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SOU wants to expand computer faculty

Staffing hasn't kept pace with rapidly growing student demand, university says

Southern Oregon University hopes to beef up its computer science program with funds in the governor's budget proposal.

Joe Graf, dean of SOU's school of science, says the Ashland university stands to get $200,000 from a $10 million state initiative for engineering and technology in the proposed 1999-2001 budget.

If the money survives next year's legislative budget debates, SOU plans to hire two part-time instructors and update its computer science labs.

SOU has seen interest in computer science courses soar in recent years -- a reflection of the industry's growth, particularly in Ashland.

Over the past four years, the number of SOU students majoring in computer science -- getting degrees in either programming or software -- has doubled to 130.

And we haven't increased the size of the staff much over that time, Graf says.

SOU has six-and-a-half positions for computer science instructors. There are already plans to add one position to build up the school's master's program in math and computer science.

The college is also considering adding an applied multimedia minor next fall. Classes for the minor, which prepare students for jobs in lucrative fields such as programming, are being offered on a pilot basis this year.

They are all full, so there's student demand, Graf says.

Trying to meet that growing demand is an issue at colleges and universities around the state, a fact underscored by the budget proposal.

There's no guarantee that the Legislature will approve all $10 million. The same amount was proposed for the 1997-99 budget and only $5 million made the final cut. All that funding went to the Portland area, as would most of the money in the latest proposal.

If the Legislature approves the $200,000 for SOU, the school plans to hire a part-time liaison between the industry and the university and mount an off-campus program in computer science that meets industry needs, Graf says. The school would also hire a practicing industry professional to be a part-time instructor.

Hiring someone fresh from the industry would help ease one of the biggest challenges educators face in the technology realm: staying current in an ever-changing industry, Graf says.

SOU's computer science faculty has seen marked turnover in recent years, with two of the six positions changing. The school has tried to use that its advantage -- bringing in instructors with specific expertise to try and match the demand.

Rahul Tikekar, hired two years ago to replace Jim Prodo, specializes in databases. Tim Killeen, hired this year to replace the retired Lee Hill, specializes in operating systems. But Killeen will resign to pursue interests in the industry at the end of the school year, leaving SOU searching for another operating systems expert.

Finding and keeping good instructors is far from easy for a smaller university like SOU.

It is very difficult to be competitive either with industry or other institutions, Graf says. The salaries we can pay are significantly below the market.

Whatever the challenges, there is little question about the demand, both from students and from area companies. A recent study on the Rogue Valley's technology education needs found that well-trained entry-level workers in the technology and computer science fields are hard to come by.

We have businesses wanting well-trained workers and many students who would kill to stay here, Graf says.