On April 16, 2020, the Computer Science and Engineering Division hosted a Town Hall to hear student concerns related to diversity, inclusion and under-representation. (Notes on other Town Halls are available.)
All were welcome. The Town Hall focused on issues related to Undergraduate Students. A previous Town Hall had focused on graduate issues.
The primary goal of the Town Hall was to inform students and community members. A secondary goal of the Town Hall was to hear and respond to community questions and concerns.
The Town Hall was conducted via online teleconferencing. Participants could ask questions directly or pose and vote on questions anonymously (via a special app). The panelists were Peter M. Chen (Interim Chair of CSE), Kim Diaz, Alec Gallimore (Dean of Engineering), Chad Jenkins, Joanna Millunchick (Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education), and Wes Weimer. In addition, Amir Kamil presented information and other professors were in attendance. The Town Hall lasted for ninety minutes. Peak attendance was 74 participants.
This report chronicles my personal recollection of the events (augmented by two sets of notes taken by different attendees) and should not be considered the official department position. Questions, responses and discussions are paraphrased and any mentions of specific individuals, beyond the panelists, have been elided.
The Town Hall covered five main topics. Presentation slides are available.
After the faculty presentations, the majority of the Town Hall involved hearing and responding to community questions. Some questions asked about specific faculty members by name; those names have been replaced with Professor A and Professor B in this document.
Students asked what was being done to tackle the growth in, and demand for, Computer Science.
Peter Chen noted that we have been increasing the availability of classes by about 25% each year but that has not kept pace with increasing demand. We have increased class sizes, GSIs and IAs, hired more adjunct and teaching-focused faculty, and recruited teachers from among postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, and offered more Spring and Summer classes. These efforts increase capacity and supply.
By contrast, Peter Chen noted that thus far we have not done anything to reduce or cap demand. He elaborated that some students see the 2.5 GPA requirements as demand-side reductions, but clarified that unlike peer institutions that use GPA requirements to reduce demand (e.g., Berkeley requires a 3.3 GPA to declare the major), our GPA requirement is about ensuring that students are adequately prepared for subsequent courses. LSA and Engineering have different requirements to ensure sufficient preparation in math and science subjects.
Chad Jenkins suggested that we think about increasing the number of pathways through the major (e.g., to popular subfields such as AI and Cybersecurity) to avoid dependencies on EECS 281 and linear algebra and thus increase access.
Students asked about CSE's relationship with Professor A, who has been associated with allegations of misconduct in the popular press.
Peter Chen noted that this is a difficult question to answer, both in general and in a way that satisfies everyone (e.g., it is not appropriate to comment on personnel-level details in a public forum). He affirmed that the department and college both condemn the alleged behavior. He noted that allegations are not the same as proven facts, that most have only heard one side of the story, and that all people deserve due process: the worse the allegations are, the more important (but harder) it is to keep these tenets in mind.
Peter Chen observed that the allegations need to be investigated, and that this is done at the University level (e.g., by OIE rather than CSE or Engineering). At an institutional level, reports of violations need to come through OIE rather than the press for action to be taken. Professor A is currently a faculty member and any changes only occur after a careful process.
Pete Chen explained that teaching assignments for all courses are subject to change, and that Professor A was listed because we wanted students to be aware of the possibility. The course has been restructured to remove ties to Professor A's direct research and, if allegations were substantiated in a way that led to concerns for student safety, protective measures would be put in place (e.g., from eliminating one-on-one meetings to removing Professor A from the course). Peter Chen acknowledged that it would have been better to list all information earlier.
Amir Kamil suggested that we should consider prioritizing switches for students in Professor A's course who do not feel comfortable. Chad Jenkins observed that climate and DEI issues in CSE are bigger than allegations involving any one person, and drew attention to the culture of overwork and competition in courses such as EECS 203 and 281.
Students asked about the status of Professor B, who is not listed as teaching in Fall 2020.
Peter Chen reiterated that, following University policy, it is difficult to give specific answers about named individuals.
Dean Alec Gallimore indicated that we cannot provide provide specificity in such cases. When there are faculty members who may be involved in investigations, much depends on where those investigations end up. For example, if an investigation were slowed down by COVID-19 concerns, we would be in a holding pattern, working with Central Campus, Academic HR, the Department Chair, and the faculty member in question to move forward. Any action taken would be announced clearly.
Peter Chen noted that such questions may spring to student concerns about themselves or their community. He reiterated that the department truly cares about student safety and will do what is necessary to ensure it, based on the evidence available.
Students asked about the frantic pace of EECS 203, noted its impact on climate, and suggested a scope reduction.
Chad Jenkins noted that while individual faculty members should be held accountable for their actions, the faculty as a whole are accountable for our climate. He drew specific attention to students from underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities ("URM" students) and the problems they face. Kim Diaz echoed this point, noting that the heavy workload and pacing in EECS 203 unfairly advantage students coming in with more background and prior preparation. Amir Kamil agreed that this is a real issue, drew attention to previous investigations (e.g., by Ilya Volkavich), and suggested prioritizing this concern for 203 (and 376, etc.) to make sure they are accessible to everyone.
Kim Diaz noted that there may be 1.5 semesters worth of content in the current EECS 203. The combination of breadth and depth makes it particularly challenging; it should be pared down to make it more reasonable.
Dean Joanna Millunchick drew attention to the Foundational Course Initiative (FCI), noting an Engineering focus on revamping our core courses from the ground up, not just in terms of material but also in terms of pedagogy. This is part of a greater University effort to look at our bottleneck courses. Kim Diaz agreed, noting that EECS 183 has been working with the FCI and EECS 203 is in talks to do so (not for next year but perhaps in place by the following year).
Students asked about academic integrity and remote education.
Kim Diaz addressed anecdotes that EECS 203 grades might be higher this semester because of remote education logistics, including a discussion of the roles of grading on a curve in academic assessment. Peter Chen acknowledged that we do not yet know how to give remote examinations as well as we give in-person examinations. He noted that academic integrity is part of the issue. He discussed both the theory (including the Honor Code) and the pragmatics. Dean Joanna Millunchick noted that there are serious discussions about whether high-stakes timed examinations are the best way to evaluate students. The emerging COVID-19 circumstances in Winter 2020 led to the special grading circumstances this semester, but this is a key issue going forward.
Students asked about the justification for making EECS 203 and 376 common prerequisites. Students commented on an apparent disconnect between the concepts covered by 203 and 376 and the concepts actually used by more theoretical or mathematical classes later.
Peter Chen noted that EECS 203 is required to declare the major from LSA, referring to the previous discussion. He explained that EECS 376 is a requirement for graduation because we believe it is something that all Computer Science students should know.
Kim Diaz agreed that we need to consider the importance of the content in those courses as they are revised going forward.
Amir Kamil noted that he is currently teaching 376. One of the challenges is that the application of the theoretical material is not always clear to students. He noted that we have been trying to address that: the goal is not to have a course that is geared solely for theoreticians, but to make a course that is applicable to everyone in Computer Science. He acknowledged that this is an ongoing activity.
Questions were addressed in decreasing vote order and the Town Hall ended before all questions could be answered. Some questions were addressed in the slides. Many questions touched on similar themes but were worded slightly differently. A few questions not addressed in this Town Hall included:
Interested students were encouraged to get involved. Thanks were offered to the students present, the speakers, and the graduate student organizers (including McDonald and Shearer).