Computer sciences working group to advise on growth strategies

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Two University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates with deep technology industry experience are leading a working group charged with assessing options to enhance computing education and research on campus.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank has appointed Tom Erickson, technology entrepreneur and graduate of UW-Madison's electrical and computer engineering program, and Michael Lehman, a Silicon Valley veteran who has recently served as UW-Madison's interim chief information officer, to head a group drawn from campus, alumni and industry. 

The group, composed of experienced individuals from both campus and around the state and country, is charged with advising university leadership, the Computer Sciences Department, its Board of Visitors, and other stakeholders on ways to advance computing at UW-Madison and around Wisconsin. They are expected to provide recommendations sometime this summer.

"I have asked Tom, Mike and the working group to help us think through what we can do to improve our leadership position in computing," says Blank. "Our university has long been a leader in the field of computer and computational science, and we can build on that historical role so that Wisconsin can continue to be a leader in a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy and society."

Specifically, the group will seek strategies to: 

  • Increase the research output, profile and rankings of the computer science faculty;
  • Increase opportunities for students across campus to study computer science; and
  • Produce more students among graduates who have been exposed to and trained on computational thinking, big data, artificial intelligence and related fields.

Computing plays an increasingly prominent role on campus, as it does in a world deploying computing power and networks into every corner of our lives.

Computer sciences is now the most popular undergraduate major offered at UW-Madison. In 2017, more than 1,300 undergraduate students were working toward a computer sciences degree, more than four times the number from just four years earlier. Nationwide, the number of computer science bachelor's degrees rose by 74 percent between 2009 and 2015, compared to 16 percent growth across all fields. During the same time period, the number of Ph.D. degrees rose by 21 percent.  

And the Computer Sciences Department has faculty affiliations and collaborations with astronomy, design studies, education, engineering, mathematics, medicine, physics, psychology, statistics and other departments and disciplines on campus, where students engage in computational thinking, which reflects the broad reach of this important field.

"The pervasive nature of computing in our world and the intense increase in demand for learning is forcing universities globally to rethink their computer science programs," says Erickson, a serial entrepreneur and most recently founding director and longtime CEO of Boston-based software company Acquia. "UW-Madison has long been a leader not only in computer science, but also more broadly in computational sciences across many disciplines. I'm excited to be involved in helping to define how the university will continue this leadership for the next 20 years and beyond."

The College of Letters & Science is committed to supporting their continued growth and vitality, on behalf of the students we serve, in the interest of the state, regional and national economy, and in the pursuit of knowledge creation on this campus.

Opportunities are growing in Wisconsin, with the anticipated arrival of international electronics manufacturer Foxconn and continued needs of home-grown technology companies such as Verona-based Epic. And bright computer science minds have been known to take their own ideas to market, creating more jobs.

"Wisconsin's long-term economic well-being is only brighter with a strong source of computer scientists and their expertise and entrepreneurship," says Lehman, a Wisconsin School of Business graduate who has served as executive vice president and chief financial officer of Sun Microsystems and CFO at Palo Alto Networks and Arista Networks, as well as interim UW-Madison vice chancellor for finance and administration. "The innovations of our faculty and the knowledge we create can help our students develop their own ideas and exploit their computing skills to build more companies in Wisconsin."

The College of Letters & Science, home to the Department of Computer Sciences, has helped the department add six new faculty members this academic year, with plans to expand by a dozen more to a total of 50 in the next few years. The college also added $200,000 to the budget for computer sciences teaching assistants this year, according to Dean Karl Scholz.

"Computer Sciences is a research powerhouse, and plays a central role in bringing cutting-edge instruction in computational thinking to UW-Madison students," Scholz says. "The College of Letters & Science is committed to supporting their continued growth and vitality, on behalf of the students we serve, in the interest of the state, regional and national economy, and in the pursuit of knowledge creation on this campus."

The rest of the working group includes:

  • Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau, UW-Madison computer sciences professor
  • Jake Blanchard, UW-Madison associate dean of the College of Engineering and professor of engineering physics
  • AnHai Doan, UW-Madison computer sciences professor
  • Kathleen Gallagher, Milwaukee Institute executive director
  • Jon Hopkins, software entrepreneur and computer sciences instructor at UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee School of Engineering
  • Erik Iverson, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation managing director
  • Tim Norris, UW-Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration
  • Brian Pinkerton, former CTO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Computer Sciences alum 
  • Dale Smith, U.S. Bank executive vice president
  • Tom Still, Wisconsin Technology Council president