“Math and computer science are hard. Why bother?” read the caption, which appeared in the latest Forbes Magazine. The article entitled, “University of Florida Eliminates Computer Science Department, Increases Athletic Budgets. Hmm,” describes Dean Abernathy’s restructuring plan for the College of Engineering. “Any faculty member who wishes to stay in CISE (Computer & Information Science and Engineering Dept.) may do so, but with a revised assignment focused on teaching and advising.” For mathematicians, this was a déjà-vu story. It is Rochester all over again! But this time, in this digital age, the bad joke is on Computer science, which makes you wonder whether the administrators who prepared the plan had more than gatorade in their drinks.
The restructuring plan proposes to cut $1.69 million from the CISE department budget at the University of Florida. “Staff positions in CISE which are currently supporting research and graduate programs would be eliminated. The activities currently covered by TAs would be reassigned to faculty and the TA budget for CISE would be eliminated. The faculty remaining in CISE would then focus their efforts on teaching and advising students in the existing Computer Science BS and MS degree programs. Their assignments would change to reflect this new educational mission with sole focus on delivering quality education for students in these degree programs.”
“I thought I was two hours away from Disney World, but now I’m not so sure”, wrote Malini Johar Schueller, a professor of English at the University. There is lots of material out there already about this issue, but let me add a few comments.
The problem seems to have originated with the repeated and substantial cuts by the Florida Legislature to the funding of higher education in that state. What is mystifying is the announcement, which came about the same time, that Florida’s governor Rick Scott approved the creation of a brand-new public university near Tampa: Florida Polytechnic University. Go figure!
Computer scientists have lots to learn from the mathematical community, which reacted effectively and in unison back in 1996, when the mathematics department at Rochester University was facing a similar fate. The academic world witnessed then an extraordinary surge of protest, not only from prominent mathematicians, the 32,000 strong American Mathematical Society, and the Mathematical Association of America with its 30,000 members, but also from Nobel laureates, dozens of members of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as other leaders in science and industry, including chemistry, computer science, economics, geology, biology, philosophy, and physics. The Rochester administration eventually relented.
The computer science world is somewhat reacting to the events at the University of Florida, but certainly not at the required level of participation, intensity, discipline diversity, and prominence, though it has been covered by Forbes and by a NY Times blog post.
Last but not least, we should all be conscious of the fact that downgrading an academic department’s program comes nowadays in various shapes and forms, which can be as damaging as the non-subtle move of Dean Abernathy. ‘Gypsy faculty’, ‘road scholars’, and ‘teaching-only’ positions are becoming more and more desirable, if not yet the norm, by administrators who are more concerned with the bottom line than with building an honest-to-goodness university. The continuing fragmentation of an academic’s job is what all universities and all disciplines should be concerned about.