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Monday, April 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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SPU might shut down computer curriculum

Seattle Times staff reporter

Computers have been around so long at Seattle Pacific University that an enterprising teenager named Bill Gates once wrote programs there.

But 28 years after the emerging field was recognized as a discipline at SPU, the computer-science department may close. Enrollment has dropped sharply, and among the 710 incoming freshmen, not a single student has indicated plans to major in computer science.

In the mid- to late 1990s, there were often 125 or more undergraduate majors in the discipline, according to officials at the private, Christian college. That has now fallen to 24 undergraduate majors, supported by four faculty members.

The program is undergoing a complete review and twice this year has been recommended for closure by Les Steele, the college's vice president for academic affairs. SPU President Philip Eaton will likely make a final decision this summer.

Steele said that SPU tries to integrate a liberal-arts education with practical, professional skills such as computer science. But the program is costly to run and undersubscribed. In one memo, Steele cited a 10-year history of low enrollment with no solution in sight.

"When I've got a program in this heap of trouble and other programs with huge enrollments, what am I supposed to do?" he said in an interview.

Mike Tindall, who chairs the computer-science department, said he and other faculty will fight to keep the department open. He said SPU has a niche teaching computer programming, problem-solving and software architecture within a Christian and ethical framework.

"Cutting computer science doesn't make sense to me: It cuts us off from that part of the culture, and I don't think that's a very wise decision," Tindall said. "I think ethics and proper evaluation systems should be in the loop. I'm not willing to give over technology to people who don't have a Christian focus."

Enrollment in computer-science programs has dropped around the country since the dot-com bubble burst. But the U.S. Department of Labor predicts information technology will be among the biggest employment drivers over the next decade, and many colleges are anticipating an enrollment rebound.

In this state, SPU's computer-science department is under the shadow of the University of Washington, where more than 700 students are majoring in computer science at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, in a program consistently ranked among the best in the nation. There are also strong computer programs at Seattle University and Western Washington University.

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"The effect of the cyclic downturn here is that we have had to turn away fewer students," said Ed Lazowska, who holds the UW's Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. "We are now able to accommodate more than half of the students who apply to the program."

SPU officials said any closure would be phased, so as to minimize the disruption for existing computer students.

According to the biography "Gates" — and confirmed by SPU — a young Bill Gates once spent the summer of 1974 computerizing the class enrollment for the UW's Experimental College, a project he programmed on an old DEC computer at what was then called Seattle Pacific College.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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