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How we spend your donations

A wide variety of people (alumni, faculty, staff, students) generously donate both their talent and their funds to the CS department. We try to thank those who donate their talent at the time that they do so. Those who donate funds may want to know how we spend what we receive. This document represents the current state of the departmental thank you letter. (I was writing a new one anyway; putting it on my musings and reflections site seemed appropriate because I am musing and reflecting on how we spend money.)

Dear Donor,

Thank you very much for your donation to the Computer Science department at Grinnell College. I thought you might want to hear how we typically spend donations and also learn a bit about how things are going in the department.

As you might expect, we primarily spend donations to the department on things that make students’ experiences better. Some funds go toward supporting the strong community within the department. For example, we have used donations to allow our Student Educational Policy Committee (SEPC) to have more substantive study breaks (e.g., with food from a local Chinese restaurant) and we have used donations for food and drink when students are presenting in class. In the summer, we use funds to build community among the summer research students, most typically through communal lunches at area restaurants, as well as trips to Iowa City and Des Moines.

Some funds go toward allowing students to participate in interesting extracurricular activities. We have used donations to help send students to conferences, to hack-a-thons, to programming competitions, and to other similar kinds of events. In most cases, we also encourage students to look for other sources of funding, not only because it allows our money to go further, but also because we think there is a benefit to our students in learning how to ask for money.

Some funds allow us to avoid red tape as we support student work. For example, we’ve often had students need to use Web services (e.g., AWS or Twillio) as part of their projects. It’s much easier to just go to our donation fund than it is to ask ITS. (I’ll admit that it’s sometimes even easier for me to just use my credit card, and I do so as I deem appropriate.) At times we’ve even used funds for pizza for a project work session.

More recently, we’ve been using donations to help support the Pledge of the Computing Professional, In particular, we are using donations to pay for stoles for pledgers to wear at graduation.

When a donor specifies a particular activity that they wish to support, we do our best to support that activity. The most frequent notes I see in our donations are to support the social life of the department and to support diversity. More recently, a group of current students has started donating for the coffee fund, so I plan to set up some sort of coffee bar this coming fall. I will admit that I prefer more general donations, but I really do try my best to accommodate donor wishes.

We’ve received enough donations toward diversity in CS that we now have a separate CS Diversity fund. We are just starting to explore how best to use that fund. In part, it helps send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. I can tell you that I watch students come back from those conferences transformed. (And yes, I am looking for transformative conferences for those who don’t self-identify as either of those groups but who nonetheless need some additional support; I will admit that those are harder to find.) We have also used the CS Diversity fund to support activities for Grinnell Women in Computing group, which, like Grinnell’s Women in Physics group, is not just restricted to those who self-identify as female.

I expect that you’d like to hear how things are going in the department. You may be surprised to hear that we have grown significantly. For most of my career, we graduated about twelve students per year. We are now at about triple that size: We have 37 students in the class of 2016, 39 in the class of 2017, and 35 in the class of 2018. (That last number is likely to grow.) I am proud that as we’ve grown, we’ve retained our strong sense of department community (although I will be checking with our graduating seniors about what they see as changes in that sense of community). We have also done well in diversifying the department; approximately 40% of our majors are women and over 25% are international students. We also seem to be doing well in terms of domestic students of color, although not as well as I’d hope.

This past year also saw some significant changes in the faculty. Janet Davis was recruited away from Grinnell to found a new CS program at Whitman College. We congratulate Janet on this exciting opportunity. Henry Walker has decided to move to Senior Faculty Status. He will use his SFS time to work on a textbook for his innovative robots-based CSC 161 course. I’m happy to note that he will also continue to teach that course at Grinnell for the next few years. Jerod Weinman was promoted to Associate Professor with Tenure, which makes me particularly happy because it means that someone else can be chair.

We’ve also hired two new faculty to succeed Henry and Janet (we use succeed rather than replace because it’s not clear that either is replaceable). Peter-Michael Osera comes to us from the University of Pennsylvania and does cool things with programming languages. Charlie Curtsinger comes to us from the University of Massachusetts and does equally cool things in systems. Our students tell me that they are thrilled to have these two new members of the department.

Of course, 4.5 FTE faculty is not enough for our current number of majors, and we are hopeful that the College will permit us to hire another tenure-line faculty member. This year, we are lucky to have Ursula Wolz as a Noyce Visiting Professor. Ursula is doing incredible outreach activities, and helping our students get involved with computing in the community. (Oops! I forgot to mention that we sometimes use your donations to help with those outreach activities.) And it looks like we’ve been able to convince her to come back in the Spring of 2017.

The faculty have also seen a variety of successes. Jerod Weinman received a sizeable grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue work in text recognition in maps. Jerod’s work shows great promise not only as CS scholarship, but also to support work in the digital humanities. Jerod was also appointed IEEE Senior Member. Henry Walker has received two book contracts, one for his textbook on robots in C and one for a collection of essays on computer science education. Janet’s work on a new model for our software design course led to the department receiving the annual community partner award from Mid-Iowa Community Action. And the President’s fund will support me and some students in developing summer coding camps designed to attract and encourage students otherwise underrepresented in CS.

I am proud that our students are also taking the initiative to do new and interesting things. AppDev, the student-led mobile app development team, continues to be active on campus. CS students were also instrumental in offering a second Pioneer Weekend, a kind of startup weekend. And it looks like almost half of the 2016-17 SGA cabinet will be CS majors.

I’ve certainly missed many important things. But I hope that what I have written gives you some sense of what is going on in the department.

Before concluding, I find that I must return to the issue of money. The College has recently decided to change how it expects us to use the funds donated to the department. When I’ve donated, both to CS and to other departments, I have also intended my money to be used on an as needed basis. It’s okay with me if a department holds on to the money for a few years and then uses it when it considers it appropriate to do so. However, Development and Alumni Relations (DAR) finds that many alums are surprised that we do not spend their funds quickly. Hence, the College has asked that we spend at least 50% of our donations fund every year. If that is the donor’s intent, I am happy to do so. However, if a donor intends us to use the funds as needed, I would also be happy to follow those wishes. If you have preferences, please indicate them in the notes box when you donate. If you say nothing, I will assume that you would like us to spend the funds relatively promptly.

Once again, I am very grateful that you’ve donated to the department. You have helped make our students’ experiences better.

Please let me know if you would like any other information about how we spend our donations or how things are going in the department.


Samuel A. Rebelsky, Professor and Chair of Computer Science

p.s. We are planning to host a CS Affinity Reunion at Grinnell on November 18-19, 2016. The Reunion will be a chance to celebrate 25 years of the CS major, 10 years as a separate department, and Mr. Walker’s transition to Senior Faculty Status. Please reserve the weekend on your calendar!

As always, I appreciate any comments or critiques you may wish to provide.

Version 1.0 of Friday, 22 April 2016