Throughout its history, William & Mary has evolved to answer the needs of our nation — leading the evolution of the liberal arts and sciences at key moments of transformation. The next chapter of innovation is underway, as the university responds to rapid changes in research and learning by taking an important step to establish a school joining departments and programs of Computer Science, Data Science, Applied Science and Physics.
The William & Mary Board of Visitors voted unanimously Friday to approve a new administrative structure, building on existing strengths and bringing together four academic units that currently operate within Arts & Sciences. A final proposal will be submitted to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) by March 2024, the school will launch in fall 2025, with the completion of the fourth phase of the Integrated Science Center (ISC4), a new building at the heart of campus.
“This is an important next step in our evolution to meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond,” said Rector Charles E. Poston J.D. ’74. “Our rapidly changing workforce needs technically trained individuals who have been taught within an exceptional liberal arts and sciences foundation. William & Mary has such distinctive strengths in these four areas, and the establishment of this new school will propel forward what is already exceptional work.
”The board appreciates the comprehensive and thoughtful work by the administration and the faculty to develop a forward-thinking proposal that will serve the Commonwealth, nation and generations of graduates.”
Through the new school, William & Mary will expand its focus on data fluency — a pillar of its Vision 2026 strategic plan — facilitating data-intensive research while further enhancing students’ career prospects in sectors that are driving economic growth. Research conducted by the four units intersects with disciplines across the university. Connections between the new school and the rest of the university will expand the interdisciplinary collaborations that are distinctive to W&M’s liberal arts and sciences educational approach.
“This is an important moment in William & Mary’s long evolution as a preeminent liberal arts and sciences university. Data science is a liberal art for the 21st century: a vital mode of critical thinking in all fields and disciplines,” said President Katherine A. Rowe. “I am grateful to Provost Peggy Agouris for leading an inclusive, measured process to ensure the Alma Mater of the Nation continues to set the highest standard for excellence – keeping the human in AI.”
The new school will be the sixth to be created at William & Mary since its inception – and the first in over 50 years. W&M was the nation’s first university to establish a law school in 1779. In the late 19th century, the university added teacher preparation to a liberal arts curriculum, to support Virginia’s growing public school system. The School of Education was officially established in 1961. William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) was founded in the mid-20th century to sustain Virginia’s vital coastal fisheries. Building on the success of the department of business, and of its Master of Business Administration, in 1968 the university launched the institution now known as the Raymond A. Mason School of Business. Arts & Sciences is the largest academic unit on campus.
“W&M’s charter boldly created a place of universal study for ‘good Arts and Sciences’ for all times coming,” Rowe said. “Since 1693, W&M has evolved so that faculty, staff and students can lead in a changing world. With the first schools of Law and Modern Languages in the nation, William & Mary prepared citizen lawyers and cosmopolitan leaders for a new republic. At the turn of the last century, we expanded to support Virginia public education with teaching expertise. After World War II, we founded schools to prepare business leaders and marine scientists. Graduates in this century will wield the tools of AI and machine learning with the integrity and humanity that William & Mary has always been known for.”
Blossoming student interest
In only 10 years, the university’s combined total of bachelor’s graduates in computer science and physics grew by over 206%. The data science program, which has offered a minor since 2017 and a major since 2019, has also been growing at a fast pace, graduating 49 students in 2023. Applied science currently offers a minor and does not grant undergraduate degrees. Master’s and doctoral degrees in applied science, computer science and physics made up over one third of all the graduate degrees conferred by Arts & Sciences in 2023.
“The effort to develop a new structure for computing, data science, applied science and physics was driven by extraordinary demand from students and by faculty,” Agouris explained. “Computer science and physics both saw the greatest growth in degrees conferred at William & Mary in the last decade. We’ve seen a commensurate surge in data science and applied science.”
William & Mary activities in these areas have been achieving scholarly and public impact, as well as attracting external funding. So far in 2023, research projects with principal investigators from the four units have received over $9 million in funding from external agencies including the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health.
Rapidly changing job market
Student and employer demand for the offerings of the new school is reflected in national enrollment trends and job growth projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for computing, data science and physics jobs is projected to grow at a faster-than-average pace over the next decade. Such jobs will be needed in almost every industry across public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors. Computing and data science positions in particular are ranked among the top jobs in the nation in terms of pay and demand.
William & Mary data on its undergraduate classes of 2021 and 2022 aligns with national projections and figures. Six months from graduation, 64% of W&M computer science, data science and physics alumni reported being employed full-time in a wide range of industries – from banking and management consulting to healthcare and education. Earnings data from graduates who reported income indicates that average starting salaries for this cohort exceeded $85,000 annually. Over one quarter of graduates from these three units reported pursuing advanced education, confirming W&M’s position as a “top feeder” for science and engineering doctorates across the country.
“From quantum computing to generative AI, our country needs leaders — and William & Mary is the place to train them,” said Associate Professor Dan Runfola, who serves as director of graduate studies for applied science.
The new configuration will further the university’s commitment to academic excellence while allowing greater opportunities for faculty and students, he added.
“From their first year, our undergraduate students are exposed to a wide range of topics as a part of a liberal arts curriculum — promoting their ability to integrate new types of knowledge and critically solve new types of problems,” Runfola said. “Through the new school, we will be able to more effectively expand the W&M way to advance computer science, data science, applied science and physics — fields which are changing the world around us at a pace we haven’t seen since the Industrial Revolution.”
Extensive, inclusive planning
The Board’s decision Friday follows an extended process of discussion, consultation and design which began in spring 2022 and involved multiple entities within the William & Mary community, including a vote by the physics department to join the new school.
The new school will be a doctorate-granting entity offering both undergraduate and graduate programs. Its exact structure will be determined by an implementation committee led by a newly appointed dean and will include both new and existing personnel and activities. As its initial constituent units are already in place, much of its operations are already supported by current university funds, with additional costs currently estimated at $1.1 million.
The new school will be particularly well-positioned to benefit from developments that will accelerate scientific discovery and boost the Commonwealth’s economy, Agouris said.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy has designated Jefferson Lab (JLab) in Newport News as the lead for a more-than-$300 million High Performance Data Facility (HPDF), whose research focus is aligned to that of the proposed new school. William & Mary has a long history of partnership with JLab and supported its bid for the HPDF. This synergy will further develop the existing link between the university and the lab, opening to further opportunities for William & Mary and the new school in particular.
Faculty Assembly President K. Scott Swan said Friday’s action by the Board represents the type of innovation leading universities pursue as they adapt to changing needs.
“From an innovation perspective, this is both logical – since we already have deep skills in these areas and relationships with Jefferson Lab among others – as well as radical, in that it recognizes the dramatic way the world and our students require a different way of organizing, educating and researching,” said Swan, who serves as the David Peebles Professor of Business at the Mason School of Business.
“While innovation is difficult, the payoffs are considerable in this instance: elevating our national profile and responding to the demand for W&M students prepared to accept these challenges — both propelled by attracting and retaining world-class faculty,” said Swan. “I am also excited to see how this accomplishment leverages future innovations that William & Mary can achieve across our other schools.”
Agouris said Friday’s action by the Board of Visitors recognizes the unique curricular, organizational and budgetary needs of these four high-performing, growing units and the significant benefits William & Mary accrues by aligning them in a new school.
“While the process of creating a new school will continue from now through 2025, I’m gratified we have established a clear direction that will allow students and faculty in computer science, data science, applied science and physics to thrive, to the benefit of William & Mary and ultimately, the Commonwealth,” Agouris said.
Antonella Di Marzio, Senior Research Writer