Microsoft donates to expand computer science program

Nolan Bishop

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Illustration by Eddy Vazquez.

Whitman College, in their efforts to establish a more substantial and competitive computer science program, recently solicited a significant contribution from the Microsoft Corporation to help develop a comprehensive course of study. Although the college had begun efforts to expand the existing computer science area of study into a complete program with a major and minor at least two years ago, Microsoft was only recently solicited by the trustees of the college to assist with fundraising efforts for the program. John Bogley, vice president of development and college relations at Whitman, explained elements of the fundraising process.

 

“A group of anonymous donors had raised 7.5 million dollars, or enough to establish three new full-time faculty positions in the new department,” said Bogley. “At this point, it was suggested by one of the anonymous donors that it might be useful to solicit Microsoft for a contribution towards professorship, so that funds from the anonymous donors might be used to help defray additional costs of the program, such as classroom renovations, computer lab equipment expenses among other things.”

In recognition of the corporation’s gift, the Whitman College Board of Trustees wanted to honor Microsoft’s contribution by naming a faculty chair for Microsoft. The newly titled chair will eventually be filled by a new faculty member in the computer science program after the selection process takes place. Associate Professor of Mathematics Albert Schueller, one of three professors at the college that currently teaches computer science courses, elaborated on how the chair will be selected.

“This person will come in without tenure and not into a named chair, and if that person is deemed worthy by the faculty at Whitman, they may be offered the chair, and they may be offered tenure,” said Schueller. “The named chairs are usually assigned by a small faculty committee, and they have no influence on the status of that professor’s tenure.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science Allen Tucker also discussed the funding for Whitman’s new Computer Science program.

“What’s being done with the Computer Science program is not drawing money away from other programs,” said Tucker. “All of the money has been raised for the program, and it will go into the endowment and perpetuate the computer science program at Whitman external to the budget of other programs at the college.”

Tucker also insisted that Microsoft’s contribution does not in any way influence the way that computer science will be taught at Whitman. Whitman’s curriculum for computer science will be based on the national model of the curriculum, an early version of which Tucker helped to develop in the 1980s.

“I coauthored the original liberal arts model curriculum for computer science way back in 1986,” said Tucker. “Computer science has been in liberal arts colleges for a long time, and Whitman is kind of playing catch-up ball. Whitman’s Computer Science curriculum is an academic curriculum, not a corporate curriculum. We’re not training people here, we’re educating them, and we’re doing it in the best spirit of the liberal arts.”

Bogley was also adamant that Microsoft’s contribution to the college will have no impact on the curriculum. The only stipulation attached to the corporation’s contribution was that it must be used to help develop computer science at Whitman.

“I think there’s some concern about corporate names being used on faculty chairs at colleges and what that means for the influence the corporation might hold over the curriculum of that school,” said Bogley. “But it’s not an unusual thing, even at schools as small as Whitman, and it’s certainly not an unusual thing at major research universities.”

Schueller expressed less optimism about the purity of corporate intentions in donating to colleges and universities.

“I think people have expressed concerns about corporate donors to Whitman College,” said Schueller. “It seems like past corporate donations to the college have not had any undue influence on the curriculum, but I still think it’s an important conversation to have.”

Ultimately, Microsoft will play a vital role in helping the college to develop a much needed area of curricular expansion. The majority of Whitman’s peer schools already offer comprehensive computer science programs, and it is likely that Whitman is losing candidates to school’s with more diverse offerings in this area. Tucker explained Whitman’s need for a solid computer science program.

“In today’s world computer science is an expectation of students applying to colleges,” said Tucker. “They expect colleges to have it as a major.”

Prior to this year, Whitman offered two courses in the realm of computer science: Data Structures and Programming. This spring, Tucker will teach a course on Open Source Software Development, which will be the first time a course of this kind has been offered at Whitman.

Schueller sees a high demand for computer science that is not being met.

“Despite the fact that no majors require the programming course, the class is invariably full each semester,” said Schueller. “It’s likely that speaks to an interest without an outlet at the college.”

He explained the advice he routinely gives to prospective students at Whitman.

“When a prospective student comes in to my office and tells me that they’re interested in computer science, I personally advise them to go somewhere else. I’m not trying to sell them Whitman,” said Schueller. “I’m trying to help them make the best decision they can when it comes to college, and if they are very much interested in Computer Science, there are other small liberal arts colleges that have far better offerings in that area, at least for the moment.”

Schueller did qualify this statement by suggesting that in the future, Whitman may begin to offer courses in computer science of equivalent quality to many peer schools.

“There’s a lot of energy and a lot of resources directed towards this new program right now, so I can’t see why we wouldn’t have a great program a few years down the line,” said Schueller.

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