CS Majors Upset Over New Hire

The Computer Science Department’s recent job search culminated in the hiring of the candidate students ranked last, and the resignation of the candidate that students ranked first.

(photo by Kate Silverman)

After interviewing four candidates for a tenure-track position, the CS department originally offered the position to Stina Bridgeman, a CS professor from Brown University in early March. She was the second choice of students, but she declined the position and the program administrators offered the position to Timothy Gegg-Harrison. 
The CS Majors Committee ranked Gegg-Harrison last. Their recommendation reads, “The students generally agreed that Gegg-Harrison was unenthusiastic, uninteresting and generally undesirable. His teaching experience sounded wonderful, but his lecture was far from exciting. Little else was said about him.”
Senior Samuel Greenberg did not even consider Gegg-Harrison as a candidate. “I thought he was dull. After all the candidate talks were over, the CS students were discussing the candidates in the lab and I said, ‘Let’s stop talking about Harrison. There’s no way they’ll pick him.’ I was a fool,” he said.
The hiring of Gegg-Harrison accompanies the resignation of Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stephen Wong. Currently, Wong teaches introductory level CS courses as well as a number of private readings.
Affectionally referred to by his students as “Stephen,” Wong grew up in Oberlin where his father taught mathematics. Last summer, his childhood friend, Daniel Steinberg, also resigned from the CS department. Both wanted to teach at Oberlin College. 
“This is the place I wanted to be. I feel tremendous commitment to the students, to Oberlin as a place. I have a feeling of heritage here. There’s been a Wong teaching here for almost 45 years. I’ve been kicking around in [King] since the day it was built. I took calculus in this room. The stuff I teach is tuned to Oberlin Students. I leverage very strongly with the students’ liberal arts nature.”
The CSMC gave mixed reactions on Wong’s teaching style but ranked him first in their recommendation. They wrote, “The majority of the CS community clearly prefers Stephen Wong for the tenure track position, though there is a small minority of individuals who feel very differently and find him less than desirable.”
The announcement of Gegg-Harrison’s hiring upset CS majors. “When they offered it to him, a lot of students were upset about it. We thoroughly discussed the rankings in a series of meetings. We put a lot of time into it. [The decision] caused a lot of grief among the majors,” sophomore and CSMC member Lincoln Ritter said.
CS majors demanded a meeting with Dean of the College Clayton Koppes. “We’d been trying to get a meeting with Koppes all through the interview process. We kept getting the runaround,” Ritter said. 
The CS students began a calling campaign, dialing the office of the Dean, asking for a meeting every five minutes. When they finally met, over 25 students went to speak with Koppes. Ritter was happy with the turnout, but unhappy with the outcome of the discussion. “All these majors came out, people that didn’t necessarily come to the labs. It was good in that sense. But it wasn’t good in that nothing got done. If anything else, it really showed what the CS administration is feeling.” 
Koppes had a different take on the meeting, saying, “I thought we had a very constructive meeting.”
Chair of the CS Program Christian Koch empathized with the feeling among students, but he explained that their rankings did not ultimately control the hiring process. “It’s understandable that they’re upset. For many of them, he is a mentor and a friend. The question of who gets the job is not a question that goes to the majors committee. They advised, and the program committee decided to offer the job to Gegg-Harrison. The input of the CSMC was strongly taken into consideration. It was not ignored. But when the vote came up, Gegg-Harrison won.”
Assistant Dean of the College Robert Geitz explained the synthesis of voices involved in the hiring process. “We always listen to the students, but they’re not the only voice. The people making the decision try to listen to all the voices and make the best decision they can,” he said.
Koppes assured that student voices were taken seriously in the hiring. “They were listend to very carefully. Their views were known. They were taken seriously, but the search committee has access to a larger range of information, and they are experienced in making personnel judgement. And they reached a judgement about what would be the best for the long term health of the CS program,” Koppes said.
Ritter said faculty and administrators’ words were contradictory to their actions. “While they said our views were of the utmost importance in the interview process, in their actions, they disregarded our opinions and advice,” he said.
Sophomore Jeff Walker hoped Wong would be hired. “I’m really disappointed. I was one of the people that worked really hard to keep Stephen’s position here. He really works with the students. I understand why he resigned because it was twice the administration picked someone over him. They’ve basically made it clear that they don’t want him here.”
Walker does not know why they did not offer Wong the position. “I don’t think any students know. I’m sure administrators know. But I’m sure they won’t tell you.”
Both Koppes and Koch said the reasons for choosing Gegg-Harrison over Wong were confidential.
One major concern from the students and Wong is the future of the CS curriculum. At present, some students feel Wong plays a fundamental role in the development of an Object Oriented Programming paradigm into the introductory classes. Webber said, “Professor Wong made a big push for the OOP paradigm. Under him, it’s become a big part of CS 150 and 151. Those intro courses started to come together, improving a lot. People feel that improvement will be lost.”
Currently, OOP commands the pace of the CS industry and job market. Numerous students spoke anecdotally of their experience at jobs and internships. 
Sophomore Mark Kornblum said his supervisor at a summer dot-com job, began to require employees to learn more OOP. Kornblum ended up helping his boss with the tutorials. “The head of development was asking me for my advice after my first year intro CS class,” he said.
Ritter referenced an OOP canonical book, explaining that many employers asked whether applicants knew the book’s material. “People that come out of Stephen’s class know that book. It is cutting edge. Stephen is one of the leading researchers in that field.”
Koch assured that an OOP approach would be preserved. “An OOP approach will continue. Gegg-Harrison is also interested in design patterns, perhaps not to the extent that Stephen is, but he fully intends to maintain an OOP approach.”
Wong explained that Oberlin is a leader in undergraduate education using OOP. “We, at the moment, are arguably one of the world leaders in computer education, particularly in OOP. When I was at the Special Interest Group for Computer Science Education conference, one of the biggest CS education conferences, we were the most quoted and referenced program there. People come up to us wondering how we do stuff because we’re the leaders. For OOP, we are the undisputed leader,” he said.
Wong also complimented the students on their accomplishments, saying, “Considering the type of things people do here in their freshman year, juniors and seniors barely do them at other schools. This field changes so fast that if you’re not on the cutting edge, you’ll be behind after four years at college.”
Walker noticed that Gegg-Harrison’s lecture incorporated many of Wong’s projects. “At the end of Gegg-Harrison’s talk, he had one slide referencing all his resources and over half of them were Stephen’s work. Why hire the guy who’s following in the footsteps of the guy you could hire?” he asked.
Wong is currently considering jobs at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Oberlin’s main competition in undergraduate CS education — Rice.
Although the majority of CS students felt they were ignored by the administration and CS Program board, junior Claire Fitts said there might be another explanation to the outcome. “I know a lot of people feel we weren’t listened to, but I definitely think the first part of the decision was ‘Stephen Wong or not Stephen Wong,’ and of the other candidates, it was really late, and it’s possible our [third] choice took something else. It’s sad that our last choice was picked, but it might’ve also been an unavoidable situation, and the administrators did what they thought was best, which may or may not be in reality,” she said.


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