In Praise of Small Colleges

Following in the footsteps (sort of) of Bill Gates, Craig Mundie is making a fall college tour. He’s visiting Princeton University, New York University, the University of Michigan, University of California-Berkeley, and UC San Diego this week. YAWN! No, really, who cares? If any of the students at these schools need inspiration about computer science they should never have gone to those schools. Likewise any of them who need a visit from Craig Mundie to get them to think about going to work for Microsoft are clearly not bright enough for Microsoft to hire. Not that I am saying all the smart kids should come to Microsoft but they should all be evaluating it on its merits. So what’s the point? Public relations I guess is part of it. The local, regional and sometimes national media covers these trips. Truth be known I suspect that some people at some of these schools (but not the one *you* admire) consider this their due recognition. Personally, I would rather Craig visit small colleges and universities. Better still some rural and inner-city high schools.

I admit to a bias towards smaller colleges. I attended Taylor University in Upland Indiana. Never heard of it? It’s not so big and it is sort of in the middle of nowhere. It is a great school though! I’m on the CS department advisory board so I may perhaps be doubly biased of course. But it sure did well by me. While I was a student I heard talks by Grace Hopper and Ken Olsen (at that time president of Digital Equipment Corp). And yes, hearing Ken Olsen talk did influence me to think about working at DEC and I did work there for about 14 years. But more than that I was inspired to make a career in a field I was only starting to understand and which was much different from what it is today.

I sure hope that students at Princeton don’t need someone to tell them they can aim for the stars. Heck for a lot of people getting into Princeton is itself aiming for the stars. But I think that students at smaller schools need to know that they too can get to work at the big companies, create their own companies and otherwise make a big difference in the world. Yes, it’s true that many big companies tend to ignore the smaller schools when they do their recruiting. It may be a bit harder for students from these schools to get the jobs at Microsoft or Google or what ever. But they can get there. I’m working at Microsoft after all. 🙂 So I think that visits by top people can be more influential at smaller schools. The press will tag along anyway if only to ask “why this school?” No one is asking “why NYU?” trust me.

I also believe that bringing some attention to other smaller, fine schools will help recruit more students into the computer field. I doubt that Michigan or Berkeley are having trouble getting the message out that they have good computer science programs. But smaller regional schools could use the attention. A Rose-Hulman or a Harvey Mudd is a good compromise BTW. Their programs are incredible and are better known than most small schools but not as well known as they could be. But I’m sure that other small regionally known programs could benefit from some extra attention as well.

And what about some large high schools that don’t currently have great computer science programs? Wouldn’t it be great (and helpful) to inspire hundreds of kids who don’t know that computer science is an option to demand courses in the subject? Or at least get them interested enough to start in college. The college CS majors are won over already. We need to jump start interest and demand in high school.

And speaking of attention, wouldn’t it be great if the next time Bill Gates thinks about donating $50 million dollars for a computer science building that he split the money five ways and built smaller buildings at five campuses? I’ll bet the student served per million would be a lot higher than all at one school. The incremental improvement in a small program would be a lot greater as well. Raise the tide for all boats rather than a big wave that helps one large boat.

Well that’s just my opinion and senior management has shown an ability to go their own way and even be successful without my advice. In the mean time, if someone from the bottom of the hierarchy (like me) can be helpful visiting your high school (especially in New England) let me know and I’ll see if I can work out my own tour.

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