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  • Alan Cohen, Staff Writer

Willamette’s School of Computing and Information Sciences provides new opportunities for students

Graphic by Lucy Devlaeminck

On May 22, 2023, Willamette University announced the creation of a new School of Computing and Information Sciences (SCIS) to “support the expansion of its rapidly growing computing and data science programs.”

Dean of the School of Computing and Information Sciences Jameson Watts stated that the creation of this new school implies a more independent governing structure that hopes to expand academic opportunities, class offerings and faculty members to keep up with the increasing demands and popularity of “big data and human-centered computing.” 

The new school currently has eight full-time and two part-time faculty members and is in the process of hiring two to three more professors. The newest additions to the team include professors Lucas Cordova and Hank Ibser

The School of Computing and Information Sciences provides undergraduate and graduate programs in computer science and data science. In addition, there is an accelerated BS/MS program for students to complete their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in data science, which is conducted on Willamette’s Salem and Portland campuses over four years and a summer.

The school is already seeing success: “So far, enrollment has been really strong. For instance, we are offering five sections of our Intro to Data Science class with 40 students per section,” Watts stated. This trend is also visible in the introductory computer science courses, showing the high popularity of the field among undergraduate students.

“A big part of our mission is service and access. We want to make sure that as many students as possible have access to this kind of education,” Watts commented in terms of goals for SCIS. Another main focus of the program is making students think about the ethical implications and different uses of new technologies in our society, Watts told Fortune Magazine

Computer science professor Haiyan Cheng has been teaching at Willamette since 2009 and was heavily involved in the creation of the new school. She stated that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened small liberal arts schools like Willamette, so she sees the creation of this new school as a very positive approach for Willamette to stand out nationally in the academic fields of computer science and data science. She added that a separate governance body for the SCIS was more logical in terms of adapting to the popularity trends in the field than if the program had continued being part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Both Watts and Cheng concluded that a key component of this popularity trend in the field is the increasing applications of computer and data science skills in other fields such as healthcare, humanities and arts. They hope that the creation of this school increases opportunities for students to gain technological skills that will be very valuable in their careers, regardless of their main fields of study.

Thomas Sato (‘25) is a data science major interested in pursuing the 3+1 Master’s in Data Science program. He stated that since the creation of the new school is mostly a long-term change, he was not personally affected. Nonetheless, he shared that he values variety in course offerings and is looking forward to taking new classes that were not offered previously. 

Many institutions, Willamette included, have had to resort to mergers, acquisitions and expansions to diversify their academic programs due to high upkeep costs and competition in the higher education sector. This existing issue increased at an even higher rate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Willamette University President Stephen Thorsett stated, “The decision by the board to think about expansion into new programs came years ago” when they started noticing an increase in demand for computer science and data science, as well as strategies of expansion that other institutions comparable to Willamette were following. Nonetheless, Thorsett explained that Willamette is slightly different from most private institutions in that it is a university and not a college, and it is therefore divided in separate independent schools as opposed to being one individual body. At Willamette, these include the School of Management, the School of Law and the recently acquired Pacific Northwest College of Arts in Portland. 

Since each school has different rules regarding faculty hiring, promotion and tenure, as well as separate cultures, the university decided that creating an independent body would be more beneficial and efficient in the long term, Thorsett said. He added that Willamette has had to adapt to similar trends and market changes throughout its history, such as when Willamette had a theology school and a medical school, the latter of which later became the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). 

SCIS is also planning on adding new academic programs in fields such as data visualization and design that will be accessible to PNCA students, as well as potentially a new degree program in statistics. 

Willamette University Provost and Senior Vice President Carol Long further explained Willamette’s strategy of expansion. “Our goal, which we set several years ago now, is to grow over the next five years optimistically to about 4,000 students,” she stated. “As we've watched the higher education landscape, it seems that small schools are struggling more to remain viable.”

Long, in addition to Thorsett, Watts and Cheng, stressed the importance of making this growing field accessible to students of all disciplines, as computer science and data science courses prove valuable to professionals in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and arts.

She concluded by stating that she is excited “to see how the new school can really work with so many different pieces of the institution,” as well as for future students to benefit from it, growing personally and professionally.

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