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University cutting computer science dept.? An insider's view

The University of Florida is about to gut its computer science department. How can it be that an apparently strong university can consider this? I asked one of the department's professors.

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

We all struggle with our priorities daily.

Who, therefore, cannot hold loving hands with the fine, struggling minds at the University of Florida? For they have searched their souls and deduced that quite a lot of its Computer And Information Science and Engineering Department might be surplus to requirements.

I was initially grateful to Forbes for offering this disturbing information.

Forbes said that the school -- faced with the need to cut budgets -- sees insufficient use for teaching assistants in computer science, so it intends to chop them out. The graduate and research programs? Oh, what can they possibly offer that we can't get at the Apple store? So, they're gone. Much of what remains is reportedly being moved to other departments.

I assumed, on reading this, that a few leftover computers would be transferred to the athletic department and used to tabulate Gator linebackers' hits and to write all of the team's term papers. (I wonder how many of them are studying computer science.)

As you might imagine, this proposal has led to some gnashing of keyboards among those who, strangely, believe that computer science is important. There is a Web site that is attempting to browbeat support out of the indifferent.

Indeed, on that site I discovered a letter from Eric Grimson, the president of the Computing Research Association, who happened to mention that Florida's computer science department is ranked by U.S. News and World Report in the Top 40 in America. Yes, in America. Not in Florida.

The peculiar thing to this lay eye is that the savings are a mere $1.7 million, which somehow doesn't seem like a vast sum.

Having read Ars Technica's explanation -- which spoke of gutting, I thought I'd get someone at the University of Florida to explain.

Thankfully, professor Tim Davis of the CISE Department agreed to offer me his perspective on this extremely peculiar prospect.

In Davis' telling, the department actually wanted to turn itself into a College of Computing, with no additional funding necessary at its inception.

Here's where the local politics begins to rear its sense of importance.

The University has to make $38 million worth of cuts, demanded as a one-time gesture by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Davis contends that there is $111 million sitting in the school's Unrestricted Net Assets fund. The school could choose to take the $38 million from that. It has not.

Other Florida universities are, apparently, treating it as a one-off. Not the Gators. They wish to swallow it whole, permanently.

Davis described the plan of College of Engineering Dean Cammy Abnernathy as "cutting the department in half."

He told me: "Many graduate students who came to UF in good faith will find themselves with no feasible way to complete their degree, either because financial support is gone, or because their adviser can no longer advise them."

Such cuts, he believes, may destroy the essence of how students learn. "The principle that research, teaching, and advising are symbiotic, will be damaged," he said.

Oddly, it seems that this particular department is being targeted. Davis said: "Under the current plan, no other department in the college faces a single dollar of cuts, because according to Dean Abernathy, cutting them even slightly would change their programs and lead to mediocrity."

Oh, how I'd love to discuss mediocrity in education. But let's continue with this story for now.

For professor Davis and members of his faculty would like to present an alternative. They feel hamstrung, however, as they are not themselves accountants and have been denied the opportunity of hiring an external accounting firm in order to properly examine the college's budget information.

Perhaps there just isn't the budget for an accounting firm to solve the budget problem. It is a common occurrence.

Clearly, there are some inside politics going on here. But doesn't it seem particularly odd that an area of expertise for which so many of the more progressive companies are crying out is being treated in this oddly old-fashioned way?

I know that many will wish to compare the amounts at stake here with those at the university's athletic program. Steven Salzberg, who wrote the Forbes piece, certainly couldn't help himself.

In its reply to that piece, the University's Director of Public Affairs, Janine Sikes, offered that this was a mere re-organization.

She also said: "The plan calls for no layoffs of tenure-track faculty. Faculty layoffs are expected, however, if across-the-board cuts are made in the College of Engineering."

So faculty are not being laid off, but they might be.

Still, apparently this is a great opportunity. Sikes explained: "The proposed budget plan would grow the number of graduates from the CISE department because faculty members would be expected to assume a greater teaching responsibility."

I think there's logic in there. I am still grasping at it. It's impossible, though, not to be moved by the sheer apparent absurdity of computer science education being cut.

While those who have left the university to work for Google, Amazon, and the like sniff at talk of moving databases into the Industrial Engineering Department, I have a proposal. And, yes, it does involve the jocks.

I understand that the university's athletic department is run as a nonprofit and has made considerable contributions back to the university.

However, it also has vastly wealthy boosters who, according to the Atlantic , will contribute $36 million to the Gators' sporting coffers.

As we say in sports: "When the going gets tough, the tough call Nike to get some new, shinier shoes."

So let's incentivize the major sports teams at the University of Florida -- like football and basketball. Lose against a lesser-ranked team and a donation must be made immediately to the most needy department -- hey, how about computer science? That donation should be made on the basis of how many points the team loses by.

Lose a bowl game and the penalty triples. Lose against Florida State at football and 30 percent of coach Will Muschamp's $13.7 million contract will go to -- hey, why not? -- the computer science department.

And if the basketball team doesn't make it to the Sweet Sixteen, then let's take a snip at coach Billy Donovan's $3.3 million a year, (including a Nike apparel contract worth $340,000.)

Naturally, if the teams won, there would be no penalty. The money incurred by the losses could, however, be taken from additional contributions from those bottomless benefactors, the boosters.

You might believe that I am being gratuitous. However, in sports we always say that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

And somehow you know that the folks in college sports must have some very fine accountants, because the players never seem to get paid at all.

Please, I love football and basketball. Adore them. But, you know, "Moneyball" taught us that we can do more for less, achieve more with less. And men, when times are tough you have to sacrifice your body and soul for the team, don't you?

Oh, of course I haven't thought this plan through entirely. I am sure some people will point out kinks and nuances with alacrity. But it seems to me that if the whole university were run on sporting principles, the computer science department might just be able to gain a dollar or two.

Last year, many fine graduates came out of the University of Florida's computer science program to perform useful functions in the world. The football team lost 5 games. Out of 13.