Four weeks into the academic tussle between computer science (CS) students and the administration of the University of Florida, the controversy surrounding a drastic restructuring of the school's CS department is still unresolved.
To comply with a Florida state-mandated budget cut of $38 million, the University had said it intended, in part, to trim $1.3 million by restructuring its Computer & Information Science and Engineering (CISE) department, according to a proposal on April 11 by Cammy Abernathy, dean of the College of Engineering.
The proposal called for faculty to assume the responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants, and about half of the department's 34 tenured and tenure-track faculty would be required to halt all research and focus their efforts solely on teaching. The remaining professors would be parceled out to three different departments.
Student opposition to the proposal received strong support from the CS community, and Abernathy has since withdrawn her plan.
Last week, she submitted a revised proposal to the provost, "but that proposal lacks the critical details necessary to judge the health and safety of any individual department," says Nuri Yeralan, a fourth-year Ph.D. computer science student and research assistant who is coordinating the opposition. "It is shocking that the provost would accept such minimalistic levels of detail."
Nor, adds Yeralan, "is it clear why the university chose to take such draconian actions in the first place. The state legislature has reaffirmed the budget cuts are to be one-time only, but they are being sold to us as recurring cuts, meaning there needs to be permanent budget adjustments."
"The Florida legislature has said the university is expected to pay for the budget cut out of its unrestricted net assets," says Tim Davis, a CISE professor. "The University has $111 million of unrestricted net assets, and the cut, which the legislature asserts is one time, is $38 million. With $111 million in the bank, my reply to 'What do you cut?' is 'You cut a check.'"
Despite requests for comment, the University's public affairs director declined to be interviewed, saying, "The University has no interest in participating [in this article]."
Meanwhile, the CS students have continued receiving support, including an e-mail to University of Florida president Bernard Machen from Zvi Galil, dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. "I am writing to express, in the strongest possible terms, my concerns about the reckless proposal to dismantle the [CISE department] at the University of Florida," Galil wrote in his email (which, he says, he never received a response to). "I am amazed, shocked, and angered . . . ."
Galil's concern is he does not want to see computer science departments meet the same fate at other universities, he said in a phone interview. "At Carnegie Mellon, at Georgia Tech, we have colleges of computing," he explains, "which reflect the importance of computer science. But there will always be some administrators who don't understand what CS research is and may believe all a university needs are some lecturers to teach programming. What Florida is doing makes no sense at all."
Indeed, says Yeralan, "why would anyone cut a department that generates 17% of the revenue of the 10 departments in the College of Engineering at 10% of the cost? What could the underlying motivation be?"
Moving forward, the department has a proposal on the table to adopt the Georgia Tech model with a college of computing. "That would really empower the University and, together with Georgia Tech, would develop a Silicon Valley of the Southeast," says Yeralan." That is our vision."
Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.