JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Zephyr Pellerin graduated from Durango High School in 2009, went on to work as a programmer for Pandora Internet Radio and currently lives in Vermont working as a web engineer for a firm called MixRank – all with no college degree.
“Many people younger than myself, sometimes lacking even a high school diploma, are having no difficulties finding six-figure positions in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area with modest development ability,” the 20-year-old Pellerin said. “The hiring climate for programmers is insane.”
Despite that high demand, the computer sciences and information systems major was cut from Fort Lewis College in 2011, leaving only 31 students from that program left to graduate.
College officials say the decision makes sense when viewed in the light of drastic funding cuts from the state and the few students studying the field. The graduating class of December 2011 produced only one CSIS major.
But others at the college question the decision.
Former CSIS coordinator and current professor Evans Adams said, “Our data showed that computer sciences was generating revenue for the college.”
He said he plans to leave after this year because of the poor handling of the decision.
FLC is jettisoning its program at a time when the demand for graduates with technical knowledge has outpaced supply.
The New York Times, in a June article titled “Go for Computer Science,” said “the expansion and advancement of networking and information technology are the most important drivers in economic competitiveness.”
The University of Colorado, on a website promoting its computer science program, notes that software engineer was listed as the best job in America by Money Magazine, and CollegeBoard.org, “the SAT people,” listed network systems/data communications analyst as the fastest-growing occupation for college grads (software engineer was third).
But FLC officials say they had other factors to consider.
Because of state cuts to the higher education budget, all programs and majors went up for review in 2010, FLC President Dene Kay Thomas said.
Each major was carefully accessed on the number of students who declare as that major, the retention rate, the service it provides to the college as a whole, the overall teaching mission and the cost of teaching the program, Thomas said.
All programs also were reviewed by FARGs, Functional Area Review Groups, made up of faculty from all departments, Thomas said.
The CSIS major showed dropping enrollment and a very low retention rate, Thomas said.
The decisions made in 2011 led to the cutting of two other majors: agriculture and Southwest Studies.
“When the responsibility of keeping the college viable and healthy comes up against the concern for faculty, it’s very painful,” Thomas said.
The decision gives all students enrolled in the eliminated majors the chance to finish their studies “although a first-semester freshman would have to push,” Thomas said.
The winter term of 2013 will be the end of computer science classes.
Adams, the computer science professor, said the program was a likely target because of its placement in the School of Business Administration.
“We were kind of a natural one to cut because we really weren’t a business major,” he said.
He denounced the way the situation was handled.
“Administration handled the elimination of the program very poorly and unprofessionally. As a result of that, I am retiring, I am leaving after this year,” he said.
He said Aaron Gordon, the only other full-time professor for the major, left last year.
Thomas said officials had to look at hard facts.
“I don’t know if this program ran its life cycle or not, I just know that the numbers ran down,” Thomas said. “We can’t cite a specific reason for the decline.”
Jessy Exum, 20, said he transferred out of FLC’s CSIS program in 2010 because he felt the program couldn’t teach him more then he already knew.
“There’s an issue with students coming out of Fort Lewis’ computer science,” Exum said. “They don’t have the qualifications, even though their paper says they do.”
Adams defended the quality of the program and said the decline is more likely because of the perception that technical support jobs are outsourced to other countries.
Pellerin, who worked for Pandora, said domestic demand remains high.
“The firm I work for is offering a referral bonus for skilled programmers, as well as a signing bonus, and still, we unfortunately have yet to make any hires because of scarcity,” he said.
Few argue that the departure of computer science from FLC won’t leave a hole.
“I would like in the future to see some form of computer sciences come back,” said Maureen Brandon, FLC dean of the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences. “I think there’s a lot of need for it in the community.”
Adams said it will send deep-pocketed employers looking elsewhere.
“Our graduates go to work for IBM and other large companies. IBM came here every year to recruit computer science majors,” he said.
Thomas said the decision doesn’t mean FLC is turning its back on technology.
“We’re talking about the possibility of putting together a convergent media major. It would be an update of communications, using digital media and art,” she said.
The future of students currently majoring in computer science isn’t entirely clear.
“There are too many courses left for one temporary to teach,” Adams said. “They will need one additional hire, yet to be named.”
CSIS major Tim Wright, 26, is frustrated by the lack of communication from administration,
“Most of what we were told wasn’t much. Mainly that the degree was being shut down and that, in theory, we would all be able to finish,” Wright said. “What was apparent was how much the degree would start to degrade.”
He said he doesn’t have the credits to graduate this year but is “super apprehensive” about staying another year.
“I am deeply unsettled by this, and that my future has been, in a way, thrown in the wind,” he said.