Class Shortages Plague HMC Computer Science Students

The computer science department at Harvey Mudd College faces student backlash over proposed changes to the CS placement strategy for classes, giving priority to students who need to complete major requirements. (Alec Lei • The Student Life)

Harvey Mudd College computer science majors are criticizing Mudd’s CS department for proposed changes to class registration policies that would prioritize students who need to fulfill their major requirements over CS majors who have already satisfied requirements and want to take additional CS classes.

CS majors believe the changes would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to register for elective CS classes.

Reflecting national trends, the number of declared Mudd CS majors has quadrupled over the past decade, placing enormous strain on the department. As of May 2017, CS majors were 20.2 percent of all declared majors at HMC, while joint CS Math majors made up an additional 14 percent. Mathematical and computational biology majors made up 3.4 percent, according to HMC’s Office of Institutional Research.

Additionally, more than 85 percent of HMC students take CS 60, one of the introductory sequence CS courses, at some point during college; less than half did so in 2006, according to CS department chair Melissa O’Neill.

To ensure that students graduate on time, the department instituted a priority placement policy in 2015 that allows some students to enroll in Mudd’s CS courses before 5C course registration.

This policy first places 5C students majoring in CS or related joint majors, then HMC students by seniority, and finally non-HMC non-majors. All officially declared CS, CS Math, and mathematical and computational biology majors receive equal priority for CS courses during placement, regardless of school.

The current system aims to enroll each student majoring in CS in one elective and one required class.

Pomona College enacted a similar policy in fall 2017 to cope with the heavy strain on its CS department’s resources.

Now, the Mudd CS department is considering changes that would “prioritize or limit [priority] placement eligibility to students based on whether they have CS [major] elective requirements left to satisfy.” The changes would go into effect for the 2019 spring semester, according to an email to students earlier this month.

Besides making it more difficult for CS majors who have completed their requirements to enroll in more CS-related courses, the changes also discourage taking electives for fun, students said, since further elective courses aren’t guaranteed down the line.

CS major Kanishk Tantia HM ’19 believes this would affect depth and breadth of study.

“It's important to consider that [students] might want to take more electives [than required for their majors] simply because CS is interesting to them,” he said.

Tantia said that he has been enrolled in one CS course each semester during priority placement, on average.

“I kind of appreciate the difficult position they're in,” he said. “I think HMC's CS department specifically has the goal of not sacrificing any quality as they try to expand, and also of ensuring that the classes are accessible to anyone who wants them for graduation.”

For Evan Johnson HM ’20, the situation is “frankly disappointing.”

Neither he nor Cole Kurashige HM ’20, both joint CS Math majors, were enrolled in any CS courses during priority placement, essentially eliminating their chances of taking any courses related to their majors next semester, as very few seats are available during normal course registration.

“We have an enormous imbalance in the number of classes we are providing to off-campus students when compared to [the number of HMC] CS majors taking courses off campus,” Johnson said. “The distribution of off-campus students at Mudd is so internally skewed to put load on [the CS] department.”

“In the interest of equity,” the department will adopt a PERM-only strategy for all open seats remaining after priority placement for CS classes next fall, O’Neill wrote in an email to students.

The department plans to accept PERMs Friday based on the unique circumstances of students, like Johnson and Kurashige, who were not enrolled in any CS courses.

During an April 12 community meeting, many students voiced concerns about the depth of their CS education.

Johnson said he was dissatisfied with the faculty’s response to these questions, especially because “Mudd departments are usually pretty good at taking student input.”

“Disregarding [depth of study] ... is disrespectful and an ignorant position to hold,” he wrote.

The department says it is working to increase course availability in the short and long term.

It announced Saturday that it will add three new class sections for the fall semester. Two new faculty members will also join the department during the summer, and HMC plans to hire two more in the next academic year, Dean of the Faculty Lisa Sullivan said.

At the community meeting, some students suggested restricting the number of non-HMC students who can major in CS at HMC, and said Mudd should prioritize supporting HMC students.

Kurashige said the registration of off-campus students should be addressed, but he doesn’t believe it is the biggest issue with CS registration at HMC.

“I don't think it's fair to blame them for all, or even most, of the problems,” he said. “Don’t forget we take many humanities off-campus. ... Off-campus students deserve fair treatment, especially given how interconnected the 5Cs are.”

O’Neill said changing this policy would unfairly offload students onto Pomona’s CS department — the only other CS department at the 5Cs — which already faces similar limits on its resources.

“It’s not an easy problem to solve, especially considering the rate of interest in CS is much higher than the rate at which new professors can be hired,” Celena Chen HM ’20 said. “But I’m hopeful, especially as the CS department seems receptive to student feedback, that a long term solution ... can be found.”

Students and faculty have suggested a number of potential solutions, such as increasing class size or making curriculum resources, like homework and other materials, available to all students. The latter change could be implemented at a relatively low cost to the department, students said during the meeting.

“There is a transition going on right now,” O’Neill wrote in an email to TSL. “Computing is becoming like math: something everyone needs to know, majors and non-majors alike. I think the ultimate future for CS will be a lot like the current present for math.”

She doesn’t think an increased demand for CS is antithetical to the fundamental ideals of a liberal arts education.

“Arguably, many facets of the situation would not exist in a less liberal-arts style world ... where students were focused on only their major and arrived at college having selected their major,” she said. “The extent of the growth is partly due to [the colleges’] culture. We all hugely value that culture and the ideals of the consortium.”

Erin Slichter contributed reporting.