Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
Just over four years since Yale University President Peter Salovey first said that the University would make up ground in the sciences, 2021 U.S. News rankings have placed the computer science department at Yale as 124th in the world.
The University is currently ranked #11 in overall best global universities according to U.S. News, but its standing in computer science is far lower. The ranking is based on the department’s research performance.
Within the past 10 years, the number of CS majors at Yale has grown ten-fold, and the program is now the third most popular undergraduate major. But for more than 20 years, the number of faculty in the department did not increase significantly, even as the field has gained popularity. The hiring process is also crippled by subpar facilities, seven faculty who spoke to the News said, and Yale’s science priorities initially placed computer science as an “additional investment area,” not a chief focus of the coming capital campaign.
“If you don’t have a strong computer science research program, you will be left behind in almost all sciences,” computer science professor Lin Zhong said. “What I don’t see from any of the leadership is maybe the epiphany that science has gotten into a watershed moment … Computer science is really going to be one of the centers of scientific activity for humanity for the next century.”
University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote in an email to the News that the University does not comment on rankings.
The department’s small size
Though the department has made 10 new hires within the past three years — accounting for 10 of its 25 tenure-track faculty members — it is still only about half the size of the departments of several peer institutions, including Princeton, Columbia and the University of Chicago.
And when using the number of tenure-track ladder faculty as a measure, Yale’s CS department is larger than Yale’s engineering departments, but smaller than the other departments that have similar numbers of students — including economics and political science. Those departments have 50 and 40 tenure-track ladder faculty appointments, respectively, compared to the CS department’s 25.
Scassellati said that though the University’s faculty members are strong, Yale’s department doesn’t have the breadth in the field that its peer institutions do.
These new hires have promoted research and lessened the teaching load on each professor. The move came after a “recognition across the University” of the field’s importance and the structural change of moving the department into the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2015, computer science professor Brian Scassellati said. At the same time, the department began including courses that people with no prior computer science experience could take, like the popular course CS50, which started in 2015.
Computer science professor Dragomir Radev noted that the period of stagnancy before those key hires likely contributed to Yale’s computer science ranking.
“All top-10 CS departments have 50-100 faculty,” Radev wrote in an email to the News. “Yale had been at around 20 for several decades. It was not until around 2016 that the department started growing again — to around 26 now.”
However, he cautioned against reading too much into the U.S. News ranking, noting that other reputable ranking agencies place Yale’s computer science department within the 20-30 range and reflect a wider breadth of metrics, such as conference appearances or faculty research recognition.
Radev added that Yale should try to improve its ranking, but considered the top ten “quite out of reach” for the time being.
Between 2009 and 2019, enrollment in CS courses has quadrupled, according to department chair Zhong Shao. Undergraduate interest in computer science has rapidly increased, and the administration has responded to that, Zhong said.
“I would say that my observation is that Yale is very responsive to undergrads’ demands and interests,” Zhong said. “Yale’s growth or investment in computer science is more about the reaction to the growing interest of the undergraduates in computer science. So for that I give the Yale leadership credit.”
But Zhong is not yet certain whether the administration recognizes the importance of computer science as a field.
Yale’s new focus on computer science
In the original University Science Strategy Committee report in 2018, computer science is named as one of the University’s “additional” priorities, meaning that the University supports current efforts underway and would support investment if additional resources become available. In an Oct. 13 update, computer science and data science were combined as a top priority.
“In the course of implementation [of the science priorities], the connections between computer science and data science have been emphasized,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler wrote in an email to the News.
“The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the importance of big data, computational tools, and other mathematical and technological developments in monitoring the spread and effects of disease,” University President Peter Salovey wrote in the update. “We are expanding data science and computer science in their applications, and we are advancing fundamental research underlying these areas too.”
The USSC, which identified Yale’s science priorities for the coming decade, picked data science as an immediate focus in 2018. Although computer science and data science are now a combined priority, data science will have new space in the Kline Tower. Some professors said it is not yet known whether the computer science department will move to a new space and expressed uncertainty about how Yale will advance the field in the coming years.
In an email to the News, Gendler explained that data science and computer science are connected disciplines. With the science initiatives’ updated structure, Yale can invest “flexibly and creatively” in the areas.
How facilities affect hiring potential
According to five professors, the current computer science department building, Arthur K. Watson Hall, is lacking in both size and modern technology. The administrators say they are considering other options, but have not yet committed to the Department’s future location.
Radev noted that the lack of a modern facility is “one of the most significant reasons” why Yale might struggle in competition with other computer science departments.
“We always aim to house our departments in buildings that allow faculty to thrive and students to learn,” Gendler wrote in an email to the News. “In the coming years, we are eager to work with our Computer Science department to identify and support the needs and ambitions of our faculty and our students; this will help us to provide a space and a structure where they can do their best work.”
Harvard plans to open a new Science and Engineering Complex this academic year. Princeton received a gift for a new computer science building last year, and is now constructing the facility. Dartmouth, the University of Washington and the University of Michigan have also all recently unveiled new computer science facilities.
AKW was built in 1989, according to Shao. The building’s small size and dearth of socializing space hinders the exchange of ideas and the “serendipity in discovery,” Zhong said. When prospective faculty visit, they don’t see department members interacting, according to Zhong.
“Almost all the candidates I talk to afterwards, they mention that the building is one of the disappointments,” Zhong said. “It’s so dark and gloomy.”
Scassellati echoed that without the proper facilities, it’s difficult to recruit world-class faculty. A candidate who needs lab space will not come to Yale even with the promise that the lab space might be there in a few years, Scassellati said.
Some candidates specializing in artificial intelligence who received offers to join the department went elsewhere, Fischer added.
The University’s science priorities were focused on short-term rather than long-term goals, Fischer said. The report looked at providing a boost to existing areas on campus, he added, but lacked a bigger vision of where science at Yale could go.
The committee that developed the science priorities for the coming decade interviewed nearly all of the science faculty on campus prior to publishing their report, but the 2018 report “wasn’t something that we were necessarily happy with when it came out,” Scassellati said.
“[The administration has] been very supportive about sort of helping us get out of the hole that we were in,” Scassellati said, acknowledging that “you can’t hire 10 people in one year.”
Though Yale understands the importance of computer science, Radev said, given the competition in the field, the University needs to move forward on a much faster and larger scale.
All the top computer science departments have state-of-the-art new buildings that allow them to do space-sensitive research like robotics, autonomous cars and other innovations, Radev wrote in an email to the News. It is “practically impossible,” to grow in those areas at Yale, he added.
Already, the University has to compete not only against other schools, but against companies including Netflix, Honda and Facebook for faculty candidates. Top researchers in artificial intelligence or machine learning can receive 10 to 15 job offers, Radev said, and Yale struggles to compete, given the department’s small size.
The department’s future focus
The department’s biggest holes come in artificial intelligence and machine learning, according to Scassellati and Radev. Computer science professor Nisheeth Vishnoi also told the News that he would like to see the department focus on the societal and human aspects of computing such as fairness, accountability and privacy. Yale can have an edge in these topics given its existing strengths in law, business, and the social sciences, Vishnoi added.
The department is currently refining its mission and deciding whether it should move towards basic research — which includes study about representation, storage, transformation and communication of information — or more applied research. For his part, Fischer said that basic research is crucial as the core for more applied study. In every science field, he said, applications build on basic research.
“Each of these topics builds on corresponding basic research,” Fischer said. “At Yale, basic research has been discounted by painting it with the word ‘theoretical’, with the connotation of ‘useless.’”
Vishnoi seconded that the department should focus on foundational research and added that cross-cutting initiatives should also be a priority.
By contrast, Scassellati said the department has been focusing more on basic research than applied research and should first try to make up its deficit.
But Zhong said he feels that there is a misconception that basic and applied research fall into separate categories. All computer science research the Yale faculty do is both foundational and useful to solve real-world problems, he said.
Much of the department’s strength is its cross-cutting initiatives, six professors said.
Scassellati works on research on recycling with the School of the Environment and on how artificial intelligence is shaping education with the philosophy department. The research has become particularly important with the current reliance on distance learning, he said.
Shao said that the University has a unique opportunity for collaboration with other departments, as many students studying AI and computing technologies are interested in fields beyond computer science as well.
CS-related tools have become instrumental for fields beyond computer science — even English and comparative literature use computer science as a tool for text analysis, Zhong said.
The department can find strength in its history, computer science professor Abhishek Bhattacharjee wrote in an email to the News. Yale faculty members are behind some of the fundamental discoveries in computing, including the development of VLIW machines and consensus protocols.
Madison Hahamy contributed reporting.
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