Computing faces hiring crisis

University District

Faculty of Computing sees mass retirement on the horizon with no promise of new hires

Benjamin Cecchetto, president of the Graduate Computing Society.
Benjamin Cecchetto, president of the Graduate Computing Society.
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After a decade without hiring new faculty members, Queen’s School of Computing is nearing a state of crisis. 

The School of Computing hasn’t been permitted to hire a new group of professors since 1995, according to Professor Selim Akl, the director of the School of Computing.

That year, the department was allotted “five or six” positions, he said. One additional professor joined the department in 2006. According to the data available to The Journal by the School of Computing, seven professors have retired since 2007 and none have been replaced. 

This past year saw some improvement, as the School of Computing gained a faculty member to be shared with the department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. 

According to Akl, the average age of tenured professors is 54.5 years of age. The average age increases by approximately three years — to around 58 — if Continuing Adjuncts are counted, he said.

In addition to the seven departures in the past eight years, at least two and possibly three of these professors are set to retire in the next year. By 2017, Akl says the faculty expects to lose 14 out of its 28 faculty members.

Susan Mumm, dean of Arts and Science, said the lack of hiring is a response to budget cuts. 

“To offset significant cuts to its base budget over the past seven years, the Faculty of Arts and Science has replaced only a fraction of faculty retirements and departures,” she said. 

She added that the majority of new faculty members have been sponsored chairs, including Tier 1 and 2 Canada Research Chairs, Queen’s National Scholars, one NSERC Industrial Research Chair and a Canada Excellence Research Chair. 

These chairs are designated to departments through open competitions rather than traditional hiring practices. Mumm says that while Computing forwarded a submission to every competition, they have been unsuccessful in each competition so far.

“Other base budget faculty positions were allocated to some departments in response to unique opportunities or to acute teaching capacity shortages, and not as part of a regular faculty renewal process,” she said.

Mumm said she was confident in the abilities of computing faculty members, regardless of the average age. 

“We believe that a combination of knowledge and experience, both in field and in the classroom, makes for the best faculty complement, regardless of age.”

She added that the undergraduate student/faculty ratio in the School of Computing remains “one of the lowest in the Faculty of Arts and Science.”

The student-to-faculty ratio has been a point of concern for computing students in the past year, according to Benjamin Cecchetto, President of the Graduate Computing Society. 

Cecchetto provided The Journal with email correspondence between Professor Akl, former Associate Dean of Research for Arts and Science Robert Lemieux and Dean Susan Mumm. 

In a November 2014 email, Akl claimed that Lemieux and Mumm provided incorrect budget information to the Provost’s Office during the hiring window.

“The figure of $750,000 supplied by the Faculty to the Provost, is a gross overestimate of the so-called ‘budget deficit’ of the School,” Akl wrote on Nov. 6, 2014. 

“[It] is based, not only on a flawed and unusable budget model but also, on 2012 data.” 

In the email, Akl also wrote that the information submitted by Lemieux and Mumm didn’t reflect the changes that had occurred in the School of Computing. 

“Changes that have occurred since 2012, namely, two retirements in the School and a substantial increase in our student FTE [Full Time Equivalent], are not being taken into consideration. In this age of information, the reliance on two-year old data for important decision making by a distinguished university is, to say the least, astounding,” he wrote.

The email exchange revealed that 2011 data was submitted for consideration in 2014, which made the student to faculty ratio appear lower than it was during that year.

In 2011, the School of Computing had 11 students for each faculty member. By 2014, the ratio had increased to 19.5 students to each faculty member.

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The University used the outdated information during the Arts and Science hiring window last year to determine the need for new faculty. Computing was not among the 10 Arts and Science departments given permission to hire. 

While the faculty loses members, Computing has seen an increase in enrolment. In 2007, 35 first-year students enrolled in computing. In 2015, the number is over 200. The school enrols an average of 140 graduate students, which is among the highest at Queen’s. 

The School of Computing at Queen’s is nationally renowned for its research and academic programs. Some of the department’s programs, such as Computing and the Creative Arts, are the only programs of their kind in North America. 

Queen’s also maintains the highest percentage of female students in Canada enrolled in computer science at 48 per cent.

Cecchetto says the lack of hiring has made him and other students concerned for the future of the computing faculty. He and Graduate Student Senator Eric Rapos, PhD ’16, set up a meeting with Dr. Lemieux and Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science Gordon E. Smith. He said little came of it. 

“It was a long meeting, but they didn’t really say anything,” he said.

Cecchetto added that the high median age for computing professors has raised concerns from students due to the quickly evolving field of computing.

“It’s the sign of an unhealthy department,” he said.

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