What happened during the downturn in the 1980s?
Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.
—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

The first boom-and-bust cycle in academic computer science began with a steady rise in bachelor’s degrees throughout the 1970s, which became more rapid at the end of the decade. This dramatic rate of increase continued until sometime around 1984, when the number of students entering the field reached its peak. The peak was followed by a decline in degree production that eventually flattened out in 1994, when degree production was down by 42 percent from its earlier high. These statistics are illustrated in Figure 2, which extracts the relevant years from Figure 1 and adds labels showing the most likely explanations for the changes in direction.

BS Degrees (1975-1994)

The rapid increase in student demand at the beginning of the cycle is easy to explain. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the introduction of the personal computer, which brought many more people into contact with computing. With the release of the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981, a large number of prospective college students had access to computing for the first time in history. The excitement associated with the advent of personal computers coupled with the widespread availability of well-paying jobs in computing drew many students into the field.

The cause of the decline in student numbers that began in 1984 is more difficult to explain. The excitement that fueled the boom was, after all, still growing. January 1984, for example, marked the release of the Macintosh, heralded in Apple’s Super Bowl commercial as “the reason that 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Although the overall U.S. economy experienced a small recession beginning in 1981, that downturn had a minor effect on the technology sector. In an article published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1985, economist John Burgan noted that “employment declines in high-tech industries were not as deep as those in manufacturing” and that, in particular, those companies with the largest concentration of highly skilled technical workers were the only ones that outperformed the rest of the economy.2 There seem to be no economic or technical reasons to explain a collapse of student interest beginning in 1984.

If one looks closely at the downturn of the 1980s, however, it quickly becomes clear that the reasons for the collapse in student enrollments had nothing at all to do with student interest. Student demand for computer science courses and degrees remained high throughout that period. Students in the mid 1980s did not decide against majoring in computer science but were instead prohibited from doing so by departments that lacked the resources to accommodate them.

I believe that what happened in the 1980s is best described as a capacity collapse in which universities and colleges were simply unable to satisfy the growing level of student demand. Departments tried a number of strategies to increase their teaching capacity, including retraining faculty from other disciplines and hiring adjunct faculty from industry. In the end, however, demand overwhelmed capacity, and colleges and universities were forced to restrict admission to the computer science major, which gave rise to the subsequent downturn.

The sections that follow examine the history of this capacity collapse in more detail.

The capacity collapse of the mid 1980s

The first capacity collapse in computer science occurred around 1984, now more than 30 years ago. The passage of time, coupled with the fact that a more recent collapse occurred for different reasons, means that few people today understand the pressures that departments of computer science experienced during those years. That loss of historical understanding is particularly unfortunate because the problems we see in computer science education today closely resemble those from the beginning of the 1980s.

The challenges facing computer science in the 1980s were widely recognized at the time. Rising enrollments and the shortage of qualified faculty were a central focus of the fourth Snowbird Conference in 1980.3 The discussions at Snowbird led to a report entitled A Discipline in Crisis, which was published in the June 1981 issue of Communications of the ACM. That report begins with the following sentences, which offer a succinct review of the problem:

There is a severe manpower crisis in Computer Science. There are acute shortages of well-trained computer people at all levels, especially the Ph.D. level. The Ph.D. shortage is especially serious because it threatens our ability to conduct basic research in Computer Science and to train the next generation of computer experts.

The report goes on to outline the problems faced by the 83 Ph.D.-granting institutions included in the Taulbee surveys. All participants agreed that finding faculty to satisfy the growing demand was a critical challenge. In 1979, for example, American and Canadian universities produced only 248 Ph.D.s in computer science. The report then noted that “fewer than 100 of these Ph.D.s chose academic careers, and they had over 650 academic positions from which to choose.” In other words, there was approximately one applicant for every seven advertised positions, at least in terms of the new-Ph.D. pipeline. Six of those seven positions would either go unfilled or be offered to a candidate with less educational preparation or a degree in another field.

In a later section, A Discipline in Crisis offers the following description of the pressures on existing faculty:

Pressures on faculty are intense. In the United States, Ph.D. Computer Science faculty have grown from 805 in 1975 to 837 in 1979—virtually no growth. The undergraduate student demand for Computer Science has risen at 15 percent to 20 percent annually during the same period.
    Thus overburdened, faculty cannot find adequate time to conduct research or to supervise graduate students in research. This atmosphere is a strong incentive for research-oriented faculty to seek positions in industrial research groups. Departments must find ways to give faculty more time for exploring new ideas with their graduate students while continuing to fulfill teaching commitments. Limiting or cutting back enrollments would be counterproductive given the societal need manifested in the rising enrollments. The only way in the long term to meet this need is to train, hire, and retain new faculty.

Although the numbers today are of course much higher, reading this assessment from the early 1980s creates a clear impression of déjà vu.

In addition to the report on A Discipline in Crisis, the June 1981 issue of Communications of the ACM included a letter from ACM President Peter Denning entitled “Eating our seed corn.” Although Denning did not introduce the seed-corn metaphor—and indeed says in his President’s letter that “the phrase ‘eating our seed corn’ appears everywhere”—he certainly helped to popularize it and bring the issue before a larger audience. He cites in particular an article in the Business Week issue of November 17, 1980, which charges that

Industry is eating some of its own seed corn. Not only are they taking students who would become faculty, they are recruiting faculty.

The community’s awareness of the looming capacity crisis deepened over the next few years. The Snowbird Conference in 1982 led to the preparation of a new report entitled Meeting the Crisis in Computer Science, which appeared in Communications of the ACM in December 1983. Although this follow-on report identified some encouraging signs, it concluded that “the basic critical situation had not yet been ameliorated. Ph.D.s in computer science are still being produced at about 250 per year, while the demand is still about five times that. The number of undergraduates entering computer science departments continues to increase, and the number of unfilled computer science faculty positions is greater than in 1980.”

Response from governmental agencies

One of the encouraging signs identified in the report from the 1982 Snowbird Conference was increased awareness by government agencies of the problems facing academic computer science. In October 1980, the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation released a report entitled Science and Engineering Education for the 1980s and Beyond, which highlighted the faculty shortfall throughout engineering and computing fields.

There are, today, severe shortages of qualified faculty members in most fields of engineering, as well as in the computer professions. Industries have expanded their research and development efforts and have increased the rate at which new, sophisticated products are introduced. To effect this, they are luring faculty members away from the universities into challenging well-paid positions. At the same time, they are making such attractive job offers to bachelor’s degree recipients that many who would once have gone to graduate school now opt for positions in industry. The net effect has been a reduction in the ability of universities to provide education in engineering and the computer professions, although undergraduate demand for these areas is more intense than ever. Unless the problem of faculty erosion is alleviated, it is possible that many engineering schools and departments that educate computer professionals may have to reduce their enrollments during this decade, thereby reducing the numbers of trained people in these fields that the Nation’s future requires.

The last sentence of this paragraph raises the specter of precisely the sort of enrollment caps that computer science departments were forced to institute beginning around 1984.

In addition to focusing government attention on the problem of faculty shortages in computer science and other applied fields, one of the important contributions of the DoE/NSF report was that it introduced economic analysis into the debate. As the report notes, it is usually possible to allow market forces to correct labor imbalances, given that an increase in job opportunities attracts more people to that sector. The report argues against that course of action as a strategy for correcting the imbalances in technical fields, saying:

While market forces may ultimately relieve current and future shortages, we believe that the innovative capacity of American industry will be severely hampered in the interim. We simply cannot afford to wait for the slow workings of the marketplace.

Over the next few years, the National Science Foundation continued to assess the problem of shortages in key technical specialties, including computer science. In 1982, NSF staffer Kent Curtis presented a report to a meeting of the Computing Research Board on the labor shortages facing computer science. I believe that the insights Curtis’s report offers for the situation in the 1980s are of such direct relevance today that I have scanned his report (previously available only in an extremely poor photocopy) and made it available on my web site under its original title, Computer Manpower—Is There a Crisis? Curtis’s report argues that academic computer science faces special challenges.

Let us consider the conundrum facing the computer field in higher education first. It is experiencing an exponentially increasing demand for its product with an inelastic labor supply. How has it reacted? . . . 80% of the universities are responding by increasing teaching loads, 50% by decreasing course offerings and concentrating their available faculty on larger but fewer courses, and 66% are using more graduate-student teaching assistants or part-time faculty. 35% report reduced research opportunities for faculty as a result. In brief, they are using a combination of rational management measures to adjust as well as they can to the severe manpower constraints under which they must operate. However, these measures make the universities’ environments less attractive for employment and are exactly counterproductive to their need to maintain and expand their labor supply. They are also counterproductive to producing more new faculty since the image graduate students get of academic careers is one of harassment, frustration, and too few rewards.

Public perceptions of the challenges

The problem of faculty shortages in computer science also received coverage in the media. In February 1981, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article entitled “As students flock to computer science courses, colleges scramble to find professors.”4 The article quotes Joe Turner (still a leader in the computer science education community) as follows:

“It’s an impossibility to fill faculty positions,” says A. Joseph Turner, head of the computer science department at Clemson University. He says he has to compete with other universities, as well as industry—but the industrial competition is by far the toughest.

A month later, The Chronicle of Higher Education followed up the earlier article with an essay by Stanley Pogrow at the University of Arizona in which he points out that the situation facing several applied disciplines is new in the history of academia.5

In previous times, fields that were experiencing rapid expansion of knowledge generally found it easy to attract new faculty members, and fields where jobs were plentiful found it easy to attract graduate students. This is no longer true. A number of fields in applied science, such as computer science, physics, and electrical engineering, where knowledge frontiers are being rapidly extended, are experiencing increasing numbers of unfilled faculty positions, a reduced aging faculty, and declining graduate enrollment.

The response from academia

Faced with the extraordinary challenge of finding faculty in a labor market in which the number of positions exceeded the number of applicants by as much as a factor of seven, universities and colleges were forced to adopt other strategies to build their teaching capacity. These strategies included

All these strategies are described in papers presented at the leading conferences in computer science education at the time. The strategy of increasing teaching loads is self-defeating, as indicated in Kent Curtis’s admonition that such measures “make the universities’ environments less attractive for employment and are exactly counterproductive to their need to maintain and expand their labor supply.” Hiring part-time and adjunct faculty was at best a short-term solution that proved difficult to implement. Given the shortage of computing talent in the industry, adjunct faculty were also in short supply.

The strategy that had the most significant long-term effect on computer science education was faculty retraining. Starting in the early 1980s, a number of universities including the University of Massachusetts, the University of South Carolina, Ohio State University, Kent State University, the University of Evansville, Brooklyn College, Clarkson University, California State University at Fresno, Central State University in Oklahoma, Memphis State University, and James Madison University began to offer programs to retrain faculty from other disciplines to teach computer science, at least at the introductory level. These programs are described in an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in July 1984, which begins as follows:6

Nearly 400 faculty members in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and a host of other disciplines—scientific and nonscientific—are going to colleges and universities this summer to learn to teach computing.
    Some of them see retraining in computer science as an opportunity to move into an exciting, growing field. Others are getting formal training in courses they already teach. Still others are going because they recognize—or have been told—that the future in their present fields is bleak.

The Chronicle article found that the length of the faculty training programs varied from a high of three part-time years to a low of two weeks. The latter figure “raised eyebrows” and prompted the author of the article to ask the question, “Can two weeks be as effective as three years in training a faculty member to teach a computer course?” William Weber, chairman of the computer science department at Southeast Missouri State University, admitted that such short programs could of course not be as complete but added that universities faced no other choice. As the article describes,

None of the 13 faculty members in his department have a doctorate in computer science. “We couldn’t afford them if they did,” he says. Instead, the university made a commitment to retraining.

Although faculty with formal training in computer science remained dominant at the research universities, faculty members from outside the field, often with minimal training in computer science, soon filled most of the positions in less prestigious universities and liberal arts colleges. As I wrote in an article that appeared during the enrollment boom of the late 1990s (and which reviews the strategies used during the 1980s in more detail than I do in this section), I am convinced that “academic computer science could not have survived were it not for the willingness of some faculty to move to a new field. For the most part, those who migrated to computer science were extremely conscientious about acquiring the expertise they needed to teach in their adopted discipline. Their efforts sustained computer science education at many institutions and helped reduce the impact of the earlier crisis.”7 Even so, the fact that so many computer science faculty came from outside the field had profound implications for academic computer science that continued through the next enrollment cycle.

The collapse and its aftermath

Even though institutions tried many strategies to expand their teaching capacity, they were eventually overrun by the relentless increase in student demand. Although the report from Snowbird 1980 had warned that “limiting or cutting back enrollments would be counterproductive given the societal need manifested in the rising enrollments,” universities and colleges were forced to do just that. Most of those limitations were based on academic performance and were extremely restrictive. At Berkeley in the mid 1980s, for example, only students with a 4.0 GPA were admitted to the major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

During these years, I was chairing the newly formed Department of Computer Science at Wellesley College. Although we were more fortunate than many colleges in that we were able to attract a few applicants in response to our searches, making actual appointments remained a near impossibility. In 1982-83, Wellesley made six offers before finding someone who would take the position. Most of our candidates accepted competing offers elsewhere at higher salaries, both from industry and academia. Unfortunately, hiring one person in that year was insufficient to keep up with the increasing student interest in the computer science major. In 1983, Wellesley decided to restrict access to the major, accepting only students who met a minimum GPA threshold.

Although limiting access to the major did reduce class sizes, it was not effective in meeting the more general goal of improving working conditions for the faculty. Enrollment limitations are, naturally enough, unpopular with students—and with their parents. Imposing such restrictions makes the relationship between faculty and students adversarial, causing students to become more competitive and, in many cases, angry. Teaching became considerably less enjoyable, and I ended up leaving Wellesley for a research lab.

The imposition of GPA thresholds and other strategies to reduce enrollment led naturally to a change in how students perceived computer science. In the 1970s, students were welcomed eagerly into this new and exciting field. Around 1984, everything changed. Instead of welcoming students, departments began trying to push them away. Students got that message and concluded that they weren’t wanted. Over the next few years, the idea that computer science was competitive and unwelcoming became widespread and started to have an impact even at institutions that had not imposed limitations on the major.