A personal view of UC Berkeley’s EECS crisis

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Tiffany Ho/Staff

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The following is my personal opinion. I do not speak for the EECS department, campus or anyone else.

UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department faces a catastrophe. It is trapped in a campus that underfunds undergraduate education but also demands that the department accommodate a huge growth in demand. Ten years ago, the department graduated roughly 400 students with Bachelor’s degrees in EECS or computer science. This year, the number will probably be 1400, or roughly 15%, of all undergraduates. Almost all of that growth is in the College of Letters and Science CS major.

A department that has privately tried to hold things together throughout a decade of unprecedented growth now lacks the funds to teach at scale and has to take unilateral action. Thus, for example, CS 70 (a class needed to declare Letters and Science CS), is almost certainly going to be limited to those who were admitted as intending to do CS starting in fall 2022. Hopefully, this restriction won’t apply to existing students — but that is still up in the air.

The fundamental problem starts with a campus that deliberately underfunds undergraduate education. The campus provides departments such as EECS with a budget of slightly more than $50 per student-credit per hour to pay for both lecturers and TAs. A student in a 4-unit class contributes roughly $200 out of the student’s overall tuition for these expenses. Yet the actual cost to a department is more than $350 per student for that 4-unit class, forcing departments to find additional funds to cover the upward of $150 per student gap.

At this point, the EECS department is running an annual deficit of nearly $5 million, and cutting this requires drastically cutting enrollment in CS classes. But the deficit is in many ways an excuse to do what needs to be done as no other major campus teaches at this seemingly impossible scale.

We stumbled our way into handling the demand by scaling class resources using undergraduate TAs. We can maintain a pipeline of students who first take the class; then serve as a reader or tutor; then as a TA for multiple semesters. But this pipeline works only if a class is taught every semester. This technique has allowed classes, such as CS 161, CS 188, and others to each support more than 1,000 students a year.

If we lose one of these classes for a single semester — as might happen soon — this disrupts the talent pipeline. Now the class changes from one that can support 1,000 students a year to one that can support perhaps 300 as the undergraduate talent pipeline evaporates. Losing just a single one of these scaled classes will be a disaster since the department must provide more than 7,000 student-seats per year in the upper division courses. It will create a situation where there are simply not enough classroom seats for our existing majors to meet graduation requirements.

Repeatedly teaching the same class in order to maintain the pipeline is a recipe for faculty burnout and, without campus support, a thankless task. Dropping the student population by more than 50% would eliminate the need to maintain the teaching pipeline for so many classes, allowing the department to safely offer many of these classes only once a year rather than every semester.

The department tried to convince Letters and Science to shift to a freshman admission model for CS in order to control the size of the major. Letters and Science rejected it. Thus it is highly likely that CS 70, a class necessary to declare the CS major that no other major requires, will be restricted starting in fall 2022 to only the students who actually listed CS or EECS as their intended major, cutting through the backdoor a major that Letters and Science refuses to allow the department to control earlier in the pipeline.

And if this proposal is somehow circumvented or rejected by Letters and Science, it would be natural to restrict CS 70 to “declared EECS and Letters and Science students only” in 2023 —and, since a student can’t declare in Letters and Science until they take CS 70 first, will kill the Letters and Science major entirely.

The money is no doubt a concern. But even if UC Berkeley would fund the department’s teaching (in the end it would cost less than $5 million a year, or half of the stadium debt payments that campus took over from the athletic department), the department is still in danger of shattering just due to demand.

In an ideal world, the EECS department would teach all those at UC Berkeley who want to pursue CS. But that would require explicit campus support — not only a substantially higher amount of Temporary Academic Staff funding to eliminate the department’s deficit but also a willingness to provide more faculty slots to enable the EECS department to grow with the demand. As a department, our student/faculty ratio is three times worse than comparable institutions.

Without this support, the number of students has to be drastically cut simply to avoid the even worse outcome of an upper division class failing. A properly supported EECS department could maintain this scale, but it requires both budget and will; and since there is no budget, why develop the will?

Nicholas Weaver is a soon-to-be former lecturer in computer science at UC Berkeley. He does not expect to teach again at UC Berkeley in the foreseeable future. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.