking company LinkedIn last summer, she says. “I didn't meet any other Yale students in Silicon Valley,” she said.
Two years ago, James Boyle, managing director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, which helps students develop business plans, set up a summer tech boot camp for students interested in start-ups. There were 15 students the first year and 30 the second, with more students interested than could attend.
Still, it won't be offered this year because of lack of funding, Boyle says. Boyle says he paid for the boot camp from his own budget; when he appealed to the administration for money—from $100,000 to $200,000—to keep the program going, none was forthcoming. In Silicon Valley, Yale alumni are hungry for graduates and are aware of the school's deficiencies, Boyle says.
“I hear the complaint every trip I take to the Bay Area,” he says. “`Help me find people from Yale.'”
On a lunch break, Feigenbaum, the computer science department head, takes a phone call about a promising faculty candidate, now at Microsoft. She's hoping for the best but knows competition will be intense from rivals. Yale's administrators must take action, and Feigenbaum expects they will, she says.
“The faculty will have to grow,” she says. “I don't see any way around it.”
—With Kurt Chirbas at Stanford and Julia Zorthian in New Haven