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Florida university plan to 'decimate' computer science draws protest

Critics say cuts at University of Florida in Gainesville could affect business community

April 24, 2012 06:11 AM ET

Computerworld - The University of Florida in Gainesville is on the verge of dismantling its computer science department through budget cuts and restructuring, a move that has shocked students in the program.

Computer science students have held two protests so far; during one, 320 students formed a human chain around a campus building.

As many as 120 students participated in a two-hour "study-in" (a variant of a sit-in) in the dean's office last week. The students have also set up a website publicizing their cause.

The university runs a large computer science program, with about 600 undergraduates and 400 students pursuing master's degrees. It is also a research university that is now training about 130 Ph.D. students.

The proposed computer science department cutbacks follow a $300 million statewide budget reduction that Florida is imposing across its university system. That reduction goes into effect July 1, when the state's new fiscal year begins.

Once the budget cuts are imposed and the restructuring is completed, the university's research program will unravel and, with it, the overall quality of computer science programs, say critics of the plan.

Meera Sitharam, an associate professor, said her department is "about to be decimated."

About $1.7 million is set to be cut from the budget of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) department. That cut would eliminate money to pay for teaching assistants -- compensation that Ph.D. students count on to finance their educations. The CISE support staff is being cut as well, and that includes people who provide tech support, said Sitharam.

"How can you run a computer science department without computer systems staff?" Sitharam asked.

Of the approximately 30 faculty members in the department, half will move to "three marginally related" fields, in biomedical, electrical and industrial systems engineering, said Nuri Yeralan, a Ph.D. student at the university who is the leader of the student opposition.

Faculty members who remain in CISE will see their job descriptions changed from teaching and research to just teaching. And while the university points out that this doesn't preclude them from conducting research, "the hard truth is if a faculty member is focusing on teaching, that leaves little time to focus on research interests," said Yeralan.

Consequently, the research program will dwindle, and the ability of researchers to collaborate after the reorganization will be destroyed, said Yeralan. "The environment essentially becomes poisonous for research," said Yeralan.

The university isn't backing down. In a statement released late Monday, it confirmed some of the main points opponents have cited as problems, including the elimination of graduate teaching assistants and an increase in teaching responsibilities for faculty who are now engaged in research. The university said cutting teaching assistant funding will save $1.4 million.

Despite these cuts and shifts in workload, the university says that the computer science program will "maintain its brainpower and research capacity."

The university does acknowledge in its statement that "faculty and students have expressed serious concern with this plan," and it said it was "confident that a solution" can be achieved "while making the required budget reductions."

Yeralan scoffed at the idea that the university will maintain its brainpower and research capability. "They are leaving a tattered husk that only teaches," he said, describing what will be left as a "token department."

Although the university claims in its statement that there will be no layoffs of tenure-track faculty, Yeralan said that there will be layoffs of two nontenured faculty members, along with staff members.

Another controversial aspect of this plan involves moving CISE students to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. For software-focused students, a degree from that department "carries less weight if you're trying to work at a Google or a Facebook," Yeralan said. Moreover, a strong research program is critical to drawing top professors as well as students, he said.

"If I wanted to make a pizza, am I going to go to Domino's and figure out how to make a pizza, or am I going to go to a chef who specializes in making his own dough and things like that? Yeralan said. "You really want the people who know what they are talking about."

Critics say the budget reductions are unnecessary. The state's cut is supposed to be a one-time occurrence, and the university has more than $110 million in an asset fund that could be used to support the computer science program.

"We are trying to figure out what the motivation is behind this, and so far we have come up empty," Yeralan said, noting that the program brings in revenue through research grants for a net budget gain.

Critics wonder whether the school has thought about the impact its program cuts will have on Florida's ability to promote itself as a viable place for technology companies to set up shop.

Indeed, IT services firm MindTree announced in March that it plans to hire 400 people over the next five years in Gainesville for a new development center.

In an interview with Computerworld at the time of the announcement, a company official specifically cited the University of Florida's computer science program as a leading reason for picking Gainesville. That program "is one of the best in the country, and obviously you need that as a cornerstone of the relationship," said Scott Staples, president of the Americas division of the company, which is co-headquartered in Warren, N.J., and Bangalore, India.

MindTree had been looking at sites throughout the Southeast, and it had contacted computer science departments in a number of states to gather information about their programs.

Asked Monday about the latest developments at the university, MindTree officials declined to comment.

The president of the Computing Research Association, Eric Grimson, who is also a professor at MIT, wrote to University of Florida officials last week about the cut. "If you dismantle the research and graduate teaching components of the CISE department, you will almost certainly lose your strongest faculty members, and you will definitely lose your stature in this critical field," said Grimson in his letter.

"Computer science is a key driver of the nation's economy, and is critical to many national priorities, notably including national security, healthcare, and energy," wrote Grimson. "With a weak computer science program, the University of Florida will be unable to contribute fully to advancing these national goals."

University of Florida officials said they plan to respond to critics but have not yet done so.

covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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