Facing Department Squeeze, Pomona CS Majors Ask President for More Resources

Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr speaks with students from the Computer Science department, who gathered at Seaver House on Nov. 30 to voice their concerns about lack of administrative support. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

Amidst course enrollment problems with Pomona College's growing computer science department, seven students met with Pomona president G. Gabrielle Starr on Nov. 30 to ask for more professors, additional funding, and more space for the department.

Claire Genre PO ’18 began the conversation by saying that students have not been able to get into the classes they need due to the CS department’s small staff of seven full-time professors and one lab instructor.

Starr explained that the number of CS majors has fluctuated over time, but has been continuously increasing over the last few years as CS became popular. In 2012, the department had six graduates -- it expects 60 this year.

To adjust to the sharp rise in interest, Starr said Pomona is in the process of hiring two more permanent CS professors.

“There’s huge competition to get good people and make these positions as attractive as possible,” she said. “It’s a national problem, which makes it even harder to confront, and there is not an easy solution.”

Elvis Kahoro PO ’20, who got 341 signatures on his petition for more CS faculty hires, added that Pomona disadvantages itself by hiring professors as late as March while other colleges scoop up potential faculty members by November.

But even if the department gets more professors, where will they teach?

At the moment, the CS department lacks classroom space. Genre said that this has forced classes to be taught in Mason Hall and Millikan Laboratory.

“When we don’t have an answer to where their office would be, [potential hires] don’t [necessarily] want to come here,” Genre said, proposing Pomona looks into classroom spaces at the Honnold-Mudd Library.

Even with these problems solved, Genre thinks the CS department’s inadequate budget will influence what the department can do. Currently, each department receives a two to three percent budget increase each year, regardless of how big it is.

“Pomona has a huge endowment, [and] the college itself has a lot of power to help us achieve our goals,” Genre said. She also requested more funding for CS extracurriculars, adding that Harvey Mudd College was able to send 60 students to a CS conference while Pomona could only send 15.

Starr said she could help with the budget but said Pomona can only spend less than five percent of its endowment. And even then, the college has to wait to find out the return on the endowment before using that money.

Students and faculty who want to do research projects together are impacted by this because funding for the Summer Undergraduate Research Program doesn’t come out until the spring. As a result, professors have to compete with industries that make students commit at the beginning of the year for the following summer’s research projects.

“This is the opposite of what Pomona advertises,” Ross Wollman PO ’18 said. He recommended looking at other sources for SURP funding.

Starr replied that the school is always applying for grants, but often doesn't hear back by fall.

While on the topic of money, Genre also inquired about more financial collaboration between the Claremont Colleges. Melissa Grueter PO ’18 suggested that students majoring at another campus pay a sum to that college since they’re using its resources.

In response, Starr said that historically, the colleges have not charged each other since there are differing levels of resources across the colleges. Doing so could lead to incentive misalignments that make it challenging for the colleges to share resources.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to throw up walls,” she said. Instead, Starr thinks everyone should work together “to not trash the resources that everyone shares.”

Other issues raised were paying teaching assistants more and refraining from having them teach classes. Grueter said they mostly wanted to provide Starr with student voices since she heard the faculty last week.

“We were definitely heard,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much from the CS department. So I want to help make the department better in the future.”

Connor Ford PO ’20 agreed.

“The department is not going to get better in the next five years. The people who are going to see any real changes will be students after that.”