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In 2018, at the very first of what would become many campus listening forums to help shape the framework of the university’s strategic plan, President Katherine A. Rowe asked the audience, “What is changing in your discipline?”

A faculty member immediately spoke up and stated emphatically, “Everything!”

At William & Mary, an institution currently in its 330th year, we have a saying: “We change to preserve what we value most.” As we know, you don’t succeed over the course of centuries by closing ranks and being unresponsive to how the world, nation and Commonwealth have changed. To educate for impact, a university evolves and does it within its core values.

From the strategic and smart use of technology, to the need for data fluency across all disciplines (and yes, that includes liberal arts institutions), and the changing modes of online and in-person instruction, universities have been watching, and some embracing, what employers expect from graduates in today’s rapidly changing workforce.

The concept of expanding the university’s offerings in computing, data science and applied science, detailed in a November 3 article, is not a new one. W&M’s exploration of an expanded presence is the direct result of faculty interest, established and growing student demand, and the needs of the Commonwealth – all of which are longstanding. In 2019, for example, the Student Assembly submitted its own report advocating for increased emphasis in data fluency throughout the curriculum (note if you would like to see how exceptional W&M students are I recommend you read this report). The initial concept of a new entity or school came to the administration organically, from faculty in computer science (the data science program is part of CS) and applied science who are managing the surge in enrollment.

For more than a decade, student interest and enrollments in these and adjacent fields have been increasing exponentially at the university. Over the last 10 years, as we have added new degrees, interest in computational fields has more than tripled at W&M, going from 211 declared majors in just two fields (computer science and math) to 738 in six (computer science, data science, math, computational and applied mathematics and statistics, business analytics – data science, and business analytics – supply chain). In just the past two years, the number of computer science degrees went from 78 to 93. In the data science program, which just began in 2020, the number of degrees conferred went from eight in 2021 to 35 in 2022.

In fall 2021, during the strategic plan’s “planning in process” faculty, staff and students were invited to weigh in on the goal to “pursue a more dynamic and influential presence in engineering, computational and information sciences.” In February 2022, data (along with careers, democracy and water) was announced as one of the cornerstone initiatives that emerged following the lengthy and inclusive Vision 2026 strategic planning process.

Vision 2026 is not a blueprint and will evolve, just like W&M. It is critical that we continue to have engagement from the entire community as we chart a path forward together. The next phase will involve conversations and planning from across the Arts & Sciences community and beyond, as we consider how we can best serve student needs, expand impactful faculty-led research initiatives, and produce graduates who can serve the Commonwealth’s needs – all while retaining our pre-eminence in liberal arts and sciences education. Ardine Williams, Amazon’s recently retired vice president of workforce development and secretary of the W&M Board of Visitors, outlined last year on Inside Higher Ed’s podcast The Key the importance of graduates having the job skills to navigate the intersection between data, science, ethics and the humanities. By combining data fluency with a rich history of liberal arts, Williams said, research universities like W&M “are greatly positioned … to create graduates who are exquisitely capable for the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow.”

As the article outlined, William & Mary is at an important inflection point. Adaptation, innovation and flexibility are required as the university evolves while holding firm to its heart and soul as a liberal arts university. That’s the roadmap.

--Brian Whitson
Chief Communications Officer
William & Mary

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